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.
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 Wikipedia doesn’t know, and Wikipedia knows everything.
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 whenever creationists get up in your business.
The other thing, which any greenthumbs out there will know, is that many plants actually aren’t green. Indeed, 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
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.
There are many possible solutions to the three-body problem and 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 ways for things to 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.
Planet Pahvo is said to vibrate ‘like a tuning fork’. Then again, don’t they all?
It’s a good thing too, because listening to a planet’s vibrations is a great way to figure out what they’re made of – like shaking a Christmas present to see what’s inside. Because density is proportional to wave velocity, and because some materials are impervious to some waves and permeable to others, tracking sounds as they pass through the Earth – be they the rumble of earthquakes, the swooshing of the tides, or the boom of nuclear detonations – can tell you a lot about the large scale structures of planets: for example, that our planet is made of solid silicate rocks wrapped around a molten iron ocean wrapped around a solid iron-nickel ball. We can even study the Moon this way, and soon we will have a chance to listen to the murmurs of Mars as well.
[UPDATE: The Mars mission’s going great! Read about InSight here]
Not just planets, but virtually everything is vibrating all the time, usually at or around one of that particular thing’s resonant frequencies. You’d think this would make the world a very noisy place, but the frequency and/or the amplitude of most of those vibrations makes them impossible for us to hear. Every now and then, though, surprisingly large objects can hit their resonant frequency and go completely bananas. When this happens in a Stradivarius we call it music and give it a standing ovation. When it happens with, say, a road bridge…
Compared to that, Pahvo’s vibrations are nothing out of the ordinary.
Building a Planet, Step Three: Fanservice
Could there be a Pahvo right around the block? There’s only one way to find out. (Well, two, if you include actually going there)
- Number of stars in our galaxy = 250 billion
- Planets in the habitable zone per star = 2
- Fraction of planets that are rocky = 1/2
- Fraction of above with two large moons = 1/4
- Fraction of above with life = 1/4
- Chance of Shazad Latif secretly being a Klingon spy = 100%
- Standard ‘Goldilocks’ factor = 1%
- Gut instinct factor = 80%
- Number of planets like Pahvo in our galaxy ~ 125,000,000
Distance to the nearest one:
- Volume of galaxy = 3.5 E+13 cubic lightyears
- Volume surrounding each Pahvo = 3.5 E+13 / 1.25 E+5 = 2.8 E+6 cubic metres
- Distance between each Pahvo = cubed root of volume = 141 light-years
- Average distance to the nearest Pahvo ~ 70 light-years
Close enough for a picnic!
The Bottom Line
Pahvo is a good example of a planet TV writers think is really exotic, but could actually be fairly run-of-the-mill.
Well, except for the telepathic fungus bit. Seriously, what is it with this show and mushrooms?
Can’t wait for Season 2 to arrive? 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.