After seven weeks of shiny corridors and Klingon intrigue, Star Trek Discovery has finally unveiled its first planet. It has two moons, blue trees, a global hive mind, and a message of peace we quarrelsome humans need to hear. Also the whole planet rings like a tuning fork – but that is less implausible than you might suppose.
The year is 2256. The Federation is losing its war against the murderous Klingons, whose mastery of cloaking technology enables them to strike without warning. Desperate for an edge, Starfleet dispatches the USS Discovery to a remote planet with a mysterious – and strategically significant – property:
Personal log, Specialist Michael Burnham, Stardate 1308.9. We landed on Pahvo eighteen hours ago. It’s a seemingly uninhabited planet, but a unique and, for us, strategic one. Every tree, rock, and blade of grass here vibrates with its own specific tone. Together these combine to form a kind of music, the signature sound of the planet heard everywhere on the surface. The sound is even broadcast into space by a towering crystal structure, a sort of naturally-occurring transmitter. It is Starfleet’s plan to modify the electromagnetic frequency of Pahvo’s signal and harness it as a form of SONAR that can detect the presence of cloaked Klingon vessels decimating our fleet, make them visible to our sensors, and turn the tide of war in our favor.
However, our intrepid away team soon discovers that the planet is not as uninhabited as it appears. In fact, the whole ecosystem comprises one giant sentient mind – a mind perpetually tripping on shrooms.
So begins another thrilling episode of the new (and very pretty) Star Trek Discovery. But can a planet really ring like a chime? What about an ecosystem governed by a single global intelligence? Can a planet have two moons? And most intriguing of all – why is everything blue?
Building a Planet, Step One: Read the Wiki
What do we know about Pahvo? Thankfully the good folks at Memory Alpha have us covered:
- The planet seems to have approximately Earth-like gravity. It also has a temperate, breathable atmosphere, which means we get to see plenty of Shazad Latif’s cheeky mug.
- The planet has two very large moons.
- All the foliage is lurid blue (HTML colour code #3C9AC5 to be precise). From space, the planet appears uniformly blue, with no distinctive geographical features.
- The lighting on the surface seems a little paler than on Earth.
- The planet is inhabited by a kind of sentient spore which suffuses the entire environment.
- According to specialist Burnham: “Every tree, rock, and blade of grass… vibrates with its own specific tone.”
All up, this is starting to sound a little familiar. Serene blue hippie planets seem to be a dime a dozen out there, if sci-fi is anything to go by (as I sincerely believe it is).
Building a Planet, Step Two: Using Your Science Degree For Good
“Mummy, mummy – why is the grass green?”
Mum gives a knowing smirk, confident she’s got this one covered. “Because chlorophyl is green, sweetie.”
Little Bettie screws up her nose in thought. “But mummy – why is chlorophyl green?”
Mum gives an almighty scream before vanishing in a puff of logic. Little Bettie empties out the cookie jar with a shrug.
Why is the grass blue?
There are three questions every kid asks of their parents: why is the sky blue, what makes the grass green, and how do I get this crayon out of my ear? While one of these can be resolved with the fearless application of kitchen tongs, I can confidently say that none of you know the correct answer to either of the other two questions. The reason I am so confident is that I don’t know the answers, and I know everything.*
(*That Wikipedia knows)
Fun fact – nobody knows why chlorophyl is green. Your grade four teacher probably told you it’s to do with harnessing the most energy from the sun. But if something appears green, it’s because it’s reflecting green light – and green light is the brightest part of the sun’s spectrum. Not only is chlorophyl not the optimum colour for harvesting sunlight – it’s actually the worst colour it could be short of bright white. This is one of the reasons why solar panels are much more efficient than plants, and it’s a great example of ‘idiotic design’ to keep in mind next time the creationists try putting God in the textbook.
Any greenthumbs out there will know, of course, that many plants actually aren’t green. I have some lovely red-and-black tree aeonia in my garden right now. And lo and behold, there are in fact plants with blue leaves, like the stunning metallic-blue peacock begonia:
The peacock begonia is actually a pretty good model for the foliage on Pahvo. It’s iridescent, and as a consequence its colour tends to shift depending on viewing angle. This effect could explain why some of the shots of Pahvo seem to show green trees instead of blue ones. Iridescent blue seems to offer some advantages for plants growing in low-light environments, which also fits since (to my eye, anyway) Pahvo’s lighting seems a little wan compared to Earth’s.
Two moons, one planet
Nothing screams ‘alien planet’ quite like a pair of giant moons hanging in the sky. A thorough psychoanalytic treatment of this phenomenon is a task I leave to the reader. We’ll just stick to the science.
You may be surprised to hear that the answer to that question could win you a Nobel Prize. Physicists call it the three-body problem and they’ve been working on it without much success since Newton’s day.
Mathematicians have actually found a heap of solutions to the three-body problem already. Some of them are pretty wild. The hard part is figuring out how stable they are. It’s like spinning plates – it’s not too hard to get them moving but you wouldn’t want to store your crockery that way. There are just too many things that can go wrong.
In the astrophysics community the general consensus right now is that three objects of roughly similar size are incredibly unlikely to enter and maintain stable orbits around one another in the real world, no matter how cheerfully they zip about in a computer simulation.
But you never know.
The cliffhanger ending
Star Trek Discovery‘s first ever planet-based episode ended on a cliffhanger, and so shall this week’s build. The biggest mysteries remain unsolved. What is the nature of the Pahvan hive mind? What causes the whole planet to vibrate in mystic harmony? Will we ever get to see Shazad Latif in a bathing costume?
Find out the answer to at least two of the above three questions next week.
Can’t wait that long? Get your Star Trek fix with our take on Qo’noS – The Klingon Homeworld. Afraid that next week will never come? Indulge your terror with Nibiru – The Shadowy Death Planet. Disagree with me vehemently? Share your thoughts with me on Facebook or Twitter.