I N   V I T R O    Issue 2.12 - December 1996

Star Trek, My Saviour

By Greg Rowland

Greg Rowland can't tell where life ends and Star Trek begins. It seems he's not alone.

Some people like to suggest that life imitates art, though personally I've never agreed. After all, it's over 80 years since Picasso went Cubist, but no one, to the best of my knowledge, has yet been born with a flat head and a neck that looks like a blue Toblerone. We can be certain, however, that technology and theoretical science imitate art. And not just any old art either. We're talking Star Trek here - the show that may yet turn out to be Earth's supreme cultural event.

Since its inception in the tech-obsessed '60s, Star Trek has provided scientists, inventors and consumers with a yardstick of our technological progress. The Enterprise gives us a comforting technological teleology, an unbroken line of better and better discoveries that the show promises will ultimately enable humans (and all sorts of other races) to do just about anything. Star Trek was a typical product of the '60s vision that machines could solve every possible human problem.

It now seems that we're in a similar period of techno-optimism, especially if you're a Net evangelist. The humanist progressive myth that shaped Star Trek also shapes our responses to scientific advancement. Indeed, Trek and Tech have become so symbolically intertwined over the last 30 years that it's hard to tell the difference anymore. At least for people like myself.

I can't walk into some flash modern building without feeling somehow Star Trekian. My mobile phone flips open just like a communicator, albeit without that comforting little trill that Kirk's had. Every time I use a floppy disk I can't help but remember the groovy little coloured cards that Spock would insert into his 'puter.

And it's not just me. Honest. What about that lot who're trying to create anti-matter? They've spent years and millions of dollars so that, for the briefest of nanoseconds, they can be "just like Star Trek". Or NASA, which uses Lt Uhura to recruit for it, and which named the first space shuttle Enterprise? Certainly neither of these can tell the difference.

So how close are we to "becoming Trek"? Professor Lawrence M. Krauss - author of The Physics of Star Trek - says some things will be tougher than others. He's OK with warp-drive technology (the fusion of matter and anti-matter that powers a starship's engines) after quibbling for a bit. According to Einstein, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Krauss suggests that warp drive could work if you created some kind of sub-space field that curved space around your ship. This space curve would work like folding a piece of paper in half - the most distant points on the linear plane become the closest, and so interstellar distances are a relative hop, skip and a jump away.

It's bad news for transporters, though. You're going to need a pretty big hard disk to store all the information about a person's exact atomic structure that would be required for a safe beam-down. The memory required to reassemble Dr McCoy when he re-materialises would, according to Krauss, require disks that stretched from here to the centre of our galaxy. Transportation also requires a battery so powerful that it exceeds the combined energy of the universe - which is a probably the bigger problem in the long term.

But all is not lost. One of the landmark items of Star Trek kit has just been invented in "real life". Two Canadians have come up with a fully-functional Tricorder. Essentially a cool little box that tells you stuff on a read-out when you point it at things, the Tricorder was an essential part of Mr Spock's inventory. Of course, this Tricorder is not as cool as Spock's, but it can read and digitally store things like temperature readings, barometric pressure, light and colour intensity and electromagnetic radiation. I suppose geography students might find it useful; personally I'd rather wait for the stage when I can use a Tricorder on my friends, discover that they're actually highly sophisticated androids and murmur, "fascinating..." to myself.

Yet it's the quantum level of reality that holds the best promise for realising Star Trek. If all that stuff about infinitely differentiated alternative universes is true - whereby your choice between a Mars Bar and a KitKat creates a subtly different continuum - then there is surely an alternate universe where everything we know as the TV show Star Trek is absolutely real. It's only a matter of non-linear time, in my opinion, before the real Captain Kirk shakes William Shatner's hand on Letterman. Mark my words.

I should probably share this with Stephen Hawking. He's one of us as well. His theories on time travel and the bending of space sound suspiciously close to the physics behind the warp-drive engines so beloved of Mr Scott. The lucky bleeder even made a guest appearance on The Next Generation, playing poker with Einstein, Gallileo and the android Lt Data. In typically Trekian radical liberal tradition, Hawking suggests that computers may evolve to the stage where humans need to respect them as life forms in their own right.

That's certainly no surprise to your average Star Trek fan. Gas cloud or amoeba-plasma, lava-creature or supercomputer, if it's sentient you gotta respect it. And this shows us why we need Trek. Its ethical frame differentiates Star Trek's techno-fantasy from ordinary SF shows. If Big Science must have a myth to live by, then Star Trek is far less offensive than most. The liberal morality may at times appear simplistic, yet it also asks pertinent questions about human relationships with technology, culture and the morass of ethical implications that arise from experiment and discovery. Trek provides a strong voice of conscience for those scientists exploring the boundaries of the human, the post-human and the purely mechanical. And since those scientists are already responsible for large chunks of our future, the sooner they beam up, the better.

Greg Rowland is a freelance writer, musician and semiotician. He plays keyboards for Neneh Cherry in his guise as The Good Doctor X.