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.