Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

The ultimate sci-fi tier list: Vulcan, Star Trek

Vulcan. The home planet to one of the most beloved characters in science fiction: the first officer and science officer of the Enterprise, Spock (idol to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory). This is the character who has made me adopt the philosophy of stoicism in an attempt to attain Kolinahr, and so, it is here that we shall begin our investigation of Vulcan’s science.

Kohlinahr is the Vulcan equivalent of enlightenment: an “ultimate pure logical state” purged of all emotion. Contrary to the grapevine however, the Vulcans do possess heightened human emotions, for which they blamed the series of ancient nuclear wars that befell and nearly decimated their planet. According to the Star Trek Wiki, a side effect of these wars was a shimmering region near a Gateway (an interspace transporter) due to frequent energy discharges where the magnetic field has been distorted. Supposedly, this area served as a “third magnetic pole” that disrupted electrical currents and produced “spectacular lightning displays” in clouds of sand.

Here is the question: could atomic warfare really distort our magnetic field for such a long time? What might be the side effects?

I’ll answer the second question first.

The earth’s magnetic field is extremely important. This fact is not hard to grasp, seeing as it exists and so do we. It protects us from the Sun by capturing particles from solar wind, an “outflow of particles and magnetic fields” (NASA, INS. YEAR) and “vast clouds of hot plasma and radiation” known as coronal mass ejections (NASA, Ins. Year). We would most certainly die if the magnetic field didn’t exist.

The particles in solar wind and coronal mass ejections hit the magnetosphere- the outreach of the magnetic field- and bounce back and forth from the poles. This creates two donut shaped belts of charged particles called the Van Allen Belts, and all is good. However, there is a weakness in the magnetic field over South America and the Southern Atlantic Ocean that allows these particles to get closer to earth- known as the South Atlantic Anomaly (NASA, 2020). This is problematic for low-earth orbit satellites, because if it is assailed by a high energy proton, the satellite could break. Many people don’t see this as a heart-stopping cataclysm, but suffice to say, NASA is keeping close watch on the movements of this anomaly.

Drawing on such an idea, could atomic bombs then cause something similar to this anomaly, but just closer to earth? The answer is yes. The reason we know is because of the nuclear bomb tests conducted by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

On the 9th of July 1962, the US detonated an atomic bomb 400 km above the Johnston Island in the central North Pacific. This high-altitude bomb test was called the Starfish Prime test, which sounds much more innocuous than it actually was.

The bomb test explosion caused magnetic field distortions which resulted in artificial radiation belts forming on the inner side of the Van Allen belts in space. Once again, a catastrophe for certain satellites and an impairment on nearby electric devices. These artificial radiation belts were created most likely by electrons emitted from the fission fragments of the nuclear detonation.

According to NASA, these belts were only temporary, although traces were detected around the 1980s, approximately 20 years after the nuclear tests of the Cold War. Even if a nuclear war were to ensue, these magnetic disturbances wouldn’t become permanent magnetic dipoles, as suggested by the Star Trek Wiki, which assumed they had magnetic fields generated in a similar way to those on our Earth (a bold assumption).

With regards to the lightning displays I mentioned at the very start of the article, the mechanism by which it is caused has been speculated to involve the polarisation of charges between ground and storm clouds, or more frequently, within the clouds themselves. Theoretically, then, in clouds of sand occurring in fields dense with charged particles, lightning displays would be extremely probable- but as a physics noob, this is pretty baseless speculation.

What is more likely, however, is the formation of a lovely aurora, which gains its energy from the charged particles in the belts. As these particles are conducted down to the magnetic poles, they collide with atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen atoms hard enough to create ions in excited states (Britannica, 2020). From Year 11 Chemistry (10s and below, take a raincheck on this one), we know that excited electrons emit radiation as various wavelengths, hence the ability produce the greens and blues of the aurora borealis we know and love.

This spectacle was actually observed after another series of atomic bomb tests called the Argus tests, in which a breathtaking stream of auroras were seen stretching from Sweden to Arizona. However, these only lasted for a few seconds.

Well, congrats on getting to the end of this wild ride.

As all is said and done, and this article has gone on for far too long, Vulcan receives a B.

B for Best Planet from a Beloved Franchise.

P.S. If you’re still interested, scientists have also found a planet where Vulcan was said to be orbiting the star 40 Eridani A. Perhaps extraterrestrial life is in our future.

It’s only logical.


Strickland, A. (2018, September 21). Paging Mr. Spock: ‘Star Trek’ planet Vulcan found? CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/20/us/spock-vulcan-planet-found-star-trek-trnd/index.html

Vulcan (Planet) (n.d.). The Star Trek Wiki. https://memorydelta.fandom.com/wiki/Vulcan_(planet)

Vulcan (n.d.). The Star Trek Wiki. https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Vulcan

Howell, E. (2017, May 22). Nuclear Explosions and Submarine Comms Distort Space Weather Near Earth. Space. https://www.space.com/36934-humans-change-space-weather.html

Mersdorf, J., & Johnson-Groh, M. (2020, August 20). NASA Researchers Track Slowly Splitting ‘Dent’ in Earth’s Magnetic Field. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-researchers-track-slowly-splitting-dent-in-earth-s-magnetic-field

Pieper, G.F., Williams, D.J., & Frank, L.A. (1963, February 1). Traac observations of the artificial radiation belt from the July 9, 1962, nuclear detonation. Journal of Geophysical Research68(3), 1-3, Retrieved from AGU.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, January 3). AuroraEncyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/aurora-atmospheric-phenomenon 


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