Sunday, August 13, 2006

More Amusing Musing by Dr. Shostak

Dr. Seth Shostak, author of our 1st blog entry, is back with another humorous look at Star Trek. I’m really looking forward to hearing his presentations in Seattle…only 26 more days!

You realize that means we only have 25 more blog entries to go; that doesn’t give you much time to get your story to me. I’m anxious to hear about how Star Trek has influenced your life. Your story doesn’t have to be long or overly profound (e.g. I’m going to write about how Star Trek turned me into a rock star for a day!), it just needs to be e-mailed to Amy Ulen as soon as possible.

Blog #15 by Dr. Seth Shostak,
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute
Even in the early days of Star Trek, it was pretty obvious that this show wasn’t really about space. The level of the astronomy in the show was lower than a Mississippi gambler, and the number of trustworthy insights you might garner about life in space was always minimal. The show wasn’t nearly so much about space as it was about exploring the ‘hood and meeting strange strangers: Star Trek was The Argonauts, decked out in Lycra.

Roddenberry’s creation struck me as a futuristic version of Captain Cook’s exploits; a random walk through the galaxy looking for new forms of sentient life to either befriend or incinerate. You may recall that Cook was commissioned by the British Admiralty to reconnoiter blank spots on the globe. Similarly, the Enterprise was in the service of some governmental uber-organization: the "Federation," and was charged with boldly going into the Milky Way’s vast wilderness, seeking out our brainy brethren.

The ill-defined Federation sounded slightly ominous to me, but I decided it was OK, despite policies that were a bit naïve. Consider the “prime directive” – how many explorers have ever, EVER adhered to a principle that stipulates you should not interfere with someone else’s society? Even Captain Cook, who was better at benevolence than most, inadvertently mangled the culture of the islands he visited. He did this as soon as he sailed into their lagoons, simply because he had such things as cannon, the wheel, steel implements, and a big ship with a compass. The locals quickly figured that whatever mojo these Europeans had was better than theirs, and the islands’ ancient cultures were devalued in a flash. It’s hard to believe that the Enterprise wouldn’t wreak the same sort of laming, or be victim to it. The prime directive was bonkers.

Like many others, I was intrigued by Star Trek’s nifty technology. The holodeck seemed implausible, but getting beamed down to a planet (or back up) was positively miraculous. How the heck did this work? Clearly, you couldn’t just send the information about how Spock or Kirk were put together and then build a new model on the landscape below. If this were how beaming worked, then why not send the Captain’s data a few hundred times, producing crowds of Kirks? To avoid this awkward situation, it seemed necessary that the beaming hardware had to send the actual atoms or molecules. Of course, beaming such particles down to an alien world would run into problems as soon as the beam hit the planet’s atmosphere. The reassembled crew members would probably be no more than flat mounds of goo.

While it was hard to imagine how beaming could operate, there were plenty of other implausibilities that were amenable to simple fixes. With the arrogance typical of most grad students, I reckoned that Gene Roddenberry could use my help. I wrote him a letter suggesting that, if he would pay my bus fare to Burbank once every two weeks (about three dollars, round-trip), I would mark up the scripts, fixing the bad science without touching the story lines. Sure, 99 percent of the audience didn’t care about the funky technical errors, but the other 1 percent might make a lot of noise. I figured my offer was admirably reasonable.

Roddenberry wrote back (in those days, Star Trek hadn’t yet become a national institution). I recall opening that letter while my roommate, Valdar, looked over my shoulder. It was a big moment. Roddenberry essentially said “thanks, but no thanks.” He said that the scripts were already being reviewed by the Rand Corporation.

“The Rand Corporation?” Valdar mused.

“Isn’t that a think tank over in Santa Monica that analyzes the possibilities of nuclear war?” I replied.

“Yes, it is,” Valdar said. “But given the level of scientific rigor enforced on this show, maybe we should build a bomb shelter.”

Eventually, of course, Star Trek got full-time technical consulting, and now there’s a lot more science and a lot more of it makes sense. But I still want to know how to beam someone down to a planet without turning them into quivering crud.


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