Set Phasers on "Theoretical"

(SPOILER WARNING: If you do not wish to know whether there are any spoilers in this post, do not read the next sentence.)

(There are no spoilers in this post.)

Let's talk about phasers for a minute.

First of all, I must admit that I am one of those people. Star Trek holds a place in my decrepit heart, as it does for anyone who started watching when they were twelve. Every Friday night, I settled on the couch with my Steak-Umms and my Pringles and waited for Jean-Luc to kick ass and tricord names. This was fine with my family, because the siblings were old enough to have lives, and the 'rents were content to watch "Washington Week in Review" on the little black & white TV in the kitchen.

So ... wait a minute, I guess what I'm admitting is that I'm a dork and kind of old. Probably not something that I "must" admit. (Though if you couldn't spot the dork-leaning tendencies of this website from a country mile away, then I simply cannot help you.) But I expose myself for a reason: to demonstrate that I broach the topic not out of mockery, but out of kinship. Slagging on the physics of Star Trek is a time-honored tradition, and trends hot lately because Jeffrey Jacob has been drawing in the unwashed masses. It's also pointless. In Star Trek, as in all true science fiction, the science is ultimately there to serve the fiction.

Now then. Let's talk about phasers for a minute. Specifically, the phasers on a starship.

Suppose you are in an empty field that stretches for miles. If you were to fire a rifle, the bullet would exit the barrel in a calibrated spiral and immediately encounter resistance from the surrounding air. It would travel its arc, gradually lose speed, and tumble meekly to the ground. And your friends would exchange nervous looks, because you're firing a rifle at nothing in the middle of a field.

Phaser fire, on the other hand, has no mass and encounters no resistance. It's a beam of pure energy, emanating from the weapon into the vacuum of space. Theoretically, it would keep going until it struck something. Right?

Here's the thing. Any time the Enterprise throws down with some Klingon Birds of Prey, or with a Romulan ... uh, I guess the term is "colossal mining squid," there are plenty of shots that miss. And those are just the exploits of the Enterprise — when you bring in the rest of the Federation, plus all the other allies/enemies/cyber-collectives, there have been countless battles, with countless strikes going astray of their targets. Hell, they put phasers on Ferengi ships, and the average latinum trader couldn't hit the broad side of a nebula.

This realization struck home because of something that's been in the news lately, and one question has been plaguing me ever since.

Is phaser fire the space junk of the 23rd century?

We've only been accumulating our own space junk since 1958, and there's already enough to send the International Space Station ducking around blown tires and roadkill. Given the many centuries of interstellar travel, multiplied by hundreds of space-faring races, wouldn't they have the same problem? Only their space junk would, you know, be sort of custom-designed to blow you up?

"Enterprise, this is shuttlecraft on approach to planet surfa- " PHASERED

"Attention all decks, good news! Crewman Smith has proposed to Crewman Yal-Ti, and she has said y- " PHASERED

"Mommy, I'm taking Rover on a space-walk, be back in a few min- " TOTALLY PHASERED

(SPOILER WARNING: If you do not wish to know how this post ends, do not read this sentence.)