Some 'Star Trek' gadgets no longer futuristic
Benny Evangelista, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Warp factor 3, Mr. Sulu? No can do.
Engage cloaking device? We're working on it.
Forty years after the original "Star Trek" series was canceled, warp drives and transporter beams remain more science fiction than fact.
But some of Star Trek's 23rd century gadgets, such as handheld medical scanners, language translators and high-tech weaponry are becoming a reality in the 21st century.
For one thing, almost every moviegoer attending the latest Star Trek film that opened in theaters last week must remember to turn off their communicators - better known as cell phones.
"Now with my iPhone, you can find out where you are using GPS, which is similar to some of the things in a tricorder," said Lawrence Krauss, author of "The Physics of Star Trek" and a theoretical physicist. "At some point, I may be able to take my temperature with the iPhone."
Still, he said, don't hold your breath waiting to see people board giant starships and travel to the Klingon home world. They'd die of old age or deadly cosmic rays before they arrived.
"Sending people into space is about the stupidest thing you can think of," said Krauss, director of Arizona State University's new Origins Initiative, which probes such questions as how the universe began.
The new movie "Star Trek" is the 11th feature film to follow the original TV series created by the late Gene Roddenberry.
The Star Trek franchise, which has also included five spin-off TV series, is a pop culture icon of the era, influencing many of those now creating new technology in Silicon Valley and around the globe.
Some of Star Trek's once futuristic technology is, in some form, already in consumer's hands, including the 4 billion mobile phones in use around the world.
Advances in medical technology have brought the world a step closer to Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, who waved a salt shaker-sized probe and looked at readings on his medical tricorder to diagnose injuries to Enterprise crew members.
Today, researchers are working on a variety of handheld, noninvasive medical probes. One is a needle-less blood testing device, dubbed the Venus prototype, being developed by a research team headed by Babs Soller, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts.
The prototype, announced last month, goes further than a pulse oximeter, a commonly used device worn over the fingertip that measures oxygen saturation in the blood, Soller said.
The Venus sensor uses near infrared light to penetrate layers of skin, fat and muscle to measure various parameters, such as the chemical balances and oxygen consumption rate in blood and tissue. The Venus system would bypass the pain and potential complications caused by drawing blood samples with a needle.
The research team has received funding from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and the U.S. Army to develop the technology for use in space and on battlefields, but the possibilities are more widespread.
Another Research Institute-funded project is investigating the use of a tightly focused beam of ultrasound - now a common medical imaging technique - to stop internal bleeding or zap a tumor without invasive surgery.
Such a portable device could, for example, be used to heat and cauterize a spot causing internal bleeding, said Mike Bailey, a senior research engineer at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Lab.
"It is true Star Trek technology that you can stick this on someone's body and cook the tumor and leave no mark" on the skin, said Bailey, who's work has focused on using ultrasound to find and break up kidney stones.
In the Star Trek universe, a focused beam of energy from a handheld phaser was able to stun but not injure an opponent, unless it was set in a stronger "kill" mode.
Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. military has been working on non-lethal Active Denial Technology weapons using directed waves of electromagnetic energy sent over long range to make the target's skin feel as though it were on fire. At one point, there were plans to deploy an Active Denial Technology weapon in Iraq.
But last month, a Government Accounting Office report criticized the Department of Defense for spending $396 million on research without producing a viable weapon.
However, a rudimentary version of Star Trek's ubiquitous "universal translator" has made it to Iraq. A handheld "Phraselator," which uses software developed by SRI International of Menlo Park and translates English phrases into different languages or dialects, has been used by troops in Iraq since 2003.
Meanwhile, researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University, among others, are working on their own versions of a "cloaking device," although nothing's even close to being able to hide a starship. The Berkeley team, led by Xiang Zhang, a professor of mechanical engineering, recently demonstrated a way to redirect light around an object, making it appear invisible, by using a thin layer of silicon embedded tiny holes about one-thousandth of the diameter of a strand of human hair.
Krauss, who also authored the book "Beyond Star Trek," said one downside of the show's marvels is the message that fast-thinking engineers like Scotty or Lt. LaForge (from "Star Trek: The Next Generation") can use technology to solve any problem quickly.
"The real world sometimes works by taking baby steps," Krauss said. "We've got a lot of complex issues, like global warming, and Geordi LaForge ain't going to be doing it in an hour."
E-mail Benny Evangelista at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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