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May 4, 2009

Forever Young

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, futurism, human trajectories, media & arts, space

(Crossposted on the blog of Starship Reckless)

Eleven years ago, Random House published my book To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. With the occasion of the premiere of the Star Trek reboot film and with my mind still bruised from the turgid awfulness of Battlestar Galactica, I decided to post the epilogue of my book, very lightly updated — as an antidote to blasé pseudo-sophistication and a reminder that Prometheus is humanity’s best embodiment. My major hope for the new film is that Uhura does more than answer phones and/or smooch Kirk.

Coda: The Infinite Frontier

star-trekA younger science than physics, biology is more linear and less exotic than its older sibling. Whereas physics is (mostly) elegant and symmetric, biology is lunging and ungainly, bound to the material and macroscopic. Its predictions are more specific, its theories less sweeping. And yet, in the end, the exploration of life is the frontier that matters the most. Life gives meaning to all elegant theories and contraptions, life is where the worlds of cosmology and ethics intersect.

Our exploration of Star Trek biology has taken us through wide and distant fields — from the underpinnings of life to the purposeful chaos of our brains; from the precise minuets of our genes to the tangled webs of our societies.

How much of the Star Trek biology is feasible? I have to say that human immortality, psionic powers, the transporter and the universal translator are unlikely, if not impossible. On the other hand, I do envision human genetic engineering and cloning, organ and limb regeneration, intelligent robots and immersive virtual reality — quite possibly in the near future.

Furthermore, the limitations I’ve discussed in this book only apply to earth biology. Even within the confines of our own planet, isolated ecosystems have yielded extraordinary lifeforms — the marsupials of Australia; the flower-like tubeworms near the hot vents of the ocean depths; the bacteriophage particles which are uncannily similar to the planetary landers. It is certain that when we finally go into space, whatever we meet will exceed our wildest imaginings.

Going beyond strictly scientific matters, I think that the accuracy of scientific details in Star Trek is almost irrelevant. Of course, it puzzles me that a show which pays millions to principal actors and for special effects cannot hire a few grad students to vet their scripts for glaring factual errors (I bet they could even get them for free, they’d be that thrilled to participate). Nevertheless, much more vital is Star Trek’s stance toward science and the correctness of the scientific principles that it showcases. On the latter two counts, the series has been spectacularly successful and damaging at the same time.

The most crucial positive elements of Star Trek are its overall favorable attitude towards science and its strong endorsement of the idea of exploration. Equally important (despite frequent lapses) is the fact that the Enterprise is meant to be a large equivalent to Cousteau’s Calypso, not a space Stealth Bomber. However, some negative elements are so strong that they almost short-circuit the bright promise of the show.

I cannot be too harsh on Star Trek, because it’s science fiction — and TV science fiction, at that. Yet by choosing to highlight science, Star Trek has also taken on the responsibility of portraying scientific concepts and approaches accurately. Each time Star Trek mangles an important scientific concept (such as evolution or black hole event horizons), it misleads a disproportionately large number of people.

The other trouble with Star Trek is its reluctance to showcase truly imaginative or controversial ideas and viewpoints. Of course, the accepted wisdom of media executives who increasingly rely on repeating well-worn concepts is that controversial positions sink ratings. So Star Trek often ignores the agonies and ecstasies of real science and the excitement of true or projected scientific discoveries, replacing them with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook more appropriate for series like The X-Files, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Exciting ideas (silicon lifeforms beyond robots, parallel universes) briefly appear on Star Trek, only to sink without a trace. This almost pathological timidity of Star Trek, which enjoys the good fortune of a dedicated following and so could easily afford to cut loose, does not bode well for its descendants or its genre.

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On the other hand, technobabble and all, Star Trek fulfills a very imporant role. It shows and endorses the value of science and technology — the only popular TV series to do so, at a time when science has lost both appeal and prestige. With the increasing depth of each scientific field, and the burgeoning of specialized jargon, it is distressingly easy for us scientists to isolate ourselves within our small niches and forget to share the wonders of our discoveries with our fellow passengers on the starship Earth. Despite its errors, Star Trek’s greatest contribution is that it has made us dream of possibilities, and that it has made that dream accessible to people both inside and outside science.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. The sense of excitement and fulfillment that accompanies even the smallest scientific discovery is so great that it can only be communicated in embarrassingly emotional terms, even by Mr. Spock and Commander Data. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons, but stay at the starship chart tables and observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

Star Trek’s greatest legacy is the communication of the urge to explore, to comprehend, with its accompanying excitement and wonder. Whatever else we find out there, beyond the shelter of our atmosphere, we may discover that thirst for knowledge may be the one characteristic common to any intelligent life we encounter in our travels. It is with the hope of such an encounter that people throng around the transmissions from Voyager, Sojourner, CoRoT, Kepler. And even now, contained in the sphere of expanding radio and television transmissions speeding away from Earth, Star Trek may be acting as our ambassador.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • nasim qasmi on May 17, 2009 7:59 am

    In my humble opinion, no one is interested in dying, we die simply because we are unable to stay alive or we have not yet discovered the art of living for ever.Though out the cultural web of the human history we have simply learned only one way of survival and that is nothing other than survival through species. Survival of self is another option which is yet to be culturalized.

  • Jim Davidson on June 16, 2009 4:08 am

    Star Trek does convey some few positive messages, such as the urge to explore, the equality of the genders and races, and the many possibilities that other forms of life may be pleasant and benevolent, even though some may be hostile. However, there are also a great many problems.

    Star Trek is always about a militaristic society in which exploration is done by a hierarchical military organisation. The government is the dominant power in the “federation of planets” and rebellion when it is portrayed (and it rarely is) is regarded as foolish. Although there is a pretense at benevolence, the government is frequently harsh, hostile to change or innovation, and concepts like “replicator rations” suggest that perhaps the unlimited possibilities of replicator technology are, well, rationed.

    It gets much worse. Property ownership is often reviled. Yankee traders are regarded as the worst sort of scum. Privacy is regarded as depraved. Individual liberty is disregarded. Many of the military characters slaughter alien life forms or impose dramatic and coercive changes on alien cultures with impunity. Fire phasers, full speed ahead, photon torpedoes, let’s crush some foes.

    The jingoism in the original Trek had an internationalist flavor to it, but it was still mindless jingoism. Our side is good and right, their side is evil and vicious.

    On the whole, I prefer Firefly or Serenity.

    • Athena Andreadis on June 16, 2009 5:00 am

      JIm, I agree with you: in my book, To Seek Out New Life, I discuss extensively all the points you raise. My praise of Star Trek must be taken in the context of most other science fiction shows, of which Firefly/Serenity (not yet in existence when I wrote my book) is a prominent and welcome exception.

      If you want to see my take on the latest Star Trek, which also includes a more general judgment on the whole franchise, visit these links: Set Transporter Coordinates to… and We Now Interrupt Our Regular Programming…

  • Jim Davidson on June 16, 2009 11:52 am

    Thanks for the prompt response.

    There’s no doubt that Trek is a big part of our culture. The Libertarian Enterprise, one of my favorite sites for a different take on popular culture, goes under the geeky URL of http://www.ncc-1776.org/

    Extra hit points for knowing what the USS Enterprise call numbers have been. lol