Photon Torpedoes

NCC1701WARNING!  This not about bars or marketing.  Maybe it would be fodder for a conversation in a bar, but only between two fans of science fiction…

I’m not a hard core Trekkie (or Trekker, as they reportedly prefer).  I’ve never been to a convention or worn Spock ears or spoken Klingon.  I have seen all of the original series, and probably all of TNG.  Maybe half of DS9, and only a handful of Voyager and Enterprise.  I think I’ve seen all the movies.  Anyway, I’ve certainly seen enough to have heard about photon torpedoes, and to wonder why the hell they would build a weapon out of photons.  Well, I may have found an answer…

In this fascinating article from the December 7, 1972 Rolling Stone, they describe the early days of computing.  The article is worth reading for its compelling glance into the digital age of chivalry, where “hacker” is a term full of honour; and people are called “computer bums” in the same way as their skiing counterparts.  ARPA Net (the precursor to today’s Web) is just two years old, but the author is already predicting iTunes and the decline of newspapers.

Anyway, the piece focuses on the fascination with a computer game called “Spacewar.”  It was basically a few space ships zipping around trying to blow each other up using torpedoes.  In those days, it was rapidly evolving as many distributed programmers added features on the fly (kinda like Linux today?).  One of the additions was a giant star in the middle that exerted a gravitational field which would suck you in to your doom if you were a careless pilot.

The trouble was, there was not enough computer power yet available to have the gravity act on the torpedoes, too.  So they explained the anomaly by saying the torpedoes were made of photons, and therefore not affected by gravity.  (We’ll leave the issue that gravity does  actually bend light for now.)

I have no idea whether anyone on the original writing staff of Star Trek knew a programmer or had played that version of Spacewar.  But it’s fun to postulate on possible connections between disparate fields, especially if it’s faintly techie and trekkie in nature.  At least for me.

[UPDATE] – Something occurred to me, so I went to check it out.  Seems that Star Trek came on the air in 1966.  So the phrase “photon torpedo” was extant by the time Spacewar was created.  Oh well, so much for my brilliant cause-and-effect conclusions…


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