To Boldly Go…

Star Trek Captains
Original Series (Shatner), Next Generation (Patrick Stewart), Deep Space Nine (Avery Brooks), Voyager (Kate Mulgrew), Enterprise (Scott Bakula), new movies (Chris Pine) From left to right, top to bottom: NBC/Paramount; Paramount; Paramount Television; Braga Productions/Paramount Network Television; Paramount Pictures/Skydance Productions

Matt Yglesias provides a delightful, yet long winded, romp through the history of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a must-read for any serious Trekkie. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that what made Star Trek great was its vision of a somewhat utopian future.

Trek envisioned a world not based on economics and acquisition of stuff, but a world where people were motivated by a desire to learn more, to better themselves. It was more about cooperation than competition.

This didn’t mean the Star Trek universe didn’t have its share of bad guys, but success was often about diplomacy and respect of alien culture. Blowing stuff up was a last resort.  Granted, it wasn’t an uncommon last resort, but it wasn’t the primary point of the show.

Yglesias also observes that the new rebooted movie franchise, while great fun, has sort of lost this vision. It’s become more a series of sci-fi adventure flicks than the morality tales that defined the 5 TV series.  It’s great popcorn entertainment, but it’s not really what Trek was all about. Yglesias blames this on the medium—that feature length films don’t lend themselves to the same type of storytelling as the small screen.  Maybe he’s right.

All this got me to thinking about why I’ve always preferred Star Trek to Star Wars. While I’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies, they simply aren’t as personally compelling to me. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says for him it’s because Trek stays more true to science as we understand it. Phasers just seem hard to build, while light sabers seem to require different laws of physics. As a science geek myself, I like the bad science explanation, but I don’t think that’s it.

In the end it’s rather simple. The universe of Star Trek is a place I’d like to live.  Star Wars? …not so much.   And it’s not even that Star Wars is always centered on, well, wars… and frankly, war zones aren’t appealing places to live. But the overall culture is maybe too familiar.  In some ways it’s too similar to the world we live in. Governments are corrupt. Power struggles and armed conflict are rampant. Everyone is constantly angling for an advantage. Thanks, I can turn on CNN and see that.

Yet in the Trek world, I can explore, learn, grow, and I still occasionally get to blow something up. It may still have dangers, but it’s an inviting and appealing culture. It emphasizes the best in humanity while recognizing that the worst still lurks.

It’s not clear this difference is because Star Wars was spawned from feature films rather than television.  Each writer built their universe to suit their vision and the story they wanted to tell. Roddenberry was an optimist. He believed the best in people would always prevail and projected a future where it truly blossomed. Lucas was more of a realist. He reprojected the culture of man onto a different galaxy and gave them hyperdrives and blasters.

Bottom line: If the Enterprise (any of them, NX, NCC, A, B, C, D, E, or Q for that matter) drops into orbit and offers to take me on as a crewman, I’ll be texting Kim from space that I will be out of town for awhile. I will be boldly gone. Hell, I’ll even agree to wear a red shirt. But if the Millennium Falcon  drops by, I may well go for a joy ride, but I’ll be home for dinner.

Oh no you didn’t

Oh no you didn'tMy morning coffee was interrupted by a gentle knocking on the front door.  On the other side was a delightful older woman and her apprentice proselytizer sporting bibles, Watchtower magazines, and other paraphernalia of the trade.

She opened by explaining they were there to make sure I understood what the bible had to say, because they’ve found many people don’t know.  I politely replied that I had a bible, had read it, and was pretty familiar with what was inside.  I finished by explaining that I really didn’t feel the need for any additional guidance today.

That should have been the end of it, save for a few pleasantries, and I could return to my cooling cup of Joe and my newspaper.  But no.

She reaches into her stack of pamphlets and pulls one out while saying that perhaps she might interest me in some information on God’s creation because science is constantly trying to disprove it, and I might need to know how to respond.

It was at that moment I wished I was a woman and could pull off that whole finger-wagging head-shaking “Oh no you did not” indignation move.  But alas, I’m just a gesture impaired male.  Either way, it was clear my coffee was going to get colder.

I responded, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand that science is not trying to disprove religious mythology.  That is neither its purpose nor its intent.  It exists to explain nature in a way that allows us to predict and manipulate it.  This is a role that religion does not fulfill, nor aspire to fill.  Science is dependent on a method of discovery and rigorous explanation that is completely indifferent to your beliefs.  Science is not a democracy, nor is it dependent on faith.  You don’t get to pick and choose where it leads.”

