Image by CBS Studios
My first encounter with the Star Trek franchise was through Star Trek: The Next Generation, helmed by the dashingly bold and bald Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D (not to be confused with the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A, which was helmed by Captain James Tiberius Kirk from Star Trek: The Original Series). As the starship made its way through the galaxies, Picard and his highly accomplished crew of Starfleet officers encountered and overcame dangerous pathogens, time paradoxes, wormholes, teleportation accidents, and jerks with god-like powers.
And while Star Trek never limited itself to hard, grounded science, the series left an indelible impression in our own reality by giving its viewers a taste of what human beings could accomplish.
For instance, many pieces of fictional technology featured in Star Trek have become part of our everyday lives. In Star Trek: The Original Series—which celebrated its 50th anniversary last week—Captain Kirk used a handheld device to communicate with his crew in orbit while he pursued adventure and romantic liaisons on new planets. Later, inventor Martin Cooper would cite this fictional device as one of his inspirations in creating the cellphone. Other technology that has transitioned to fact from fiction include tablet computers (PADDs), virtual reality (holodecks), computer voice recognition, and universal translators—just to name a few.
Star Trek went on to inspire other innovators as well, including a young Bill Gates, who named his first computer “The Altair 8800” after a fictional galaxy in the series. Other famous self-proclaimed Trekkies include Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir Richard Branson, and unsurprisingly, a number of astronauts and NASA personnel.
Furthermore, Star Trek has continued to fuel future advancements. For instance, at the turn of the 21st century, Dr. James Hendler, a professor of artificial intelligence and a fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence was once asked about the future of his field. Dr. Hendler responded that he would “love to build Lieutenant Commander Data some day,” referring to a self-aware android crewmember serving in Captain Picard’s crew.
More recently, a major semiconductor and telecommunications company Qualcomm announced the Tricorder XPRIZE, a $10 million global competition to develop a device capable of “capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 12 diseases, [… which could] include such elements as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature.” The competition was inspired by the titular “tricorder” from Star Trek, a multi-functional handheld sensor and recording device used to facilitate data collection in new worlds.
And while most of us in the here and now must contend with the fact that we were born too early for the age of deep-space exploration (Zefram Cochrane won’t invent faster-than-light spacecraft propulsion until 2063), we can still find solace in exploring the wonders of our present universe through science. Star Trek showed its viewers the human drive to explore, our immense capacity for wonder, and our ability to overcome our limitations. In doing so, it reminds us that we all have the capacity to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Check out my new book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)