Jun 11th 2018

Are Parallel Universes Real? Star Trek Technology and the Science of Spore Drives


Last September, perennial fan favorite “Star Trek” returned to the small screen with its newest iteration, “Star Trek: Discovery.” Set 10 years before Captain Kirk’s Enterprise, the show offers compelling characters, feisty Klingons and a host of new “Star Trek” technology for knowledgeable experts and avid Trekkies to dissect.

Critical to the plot are two tech conceits: The use of a fungi-fueled “spore drive,” which lets the Discovery cross vast distances in mere seconds, and the certain knowledge that multiple universes exist (and can be visited for exciting space battles).

So what’s the verdict here? Are parallel universes real? Can mushrooms help us travel at warp speed? Or is this all just techno-babble and fantasy? Let’s dig in.

You’re Such a Fungi

Here’s the space-travel conceit in “Star Trek: Discovery”: A vast “mycelial network” — infinite numbers of miniscule fungi — underpin the entire universe. Tapping this mushroom highway using lab-grown spores and a sentient navigator allows the Discovery to quickly jump anywhere in space. But is this just a sci-fi fantasy, or is it the real deal?

As noted by Inverse, the spore dive’s co-creator on the show is Lt. Cmdr. Paul Stamets. His title is “astromycologist,” science-speak for someone who studies fungi in space. He’s also named after real-world fungi expert Paul Stamets, who has speculated about the possibility of terraforming space using fungi.

Mushroom for Improvement?

Spore drives aren’t a bad idea. While Forbes noted that much of “Discovery’s” science around the original spore drive navigator — a giant version of a water-dwelling, microscopic creature known as a tardigrade — is “science fantasy” more than fiction, its fungal science may be more accurate. As noted by mycologist Thomas Jenkins in Inverse, “‘we only know of, and this is a generous estimate, about five percent of the fungal biodiversity that exists.'” And Earth fungi exposed to harsh, Martian-like conditions over long periods of time have shown remarkable resiliency, suggesting that mycelium could flourish even in outer space. According to Nature World News, recent research suggests that trees communicate using an underground mycelial network and use it to benefit the forest as a whole.

The result? Spore drives aren’t entirely out of the question, since the universe offers potential building blocks for fungi fast lanes.

Mirror, Mirror

Parallel universes are a staple of “Star Trek.” One of the most popular is the Mirror Universe: Instead of creating the freedom-loving Federation, the aggressive and xenophobic Terran Empire rose to power. In “Discovery,” spore drive technology lets the ship cross into this universe. The crew discovers that its not-so-nice Mirror Universe counterparts are mining the mycelial network for power at such a fast rate that they’ll eventually destroy it and kill everything in all universes.

Are Parallel Universes Real?

The notion of villainous Earth counterparts is terrifying, but only if multiverse theory actually has a solid foundation. The good (or not-so-good) news? Parallel might be possible. As noted by Futurism, the discovery of a “cold spot” in space — 1.8 billion light-years across and 0.00027 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the space around it — may be evidence of a collision between our universe and another, resulting in odd temperature variations and a comparative lack of matter. And according to BGR, efforts to quantify the conditions under which parallel universes could exist and what type of universes are possible formed the basis of Stephen Hawking‘s final paper, “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation.” While the cold spot and Hawking’s attempt to leverage math as boundary conditions for the multiverse aren’t proof, they’re indications that the idea of parallel universes isn’t just sci-fi fan service.

Trek Talk Verdict

Star Trek technology doesn’t always translate to real life, but when it comes to spore drives and parallel universes, “Discovery’s” science sticks a solid landing for “maybe.” Sure, spore drives aren’t around the corner, but a real-life spark for the idea already exists here on Earth. And while it’s unlikely we all have surly Terran counterparts contemplating our existence in a mirror dimension, researchers are now working on ways to mathematically map the potential multiverse.

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