“You drove up here in a car whose existence is the product of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and a dozen other scientific disciplines.  You have a cell phone in your purse, you’re wearing synthetic blend clothes, and you’re schlepping out brochures drafted on computers and produced on high-speed printing presses.”

“The world you live in is the product of science.  It’s unfortunate that you feel threatened by aspects of science, but unless you’re willing to go back to your cave and huddle around the fire you need to find a way your theology can coexist with it.  Anything less is a major act of hypocrisy on your part.”

Science doesn’t want to play in your sandbox.  Stop dragging it in.

Mythbusting popular science

Are they helping or hurting science? (Photo by Roger Jones on Wikimedia)

Science has an image problem in this country.  In everyday culture, it’s gone from being an arcane art to being a popularity contest.  It’s commonplace to see surveys asking people on the street if they believe in evolution or if they believe in global warming—as if somehow science was subject to democratic majorities.

The danger is that much of what people believe about science is shaped by the media.  Yet the media is motivated by attracting eyeballs more than conveying the nuances of a topic.  Hence, an interesting bit of research by a scientists at Cornell gets turned into the headline:

Scientist proves that humans are psychic

All of which would be fascinating, except that’s not really what happened.  The study shows a data correlation that could be explained by people having precognitive abilities, but may have other explanations.  After all, science is about understanding why and how something happens, not just that it does.  Otherwise a scientist might observe the data correlation that supermarkets are more crowded on Saturdays, then conclude that clearly people are more hungry on the weekend and call it a “proof.”  Fortunately, science goes a bit deeper than that.  The burden for calling something a scientific proof is actually pretty darn high.  But most people don’t really know that.  They don’t really understand the scientific process.

Science has been popularized by television shows like Mythbusters where the cool side of applied science usually involves blowing something up.  While this has been a great boon for making science more accessible, it also does a disservice by creating the perception that a couple of guys in a well stocked warehouse can scientifically prove something given a few hours and an ample supply of duct tape.  While these experiments are great entertainment, they are not scientifically accepted proofs.  And this is a distinction lost on many of the viewers.

This issue is not particularly limited to the field of science.  Politics often has similar situations such as when popular polls are held asking how to fix the economy, as if the economy will yield to a majority vote.  Perhaps the better question is, why are we so keen to take complicated fields, boil them to their essence, and then claim mastery of the discipline?

Part of this problem is based on our slide into the populist ideal where everyone is thought capable of everything.  The notion that the only thing distinguishing me from a corporate CEO, a concert pianist, or a Nobel laureate is just that I haven’t yet chosen to apply my considerable talents to that field yet.  It’s not that hard, there’s nothing special about people who do that.  I could be President.  I could be a climate scientist.  I could be a rock star.  I just haven’t chosen to be.  We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid we give our young children in an effort to encourage them and give them self-esteem, and somehow it’s convinced us that nothing is very complicated or outside our grasp.

Maybe the world really is an abstruse place.  Maybe experts really do add value.  And while it’s great that you’re interested, maybe following along in the news doesn’t quite give your opinion on the matter quite the same weight as professionals working in the field.

Obama hosts science fair at White House

Photo by Mark Wilson at Getty

Hooray science!  That’s the message coming out of the White House today where President Barack Obama kicked off a week-long science fair at noon by announcing winners in a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions.  Obama said, “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.”

Obama also announced steps his administration, in conjunction with leading companies, are taking to advance STEM education.  The focus is on expanding the tools of invention so that more students can directly be the “makers of things.”  The steps include placing 3D printers in 1000 schools and an initiative by Autodesk to make new easy-to-use design tools freely available to students.

The President has long been an advocate for science and technology as essential to the country’s prosperity and success.  His science adviser, Dr. John Holdren, even has pictures in his office of the President peering through telescopes, examining solar panels, and honoring scientists and engineers.  And last October, the President held Astronomy Night at the White House where more than 20 telescopes were set up on the White House lawn and focused on various objects the invited students could observe.  This is a refreshing change from the relatively science hostile Bush administration.

Certainly not least, Obama also announced he would be appearing on the December 8, 2010 episode of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.  The show has been instrumental in making science fun and accessible to the general public, despite its incessant warnings to not try this it home.  For one night, at least, the President will be the envy of geeks everywhere.

Hooray science, indeed.