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A Look Back at Star Trek’s Biology

The appearance of the new Star Trek film has inspired Athena Andreadis to revisit the epilogue of her 1998 book To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek (Random House). Andreadis (University of Massachusetts) is a frequent commenter on issues of space exploration on this and other sites, including her own Astrogator’s Logs, where you’ll find the updated epilogue. It’s well worth reading in the context of how and why we explore.

Sharply critical of the Star Trek franchise, Andreadis nonetheless commends its celebration of the human thirst for knowledge, something she believes may be the one thing we have in common with whatever extraterrestrial beings we find out there. This is bracing stuff, even for those of us who leaned more toward Heinlein than Star Trek in our youths. Here, the author speaks about dreaming of possibilities and making them accessible:

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.

As you see, this is a biologist with the soul of a poet, and although I’ve made my way through various biology classes in my time, I wish all teachers could be as inspiring as this one. Listen to Andreadis explaining the nature of her discipline:

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.

Quite an intersection, that. Andreadis, basing her thoughts on Star Trek as the franchise existed in the late 1990s, concludes that human immortality, psionic powers, transporters and universal translators are unlikely developments, but she does see cloning, organ and limb regeneration, intelligent robots and immersive virtual reality as being in the cards, and probably not terribly far in the future. But science fiction is not about prediction — what about the show’s attitudes toward science?

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.

We’ll see how the new movie does (I plan to see it on Monday). Meanwhile, we must wonder whether the urge for exploration that seems to drive the show really is a universal, as it appears to be on our own planet. Are we likely to find extraterrestrial civilizations that are content to stay within their own systems, immune from whatever it is that impels humans to push into new territory? Are civilizations invariably curious, even expansionist? With only one example to go on, we’re likely to be surprised again and again if we do make our encounter with ET.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze May 8, 2009, 10:12

    I went and watched the world premiere of StarTrek at the Sydney Opera House about a month ago, gave it 9/10. Got my poster signed by Captain Kirk, young Spock, Sulu and JJ Abrahms :-)

    Cheers, Paul.

  • Tibor May 8, 2009, 11:04

    Are civilizations invariably curious, even expansionist?

    Here some remarks by Claudius Gros on this:

    For the Fermi paradox to hold, alien societies need to be stable over millions of years, with a continuous drive to explore the universe and to expand. We have clearly no knowledge about possible sociologies of extraterrestrial societies. We cannot therefore not know, whether such types of societies might exist on other planets. But for what regards ourselves on earth, we can consider history for a clue.

    When a society is stable for extended periods, like the old Egyptians, their drive for expansion and development is generally reduced. That is to say, that long-term sociological stability and the continuous drive for expansion seem to be mutually exclusive for human societies. If this conclusion is correct, it might have important consequence…

    Claudius is founder of Future 25 and he has made some calculations re this question; for an overview look here; the full paper is available online and was published in JBIS.

    We should also, of course, go back to Paul’s report on Rethinking Galactic Empire, Cirkovic’s work, as well.

    To my mind, the Earth is not in a long-lasting stable phase, so – according to this argument – we should have at least the chance to embark on interstellar journeys.

  • kurt9 May 8, 2009, 11:30

    I have never been much of a fan of Startrek and have no plans to see the new movie. Even as a kid, I never thought of Startrek as representative of real space. I liked the old Arthur Clarke novels as a kid, then learned about the whole L-5 Society thing as a teenager, then lost interest in space. When I lived in SoCal and was involved in stuff like Alcor cryonics, life extension, and L-5 again, I started reading SF again. Most of it was either cyberpunk (which I loved) or “transhumanist” fair, like Greg Bear and the like.

    Actually, the only time I ever thought FTL would be even remotely possible was about 3 years ago when I first read about the Heim Theory.

    I have seen most of the Trek movies and have occasionally watched a few of the episodes (the Next Generation). But I have never considered any aspect of Trek, everything from their version of FTL, the teleportation, all the way to humanoid aliens they have, represent any aspect of the reality of our universe.

