Bounce the Graviton Particle Beam…

17 Jan

As a physicist and a science fiction fan, I have an unusual relationship with technobabble.

On the one hand, I’m extremely sensitive to it, and sometimes spend more energy than I’d like looking for errors. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t take any effort at all – like when a movie claims that the Earth’s magnetic field is going to switch polarity in the course of 24 hours, causing a global temperature shift resulting in an arctic climate near the equator and a tropical climate near the poles.

If you can’t find a single error in that sentence, please do the human race a favor and never procreate. Seriously, don’t even look at a member of the opposite sex; we can’t take any chances with this level of stupid.

On the other hand, I understand the need for both artistic license and suspended disbelief. “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them…” It’s okay to bend the rules of science a little in the interest of good storytelling. After all, we have no real evidence for things like hyperspace, subspace, wormholes… but without some means of circumventing the cosmic speed limit, 95% of interstellar sci fi wouldn’t work. On the other hand, we haven’t proven that there is no such thing as hyperspace. Also, I appear to have three hands.

Anyway, I understand taking liberties in the interest of good storytelling. Provided that it is, in fact, good storytelling. Which means, among other things, that it doesn’t stretch the truth so far as to prevent the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. (I have a fantastic idea for the world’s geekiest cartoon to illustrate this, but it will have to wait until I get something better than MS Paint on my new machine).  Generally this can be avoided by maintaining some kind of internal logic – okay, the basic premise is a bit iffy, but let’s say we accept it (“I know men can’t fly.” “No, no, let’s assume that they can…”). So long as any further developments are consistent with this initial premise, the story retains a structure which is at least self-consistent enough to support the plot without drawing attention to the fact that it is, in fact, complete and utter crap.

If only, if only, if only television writers (I’m picking on them because they are generally, in my experience, the worst) would bother to do this. As I said, I can train myself to be immune to BS science – or at least to ignore it – but sometimes it gets so bad there really is no hope.

Most hardcore sci fi fans probably know where I’m going with this (no, not the Kessel Run). That’s right, folks, set your phasers to sudden interest in botany and practice your Jewish religious hand signs, because we’re going Trekking!

I’ve become fairly inured to Trek‘s complete and utter lack of anything remotely resembling a third-grade science education. However, I was watching the TNG episode “Parallels” this afternoon, and my bullshit meter exploded.

In the interest of sharing this ridiculousness and exploding all of your meters, sending bullshit flying everywhere, I present to you some of my favorite quotes from this episode:

“Geordi’s VISOR emits a subspace pulse…”

And why does it do this, exactly? This device is supposed to help Geordi interpret EM waves as visual images. Why would this have anything to do with subspace? No, ‘we need random tech in this scene to break people out of jail/cause hallucinations/explain our crap science’ is not a valid answer.

“I am detecting a quantum flux in your cellular RNA…”

Okay. You can be in a state of flux, or you can measure flux–the amount of something (light, water, whatever) flowing through a given area in a given time. You can’t have a flux. Also, shouldn’t this ‘flux’ be in everything, not just Worf’s RNA? What in the name of wallabies would isolate this magical flux to RNA of all things?

“We could scan the quantum fissure using a subspace differential pulse…”

According to the interwebs, people do in fact use differential pulses to measure things, though what a subspace differential pulse is, or how it would interact with a quantum fissure (whatever the hell that is) in any kind of information-giving way.

“From what I understand, there’s a good chance that my Worf won’t return to me…”

Yes, Troi, let’s draw conclusions based on precisely, uh, nothing, and then get needlessly maudlin and sob into Worf’s Klingon-ly chest. Oh, and then five minutes later the episode will contradict the premise that objects/people (except ‘our’ Worf) won’t go back to their original universes when the quantum fissure is magically fixed. Twice.

“…an energy surge within the subspace pulse…”

So, wait, is this the subspace differential pulse you were using to scan the quantum fissure, or the subspace pulse emitted by Geordi’s VISOR? Or is there a third subspace pulse you just pulled out of your tails for this scene? And how is there a surge within the pulse?

“…and emits a broad-spectrum Warp field…”

Since when do fields have spectra? THIS MAKES NO SENSE.

“I have re-modulated the shuttle’s engines to emit an inverse Warp field.”

Wait, so now we’re inverting the Warp field instead of making a broad spectrum out of it? You can’t even stick to one BS solution to your BS problem for two minutes before inexplicable changing to a different BS solution which makes no more (or, admittedly, no less) sense than the first one? My BS meter just flew halfway across the galaxy to whack you upside your heads.

Oh, Trek. It’s a miracle you survived as long as you did. And by miracle, I mean Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg can save pretty much anything.

Three final general technobabble complaints from TNG in general:

Tetrions. Oh my wallabies, tetrions. WHAT THE FRELL IS A TETRION?

Why does everything always increase exponentially?

I hearby petition to remove the phrase “Modulated phase” from the Star Trek Writer’s Dictionary of BS Technobabble. In fact, anything related to modulations and/or phases should probably be deleted from the vocabulary of anybody with authorial leanings.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this yet, the musical summation of everything I’ve just said:

This video is brilliant. I claim no part in it except for sincere admiration.


Astute observers will notice that I’ve managed to reference Star Wars, The Big Bang Theory, Farscape, William Shakespeare, and Eddie Izzard in a post ostensibly devoted to Star Trek. And, because I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t include it, one of my favorite technobabble-ish quotes from my favorite technobabbler from my favorite TV show can be found here at about 2:10.

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Posted by on 17.1.2012 in Geekery, Writing


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