Captain Kirk might want to avoid taking the starship Enterprise to warp speed, unless he's ready to shrug off interstellar hydrogen atoms that would deliver a lethal radiation blast to both ship and crew.
There are just two hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter on average in space, which poses no threat to spaceships traveling at low speeds. But those same lone atoms would transform into deadly galactic space mines for a spaceship that runs into them at near-light speed, according to calculations based on Einstein's special theory of relativity.
The original crew of "Star Trek" featured as unfortunate examples at a presentation by William Edelstein, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, at the American Physical Society conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 13. The physicist showed a video clip of Kirk telling engineer Scotty to go to warp speed.
"Well, they're all dead," Edelstein recalled saying. His words caused a stir among the audience.
Edelstein's personal interest in this thought experiment began 20 years ago, when his son Arthur asked him if there was friction in space. The father responded that yes, there would be hydrogen bumping off a spaceship. But he soon realized that the stray atoms of hydrogen gas would actually go right through the ship traveling close to light speed, and irradiate both crew and electronics in the process.