    Startrek is good entertainment, period. It is nothing more.

  • Administrator May 8, 2009, 13:38

    But hey, there’s something to be said for good entertainment, and I thought some of the Next Generation shows were really quite good. I envy Paul Titze’s appearance at the world premiere, and it’s good to see the high rating he gave the movie.

  • ljk May 8, 2009, 14:19

    The ST:TNG episode “The Chase” finally explains (at least for their
    reality) why most of the intelligent beings in the Star Trek galaxy
    are humanoid:

    http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/The_Chase_(episode)

    Which still begs the question, if these ancient beings had not spread
    their genetic seed about, how many worlds would have developed
    intelligent life in the ST galaxy? Or is it more that they were tipping
    the scales for beings with one head, two arms, and two legs?

    And what about OUR reality? That’s what I really want to know.
    SF can only do so much, and usually it is overly biased and subpar
    to begin with.

  • James M. Essig May 8, 2009, 14:45

    Hi Paul;

    I think Athena Andreadis’ ideas for future medical science are interesting.

    I, also, do not really believe in psychic powers (psionic powers) however I believe we can still do wonderful things with medical science especially as it applies to improving the human condition and manned interstellar space travel.

    I am mindful that we are already able to improve or minipulate human cognitive and affective functioning through medical intervention such as through the administration of various psychoactive medications. Mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder are routinely treated often with great success by prescribed psychoactive medications. The new medication Aricept seems effective at slowing the progress of Alziemers desease and the list of developments at improving human mental and emotional functioning is growing by leaps and bounds.

    Antiaging remedies may in the end be only limited by the lifetimes of stable nuclei and the proton wherein the lifetime of the proton has been established to be greater than 10 EXP 36 years with no observed proton decays as of yet.

    Imagine the epic jouneys that could be launched for human crewed space craft wherein human life expectancy could be as long as 10 EXP 36 years or greater especially taking into account relativistic time dilation.

    My brother John half jokingly and have seriously recently made a comment to the effect that it would be neat if we could figure out how to use a mineral such as titanium dioxide in pill form in such a manner that the titanium would gradually replace calcium within the human bone tissue in a process that would eventially lead to super strong titanium bombs. My first thought on hearing him make this comment was; Rrriiight! But then it occurred to me that the human body might oneday be improved to super hero science fiction status not by psychic powers or other nonesense, but by good old fashioed biomedical engineering.

    These potential medical advancements coupled with accident avoidance protocols and super advanced and accurate risk assessments might yet make us humans effectively immortal. The possibilities seem almost limitless. Interstellar space travel will no doubt be facilitated by advances in medical science.

  • kurt9 May 8, 2009, 15:22

    The future of medicine is regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, SENS, and other forms of bio-engineering. All of this is under the larger area of “wet” nanotechnology and self-assembly system. Biology is a subset of this. Medicine, in turn, is a subset of biology.

    Yeah, some of the next generation episodes were quite good. I just was not enough into Startrek to make it point to schedule time proactively to be at home at a certain time to watch it. The only next generation movie that was any good was the one with the borg and the guy from Montana who invented the warp drive. I saw this one because it happened to be the feature film on my Swiss Air flight from Tokyo to Zurich in spring of ’97.

  • ljk May 8, 2009, 16:33

    Athena is also guest blogging this month on the Sentient Developments
    Web site:

    http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2009/05/athena-andreadis-guest-blogging-in-may.html

    About the new Star Trek film (technically it is Number 11, but they want a
    new and fresh start, so no number in the title), I doubt there will be much in
    the way of exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new
    civilizations, as the filmmakers want to introduce the original bunch to a
    whole new generation of potential customers – I mean Trekkers.

    However, since a lot of folks may not be very familiar with the original
    cast and the aliens they met along the way, Vulcans and Romulans may be
    a new alien encounter for this generation.

    The Hortas and other non-humanoids will have to wait.

