Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Forever Young

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

A 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.


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.

16 Responses to “Forever Young”

  1. Seth Shostak says:

    Astrogator’s hammer has managed to hit the nail on the flat spot! Very little movie or TV sci-fi takes on truly imaginative themes, but hey… if it gets people (particularly young people) interested in science, that’s an unalloyed good!

  2. Walden2 says:

    Athena, have you seen the latest issue of Newsweek with several Star Trek articles as its cover story?

    This one, from one of the former writers of the series, shows at least one reason why science is never a top priority in most if not all SF series (top of page 2):

    It may be a fruitless quest to ever assume that anyone will ever see much real science in a science fiction series, at least anything beyond a few trivia-type facts.

  3. Athena says:

    Seth, you’re quite right!

    Larry, thank you for the link! I read the article, which reminds me of the reminiscences of André Bormanis, a long-term Star Trek science consultant. I don’t harbor the illusion that SF films or TV shows will ever show real interest in accurate science. But at least Star Trek approached science and technology with curiosity, excitement and hope, a significant (and pretty much isolated) exception to the usual attitude of dismissal or hostility.

  4. intrigued_scribe says:

    Wonderfully written, direct and spot on, as always! Even with repeatedly used concepts and the distinct lack of creative ideas and controversial stances, I agree that there’s a great deal to be said for sci-fi’s emphasizing the value of science and technology.

  5. Paul Gilster says:

    Athena, such a fine job, and I particularly like this:

    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.

    That sense of sharing the discovery really does animate Star Trek and I think you capture that perfectly, while pointing to the show’s problems in not going into the depth it could on many issues and portraying others mistakenly. Geoffrey Landis once told me that the biggest problem with a show like this is that it encourages the idea that starflight will be relatively easy, a matter of scooting about the universe on the celestial equivalent of the Queen Mary. Whereas from everything we know, getting to the stars is going to be long, slow and incredibly arduous. I think he’s right, but setting a vision of other outcomes is part of what the show does, and in that sense it may encourage people into science who can make discoveries that will change the game.

  6. Athena says:

    Heather, Paul, I’m so glad you liked the excerpt!

    Paul, to add to your point, I think that Star Trek is similar to most biographies of scientists. These tend to elide the tedious, backbreaking aspects of the endeavor. But if they are good, they convey the “agony and the ecstasy” — and also highlight why such undertakings are vital for humanity.

  7. Walden2 says:

    Star Trek was born when space exploration was still new and exciting and we were on the verge of putting actual human beings on the Moon. Science and technology were signs of a healthy and progressive civilization, whose ultimate goal was to spread beyond Earth into the Universe. Those men and women who chose to pave the way to the stars were megaheroes.

    I used to be a major ST fan not just because of the characters but because as has been said, ST was a series that at least seemed to try to be scientific, warp drive powered by dilithium (formerly just lithium) crystals and matter transporters aside. They actually KNEW what a galaxy was, by Zeus! And okay, so most of the aliens they met were humanoids who spoke English, but I forgave them, even when they had nearly identical histories to us as well – Hodgkin’s Theory of Parallel Planet Development, ya know.

    But as I got older and a wee bit wiser, I saw how in the end – and especially as the new ST versions appeared one after the other – how science and exploration were just backdrops and window dressing to what was essentially a soap opera set in space. And even sadder, friends I knew who were also into ST didn’t really care about the science in the series being accurate or not, so that did not help.

    Anyone recall the early ST:TNG episode where they found a planet with a surface temperature of minus 291 degrees Celsius? I thought there was this thing called absolute zero were nothing could be colder than -273.15 degrees C., but maybe that planet was in an alternate universe or something.

    I am approaching this new ST film with some trepidation. While it is certainly true after the last ST series and film that the whole franchise needs an overhaul, times have certainly changed from the era of the original series.

    The previews naturally show a lot of slam-bang action scenes and I don’t expect much if any science from them, but it does make me wonder how physics et al will be treated by the film?

