Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966. While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.
As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk. Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary. This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories. While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths). This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.
Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society. It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series. Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise. And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.
However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends. One prominent example is research into teleportation. It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B. The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination. But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future. What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away. While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.
Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive. Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light. While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background. In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish. Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.
But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships. However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with. In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous. It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field. And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control. However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea. White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter. That is still quite a bit of energy. White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.
Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”. And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program). Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).
Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store. Even the security guards were frightened. The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle. He explained that he used to be a skinhead. One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes. As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues. He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go. The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.
Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions. On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier. A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics. Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor. Did the GMA story bring that up? No, it didn’t. Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”. Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been. Why did the folks at GMA do this? One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise. I suspect something more vile. Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor. Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor. Was racism involved? Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.
On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels. They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise. With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary? And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?
In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.