Dr Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
The futuristic world of Star Trek is an imaginary universe full of all sorts of fantastic technologies. For decades, viewers have for example, thrilled to the imagery of various spaceships named Enterprise as they raced off at imagination defying warp speeds. Phasers, transporters, replicators, and cloaking devices are now curiously familiar fictional inventions that do not exist yet still drive tales of creative exploration and spectacular adventure.
One important technology that never seems to get the credit it deserves though—the inertial dampening field (IDF). And it should receive more acclaim. It’s the thing that stops the rest of the things from going splat.
Our old friend, inertia, is a famous part of Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion. Basically, it is the principle that an object at rest will stay at rest or an object in motion will stay in motion until acted upon by another force. To me, the best example has always been a gallon of milk on the passenger car seat. When the vehicle turns, the milk appears to slide catastrophically towards the door or when the vehicle breaks, the gallon seems to shoot forward like a lactic missile. In reality, the car’s motion is changing relative to the sweaty milk container that wants to keep going the way it was going and hasn’t shifted along due to weaker friction.
When I was a kid, we did not have all of these rules forbidding children from riding in the front seat of cars. I’m not knocking the rules. They’re important and save lives. We just did not have them. As a result, kids of that era sometimes found themselves acting as the gallon of milk and flying all over the place. But in addition to the seat belt, there was one great and powerful force to protect us. The right parental arm would shoot out to keep us from rocketing forward too fast and slamming against our seatbelts. In retrospect, it was probably better for an adult to keep both hands on the wheel, but no matter how safety-minded, no parent could resist that urge to catch a kid.
Star Trek’s IDF system is essentially a giant parental arm. Only instead of packing the ship with concerned mothers and fathers, this futuristic technology relies upon forcefields and synthetic gravity plates (and that’s accurate because I checked my Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (1991) this morning and it knows).
Without this protective technology, the various crews of the multiple Enterprises would be wiped out against the inside walls of their spaceships any time that vehicle made a maneuver. Oh sure, from time to time the bridge crews will hop around a bit. That allows for dramatic scenes during ship to ship combat or dangerous situations. But even then, the IDF system is doing its best to prevent the officers from ending up a thin red paste (or green paste in the case of Vulcans) against the bridge wall whenever a captain calls for “Evasive maneuvers!” at some astounding velocity.
There are some interesting corollaries to this technology that to my knowledge Trek has never explored. Just think; it is entirely possible that no one has ever fallen down the stars in the Federation. In fact, Fed kids probably just jump off things all the time expecting to be caught. It’s early training in all the boldly going.