    Do you realize it was 30 years ago this year that the first ST film appeared?
    A lot of people, at least the vocal ones, did not seem to like ST:TMP (no
    number there, either), but it did introduce a definitely non-humanoid ETI
    who considered organic beings such as humans not to be “true” life forms.
    An underrated if not perfect classic with some good ideas.

    I recall the previews for ST:TMP spoiled the surprise for me by showing
    Voyager 6, which made it rather easy to figure out what V’Ger truly was.
    And it had a very basic plaque but no record.

  • Adam May 8, 2009, 18:04

    My mother watched “Star Trek” when it first arrived in Australia in glorious Black & White – we didn’t get colour until the 1970s – and got me hooked on it. An aside: My first TV sci-fi was “Space: 1999”, but my first space-related memory was watching BBC specials on the “Viking” landings in 1976. I first watched “Star Trek” c. 1980 and used to try to stay up to watch its reruns on late-night TV, then it became Sunday day-time filler and I watched it religiously. I also discovered the “Enterprise” blueprints and the first Starflight Chronologies. I drew my own blueprints of the first Warp-drive vessel from 2056 – according to the 1981 Chronology – and tried to explain how it worked to my parents. Years later I found my idea was quite close to Alcubierre’s metric, though of course I had no idea about General Relativity except what I had read in Iain Nicholson’s “The Road to the Stars” (1979.) That book mentioned laser-powered RAIR and the use of “Starbases” for powering them.

    There was a certain charm about the Original Series, something which I only felt about some TNG, and the occasional DS9, “Voyager” and “Enterprise”. I guess that was because I had grown-up somewhat between the series, through the pessimism and cynicism of the 1980s, and had seen the “Dream” of manned spaceflight experience its crash back to Earth with the “Challenger” explosion and the miniscule NASA budgets of two decades of executive neglect.

  • Adam May 8, 2009, 22:16

    Hi again

    I just looked at Claudius’s paper and it reminded me of a series of novels by James Blish about humanity’s encounters with the old civilizations of the Galactic Centre. They had existed for so long that every move by those in power was governed by entrenched ritual – thus when faced with a young, upstart civilization like humanity they were unable to act. An eon of stasis might make civilizations too ossified to persist?

  • ljk May 9, 2009, 9:09

    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

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=star-trek-movie-science

  • kurt9 May 9, 2009, 12:24

    I watched “Space 1999” when I was a kid and liked it a lot. I liked it far better than StarTrek. It was on for only one season as I remembered. Although the underlying plot was hokey (moon gets pushed into interstellar space by a huge explosion), it has some really imaginative episodes that were quite good. I thought it was much more realistic in its depiction of space than anything like StarTrek. I have subsequently heard that this is because the producers of “Space 1999” copied much of the style and atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” when they created the series.

  • Athena Andreadis May 9, 2009, 16:58

    Paul, thank you the lovelyl words! Such gestures give me impetus to keep going whenever I feel myself flag.

    I think that lifeforms similar to us will have to be curious. Expansionism requires technology, although I keep hoping that both we and they can get past the “manifest destiny” phase. If we can get the right balance between inner and outer space, we may be able to achieve starflight before we run out of resources and the desire to explore. Interestingly, the goals of crewed space exploration, transhumanism and and ecological balance go hand-in-hand.

  • ljk May 11, 2009, 10:26

    The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, has posted his take on the new Star Trek
    film from the point of analyzing its science content here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/05/08/ba-review-star-trek/

    I will hold back on my views of the film for this generation until after Paul
    has seen it first.

  • Administrator May 11, 2009, 10:43

    No need to wait, Larry. I’ve already read reviews, etc., so fire away.

  • Zen Blade May 11, 2009, 15:25

    The movie was pretty good as a stand alone entity… but a bad movie from a Star Trek universe perspective. The plot also had a few problems, which you could ignore since the film was in constant motion. But there was no real time for reflection… A certain planet is destroyed… but the kids have the keys to the car, so they are off to PARTY!
    I recommend seeing it, but it makes the past 40 years of Star Trek no longer relevant. :(

  • Administrator May 11, 2009, 15:46

    Athena Andreadis writes:

    I think that lifeforms similar to us will have to be curious. Expansionism requires technology, although I keep hoping that both we and they can get past the “manifest destiny” phase.

