Tag Archives: “Star Trek”

Happy 50th Anniversary!

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.



Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?

IAU: Incompetent Astronomical Union?

Those who have read Laurel Kornfeld’s Pluto Blog know that she believes the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is essentially a totally Euro-centric elitist old boys network.  And Alan Stern, arguably the hardest working man in space science as he is working on two space missions (Rosetta and New Horizons) in addition to running the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), wants to start up a rival organization, though I feel it will wind up being an astronomical version of a rump republic (a governing body with very little to no legitimate authority).  I believe the IAU is a flawed organization, but I thought it could be fixed through reforms.  Now I am not so sure.

Recently, the IAU announced a contest to name extrasolar planets. Sounds like an interesting idea, doesn’t it?  However, the way the IAU is carrying this plan out indicates that the problems with the organization are very deeply rooted in its culture.  For starters, only astronomical organizations that are registered with the World Directory of Astronomy (run by the IAU) will be allowed to participate.  This does not mean that members of these groups can submit entries.  Rather, the group as a whole submits their entry.  On top of that, it appears that IAU will be using the convention used to name minor planets in our solar systems, which I feel is totally inappropriate for the job.  This process only nominates the names.  Then comes the voting.  The details can be read in the official contest rules.

The whole thing reeks of dishonesty.  The IAU will control the nomination process and it is very likely that the vote totals when the names are voted on will never be made public.  Given the IAU’s penchant for voting irregularities, it is entirely possible that the winner will be decided regardless of the actual votes.  Perhaps the IAU needs election monitors to audit the voting.

Then there is the idea that the minor planet naming system can be extended to extrasolar planets.  A better naming system already exists.  When the Vikings landed in Iceland, they used a system called “landnam” or land-naming to assign names to geographical features.  The names derived from Viking mythology.  I am not proposing that Viking mythology be used to name extrasolar planets.  What I am suggesting is that extrasolar planet names be derived from what could be considered the mythology of space – science fiction.  For example, if an Earth-like extrasolar planet is discovered in or near the habitable zone of the 40 Eridani system, it should be named Vulcan.  The “Star Trek” franchise alone contains a good number of names suitable for extrasolar planets, such as Bajor, Cardassia, Bolia, Betazed, Romulus, and quite a few others.  Then, there is the “Star Wars” franchise. In fact it even has a name suitable for a gas giant – Bespin.  Add the other noteworthy science fiction franchises (“Babylon 5”, “Galactica”, “Doctor Who”, etc.), and there should be enough names to serve the purpose for quite some time, especially if the names are limited to Earth-sized or nearly Earth-sized planets (the taxpaying public who fund exoplanet surveys are not terribly interested in extrasolar gas giants, hot Jupiters, or hot Neptunes).  However, in the increasingly unlikely event that a gas giant is detected in the Alpha Centauri system, it should be named “Charybdis”.  If it was good enough for James Cameron, it should be good enough for astronomers to use.

This proposal would engage the attention of the public, who as I explained earlier, fund much of astronomical research through their taxes.  And, as the old Scottish proverb goes, “He who pays the piper gets to call the tune”.

Now, some might argue that such an approach could run afoul of copyrights, trademarks, etc.  First of all, any holder of such rights would be very stupid to complain about this.  What they would be getting out of the use of those names for this purpose is free advertising.  Best of all, this free advertising would last essentially forever.  Every time someone would write a scientific paper about a given named exoplanet, they would use the name.  This is the kind of publicity that cannot be purchased and most businesses would love to have their products, or parts of their products, immortalized on the biggest billboards imaginable.

Of course, another solution would be to have an international body, such as the United Nations, grant whatever organization that would be in charge of astronomical matters (a reformed IAU or whatever replaces the IAU) exemption from those laws.  I believe that the Internet Archive has an exemption of that sort already.

Getting back to the point that got this started, do you feel that the IAU can be fixed via reforms or should the whole edifice be torn down and replaced with a newer, more responsive organization?