Strange New Worlds #3: The Galactic Barrier
Just the other day I was watching the remastered version of The Original Series episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Finding the ejected log of a captain who apparently self-destructed his starship USS Valiant 200 years ago after encountering an energy barrier near the Galactic rim, the Enterprise puts in a course to investigate this phenomenon. They find a pinkish/purplish looking cloud-like formation on the edge of our Galaxy, which they proceed to cross. The crossing has explosive effects on the ship’s electronics, several crewmembers are injured or killed, and two people, XO Lt. Cmdr. Gary Mitchell and ship’s psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, seem to have gained extraordinary mental powers and… silvery eyes.
The effects on Mitchell and Dehner are explained eventually, as a result of these two having very high ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) ratings. ESP is a phenomenon that has been discussed in pseudoscientific circles for well over 100 years. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ESP is “perception that occurs independently of the known sensory processes. Usually included in this category of phenomena are telepathy, or thought transference between persons; clairvoyance, or supernormal awareness of objects or events not necessarily known to others; and precognition, or knowledge of the future.” Quite a few experiments have been conducted attempting to validate the concept of ESP, but no scientific evidence has been found to date showing that ESP is real. Therefore this idea will have to be relegated to the realm of the imagination.
Turning to the idea of the energy barrier, let’s examine what kinds of energies and forces are active in our Galaxy. When we look up to the sky at night, we see stars. If we use a small telescope, we might see in addition a number of colorful clouds among these stars. All of these stars and clouds are part of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. If you look at the example of a spiral galaxy below, you will see its basic structure. In the center is a core which contains a dense clustering of older stars. Around that are spiral arms which contain stars and clouds. These clouds are composed of gas and dust, inside of which at this very moment new stars and solar systems are forming. Our position in the Milky Way is about two-thirds out from the core in one of the spiral arms.
Everything in our Galaxy, stars (and their accompanying planets) and clouds, are orbiting the Galactic center, much like the planets in our Solar System are orbiting the Sun. But why are they doing that? The force that keeps them orbiting is gravity, as first explained by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Gravity binds everything in the Universe, our planets to the Sun, all the stars and clouds to the Galaxy, and all the galaxies to the local galaxy cluster, and so forth. The motion of everything in the Universe is determined by the force of gravity.
Why can we see the stars and clouds? All these objects emit light, or more precisely, electromagnetic radiation in a variety of wavelengths and energies. We can detect these energies with different kinds of telescopes here on Earth. If the energy is just right, in a band of wavelengths around 550 nanometers, our eyes are able to see them directly (this of course might be different for species living on other planets in the Federation and elsewhere).
If we were to hitch a ride on the Enterprise and go from Earth, which is centrally located in the Federation, out to the rim of the Galaxy, what would we see? We would pass by a lot of stars, and in the spiral arms see some of the colorful clouds of gas and dust. If we used instruments able to see in the infrared, we could peek inside these clouds and see the new young stars forming. As we approach the rim of the Galaxy, we would see fewer and fewer stars. Eventually we would see nothing but black in front of us, though with a telescope we could make out a few distant galaxies. In some planetaria here on Earth we can take a virtual ride like this today. The planetarium of the `Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo has a stereo 3-D projection system, which allows the audience to go on a journey just like Enterprise did. I have taken this virtual ride several times, and it is truly majestic to go towards the blackness of intergalactic space and to see the Milky Way slowly fade away into the distance.
Where does that leave Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner? I’m afraid that the energy barrier in our story is also something imaginary. While there are gravitational forces and electromagnetic energies active in our Galaxy, there is no barrier around our Galaxy that conveys extraordinary powers. Though if you drove the Enterprise near some of the young stars in one of the starforming clouds, you could probably get the electronics to spark and fizzle.
If you like to know more about our Milky Way Galaxy, I recommend starting here:
The Hubble Space Telescope press release on the spiral galaxy NGC 3982 can be found here: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/galaxy/spiral/2010/36/
If you like to know more about the `Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo, please visit them here: http://www.imiloahawaii.org/
If you like to know more about the technology of the stereo 3-D planetarium systems, please visit Sky-Scan here: http://www.skyskan.com/
For anyone interested in the connection between Star Trek and science, I can recommend an event taking place in December of this year. A number of science and science fiction professionals, including Star Trek’s science advisor Andre Bormanis, astronaut Steve Hawley, and several astronomy professors including yours truly are participating in a cruise to the Mayan ruins to celebrate the idea that the world will in fact not end (if you haven’t heard about the whole 2012 issue and the connection to the Mayan calendar, please see http://outreach.jach.hawaii.edu/teachers/Doomsday2012.pdf). Among numerous regular convention-type activities we will have many lively discussions about the intersection of science fiction and science. If you want to know more, please visit http://end-of-the-world-cruise.com/blog/ (and check out the Raisa Explorers interest group for Star Trek/SF media fans).
Live Long and Prosper,
Inge Heyer is an avid Star Trek fan and frequent convention guest. After earning a BA in physics and astronomy, Heyer obtained a master's degree in astronomy at the University of Hawaii. As a senior data analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, she worked on images received from the the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2. Following this she led the outreach education efforts for the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii. More recently, she has obtained her doctorate in Science Education from the University of Wyoming, and is now a visiting assistant professor in astronomy and physics at Loyola University Maryland.