    I know it’s not a documentary, but I will pass if this turns out to be yet another variation on Star Wars. Forty years later and 2001 has yet to be matched or surpassed.

  8. Walden2 says:

    To add: Ever note how often whenever an “actual” scientist guest-starred on the Enterprise, they usually turned out to be of the classical mad variety, forcing the starship crew to clean up their interstellar messes. Or if the guest scientists weren’t outright crazy, they and their plans were an annoyance and hindrance to the main space mission, which was far more militaristic than exploration for knowledge.

    Voyager kind of got back into that aspect of the series, but a lot of that was from necessity than for pure knowledge-seeking. And in the end they spent a lot of time fighting the Borg, who by all rights should have cleaned the clocks of most everyone else in the galaxy, yet somehow one lone lost starship full of mostly humans bested them every time.

    Lately I have been coming to the conclusion that the first interstellar venturers from Earth, assuming they will not be artilects but more-or-less regular human beings, will not be the brave, noble, and highly educated and skilled astronauts that NASA portrays to the public, but the fringe elements of society, the ones who for a variety of reasons want and need to get far away from the main human civilization. Noble exploration for knowledge is probably not going to be the first thing on their agendas.

    So maybe human colonization of the galaxy WILL be a giant space soap opera after all, with science and technology taking a backseat to the usual politics, affairs, and wars we’ve seen since the dawn of time. Maybe Star Trek is more accurate than we have ever imagined.

  9. Athena says:

    Larry, I agree. There’s no question that the Star Trek films, in particular, were space operas. That’s not surprising. After all, family gossip (which is part and parcel of a franchise and a fan base) is a universal human need! The new film, from what I’ve read from previews, is riddled with scientific implausibilities and, worse yet, inconsistencies and, as a prequel, it will be de facto uninventive.

    Regarding your point about who will venture into space, I share your view, as I wrote in Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

  10. Michael LaTorra says:

    Athena, I quite agree with most of your points, especially this one:

    “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.”

    As a teenager, I loved the original TV series because, despite its largely bogus science, STAR TREK presented a positive view of the future. This, during the late 1960s, when the Vietnam war, domestic assassinations, and race riots dominated the TV news, was a sorely-needed antidote to the sourness of daily life at that time.

    Even some “real scientists” such as Stephen Hawking, who certainly recognized STAR TREK’s scientific errors, were big fans of the series. When he visited Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Hawking asked to visit the set of ST: NEXT GENERATION. Not only did they let him visit the “closed set” (which I couldn’t get into when I was there!) but they wrote a bit part for him in one of the episodes where he plays a hologram of himself playing poker with Mr. Data, Albert Einstein and Newton; watch the clip at:

  11. Walden2 says:

    May 6, 2009

    The Final Frontier: The Science of Star Trek

    As the new movie warps into theaters this week, we ask physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, how the sci-fi franchise keeps it real, and also how it bends–or breaks–a few laws of nature

    By Adam Hadhazy

  12. Athena says:

    Michael, I remember that episode. I used it as a springboard to discuss the holodeck in my book.

    Larry, the other Larry made a career of writing physics-in-SF books… so he’s way more famous than I am! But you will notice his answers to biology questions are very, very brief.

  13. Walden2 says:

    That is why you are here to fill that vacuum when it comes to
    biology in ST and SF.

  14. Walden2 says:

    No analysis of the biology in Star Trek would be complete without the
    handy-dandy Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, which through the
    wonders of the Internet is online in full here:

    Find out what a Denebian slime devil actually looks like!

  15. Athena says:

    Talk about a labor of love! These people are really dedicated — or have a lot of time on their hands!

  16. Walden2 says:

    That manual came out in 1977, when they didn’t have the
    Internet to distract them. :^)

    It was definitely a labor of love by people who really knew
    the series. They also didn’t have to worry about the canon
    of the franchise past the animated series that was on NBC TV
    in 1974-1975. And note there is a lot of real medical info too,
    though if you have to respirate a Gorn, you’re all set just in

    As for more labors of ST love, check out the page where the
    Medical Reference Manual came from: