Idea Mine

Over at Science After Sunclipse, Blake has post discussing some Star Trek: TNG history, in which I happen to have some involvement.

Reverse the Baryon Flux Polarity!

The details involve the episode Starship Mine

In the annals of nitpickery, “Starship Mine” has a certain infamy. The “baryon sweep” which causes the evacuation of the ship is, we are told, a periodic maintenance procedure which must be performed in order to clear away “baryon particles” which build up when a starship travels using its warp drive. Any stickler for jargon accuracy will happily tell you that baryons are a class of subatomic particles which includes protons and neutrons, so that sweeping away the baryons would rip apart every atom in the Enterprise.

Here’s the backstory: I went to high school with one of the members of the Star Trek staff, Naren Shankar, and we kept in much better touch in those days — we still went home for the holidays and got together. He was the science consultant at the time this episode was written (he later joined the writing staff), and was looking for an excuse for the Enterprise to be in spacedock, devoid of personnel — he had in mind some kind of procedure analogous to degaussing a submarine, and bounced the idea off of me. Rather than suggest some new, made-up particle, I suggested a more generic “exotic-antibaryon sweep;” the idea being that there were some long-lived particles, unknown to us in the 20th century, that could be picked up by the spaceship. However, that was shortened to “Baryon sweep” at some point in the script-polishing process.

Blake considers this as a possibility.

However! We are told that the “baryons” which must be removed build up when a starship is travelling at warp speed. When you move through warp space, you travel at the speed of plot: the laws of physics are those which make for convenient storytelling. Who’s to say that quark combinations which fall apart in ordinary space can’t endure in warp or subspace? As it happens, in the sixth-season episode “Schisms”, a substance called “sonalagen” is trotted out which is said to be stable only in subspace, so within the framework of the show there’s precedent for this kind of dodge. The name of the “baryon sweep” would then be understood as a shortened form of, say, “residual exotic baryon sweep”, said elliptically for convenience’s sake even though the short version carries an unfortunate connotation if read naïvely. Inconvenient notations and awkward jargon held onto for “historical reasons” are common enough that this could well count as unexpected realism!

And what Blake figured out, a lot of Trek fans didn’t. As I recall, the discussion following the show on the USENET Star Trek board was pretty damning, along the lines of OMG, they’d destroy all the neutrons and protons! What idiots!, except that while all neutrons and protons are Baryons, not all Baryons are protons or neutrons, so even in the abbreviated form, the phrase isn’t wrong from a physics point of view, just easily misinterpreted. Of course, had I or someone else suggested a yet another new particle, there would have been fans that complained about that.

Starship Mine isn’t the only episode on which I had some influence. I tried to kill Wesley Crusher once (unsuccessfully, obviously), and there are a lot of names in shows that are references to people I know or have met. In fact, in the third-season episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” the Klingon outpost planet’s name, “Narendra III,” is a reference to Naren, from someone he knew on the staff.