    Yes, let’s hope we can leave ‘manifest destiny’ at home, but that curiosity is a trait as widely seeded as possible!

  • ljk May 11, 2009, 17:14

    For all you fans of the original Star Trek, this new film essentially says to you “Thanks for the idea – now let us gut it but keep the exterior appearance of the carcass so we can stuff it with all kinds of filler to make this new ST version seem new, fresh, and alive. The new generation of kids won’t know or care about the significant differences with the old original version and you old guys and gals will probably keep shelling out money anyway just to see what we do next and if we get any better, which we don’t really need to because you’ll keep paying money just to find out while hoping to relive even a moment of that old magic.”

    At first I thought maybe the folks who were making this new version of ST were going to do something different yet with quality. Just before the film came out everywhere I read reviews from people who I thought knew enough about the series who gave the film glowing reviews, so I trusted them. I was looking forward to seeing a revamped ST film that would keep the franchise alive.

    I knew I had been detoured down the sewer pipe instead roughly ten minutes into the film.

    There is so much I can say, but little of it fun. You can read about how bad the science is from Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Web site, which I link to previously. Go to the IMDB entry on this film and read the later user comments – a lot of them hit the nail on the head as to how I felt about the whole thing, especially the butchering both subtle and gross of characters I grew up with.

    As for relevance to Centauri Dreams – maybe it will inspire people to want to fly through the galaxy despite the fact that most of this film was not about exploring space and the aforementioned bad science depictions. There were a few aliens in it, but they were either just humans with funny ears, attempts at humor, or mindless monsters. No seeing out strange new life forms here.

    And all those fast cuts and shaking cameras – I can only assume they were there to distract old and young alike from noting the bad plotting and worse science gaffes. I know I missed a bunch of things until well after the film was over.

    I could go on, but clearly I am from a different era than the one the people who made this lightweight thing aimed it for. And judging by all the films they previewed before ST, with the exception of the intriguing 9, this is the future of mainstream film.

  • ljk May 12, 2009, 16:55

    I don’t know how much this will help obtain the Final Frontier, but here are the
    blueprints for the warp nacelle of the USS Enterprise:

    http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/blueprints/star-trek-blueprints-sheet-13.jpg

    Now if we can just get our hands on some dilithium crystals… Alpha Centauri
    in five minutes!

  • ljk May 19, 2009, 9:54

    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:

    http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/star-fleet-medical-reference-manual.php

    Find out what a Denebian slime devil actually looks like!

  • ljk June 19, 2009, 12:11

    While you can still count on one hand the number of science fiction films that
    portrayed science and its practitioners with any level of accuracy, it appears that
    the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is finally making an attempt to help
    Hollywood do a better job in this long-neglected area of cinema history:

    http://www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/index.html

    To quote:

    The Science & Entertainment Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences that provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.

    Their blog is interesting:

    http://blog.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/

    Not that guys like Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay won’t continue to ignore
    physics and other aspects of scientific reality at their whims (Armageddon has to
    be one of the biggest violators of science I have ever seen in terms of a film with
    lots of resources and money that could have done better if they so chose, and
    the similar film Deep Impact which came out in the same year – 1998 – proved
    that), but now they will no longer have an easy excuse when they say they didn’t
    have the time, money, or people to get the science right.

    People get a lot of their visceral “education” about science and the world in general
    from films, whether they or anyone else want to realize it or not. So the least
    those responsible and able can do is throw in a few facts now and then with their
    cinematic product while the public consumes their five dollar container of popcorn.

    There isn’t much hope for this year’s crop of crap, but maybe by next summer….

    Meanwhile, the original Captain Kirk refuses to go quietly into that dark night:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1193938/Star-Trek-actor-William-Shatner-turns-nightmare-guest-U-S-chatshow-makes-series-rude-hand-gestures.html