There thankfully isn’t an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Jean-Luc Picard orders the ensign to engage impulse power and the entire crew is turned into organic paste. It could easily happen, given the laws of physics, but Star Trek and other staples of science fiction have found a way around the dangers of rapid acceleration and deceleration. If we could do the same, we would effectively cure concussions.
You’ve probably heard it before: an object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest. You can thank Isaac Newton’s First Law for that. The resistance to changing either state – motion or rest — is an object’s inertia. Inertia is a complicated physical property, but simply stated it depends on an object’s mass. The more mass something has, the better it will be at resisting any forces acting on it. A rolling boulder is harder to stop than a rolling stone.
Likewise, it’s hard to get something massive like the starship Enterprise moving so fast. To bring a mammoth ship like that up to or down from impulse velocities – hundreds of thousands of miles per second, depending on the canon – requires mammoth energy. And because it only takes mere seconds to bring starships up to speed, the accelerations are incredible.
The tension you feel in your seat belt when a car’s breaks are pumped is a fight with inertia. The car is slowing down but your body wants to keep going forward at the same speed. If you put the pedal to the metal, you are pressed back in the seat because the car is moving forward and you are in the way. Now imagine what that would mean for the crew of the Enterprise. Going from stationary to near light-speed in seconds would be like being suddenly dropped on a merry-go-round at 100,000 RPM – you would be ripped apart. Coming back down from warp or impulse power would be the same story only in reverse. What would be on screen would be what was left of you.
Despite the danger, no one the Enterprise wears seat belts.
“Inertial dampers” are creations of science fiction rooted in science fact. In practice, they counter-act the gargantuan forces an accelerating starship undergoes with some sort of energy field that buffers everyone inside with gravitational assistance. It’s the cushioning system that prevents Picard from becoming “chunky salsa,” as the Star Trek: The Next Generation Writer’s Technical Manual puts it.
We have inertial dampers in real life too. “Damping” is just a sciencey word for redirecting forces. When you stomp on the brakes of your car, for example, you are damping the car’s resistance to the stopping motion into heat via the friction between the wheel and the brake pads. A boat’s ballast is another example. By using additional water or materials, any forces that seek to overturn the boat also have to fight the inertia of the ballast. You can find another inertial damping system in your brain, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as we need it to.
The brain was not built for football. Repeatedly getting hit by a giant running at you full-speed for a decade or more was not exactly a selective pressure of evolution. Players are paying for that. There were an average of 0.4 concussions per NFL game over the last 12 years, making repeated brain damage a frightfully common condition of play. And while it’s hard to get all the data we need on how these injuries are cumulatively affecting player’s brains – the most in-depth analyses have to be post-mortem – current and former NFL players have come forward claiming dementia, depression, suicidal thoughts (some tragically realized), memory loss, and Alzheimer’s. The NFL recently settled a $765 million dollar class-action lawsuit to provide care and research for 4,500 players who came forward. NCAA players recently settled a class action concussion suit for $70 million. The players claimed the NFL did not adequately warn them about the risks of play. Their case is forcefully made in Frontline’s “League of Denial.”
Unfortunately, no matter how good helmet or padding technology gets, it will never eliminate concussions. The problem again is inertia. When the skull decelerates quickly, the brain wants to keep moving. If it moves enough to bump into the skull, you get a concussion. The body has its own inertial damper inside the skull – the cerebrospinal fluid – that acts as a cushion against brain injury, but we never evolved to handle large impacts like what a linebacker calls work. And because concussions come from movement of the brain inside the skull, there will never be headgear to completely eliminate the risk.
But we can reduce it. At the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, for example, researchers like Dr. Stefan Duma are using modern impact testing to design the future’s helmets. When I spoke with Dr. Duma last year, he explained how his team is developing a new rating system for helmets that takes into account the full range of hits that a football player can expect (you test this by hitting a test dummy’s head with a pneumatic cannon, by the way). Some schools and youth leagues like Pop Warner have even started wiring up their players with accelerometers to track the impacts each player takes during games and during practice. Still more universities are coming up with new ways of rapidly testing for concussions using brain waves (a test which I took myself). Concussion science is definitely coming along, but maybe not fast enough for the millions of football, hockey, baseball, basketball, and soccer players, boxers, gymnasts, and wrestlers.
In a fantasy world, we wouldn’t have concussions. We could take cues from the technology that lets the Enterprise jump to warp without crushing the crew or allows Tony Stark to rapidly change directions in a rocket-powered tin can without being liquefied. That could take the form of helmets with additional dampening systems or modelling protective gear after the incredible skulls of woodpeckers, which never get concussions even though they pull 1,200 Gs when working their way through wood (12 times more than we can take).
Or we could demand rules from our sports that make crippling brain injuries a rarity, not an expectation. But let’s not get too fantastical.
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.