New Scientist

Why we still love Star Trek

NOTHING has surprised me more in the past month than the barrage of phone calls I received from reporters about the new Star Trek movie. Many asked me to comment on what Star Trek technologies have been realised since the original series, which ones remain a vague hope and which are impossible. Others wanted to know what I thought of the science in the movie, from space-diving to black-hole time travel.

Frankly, I had expected quite the opposite reaction to the prequel, figuring that fans would pan it and pundits would bemoan an attempt to hark back to a 1960s phenomenon. Yet the fascination with Star Trek is everywhere, in magazines and on the opinion pages of major newspapers.

Why, 43 years after it first aired, does Star Trek still hold us in such thrall? I think that a large part of the fascination can be traced to our many current crises, both fiscal and environmental.

Of all science-fiction drama in the past half-century, Star Trek was based on a hopeful view of the future - one where the "infinite possibilities of existence", as the character Q said in The Next Generation series, could be exploited for the benefit of humankind and aliens alike. A future where science and reason would prevail over superstition, religious fundamentalism and petty myopic rivalries, and where technology could be developed to address almost any challenge.

Many aspects of this vision were and still are unrealistic. Nevertheless, it has obvious appeal in times of uncertainty. The current generation faces for the first time problems that are truly global in nature: climate change, dwindling oil and rising population, to name just a few.

There are hopeful signs that we are moving closer to a society based on reason, as in Star Trek. President Obama has spoken out explicitly for the need to base decision-making on sound science, as well as acknowledging the reality of various environmental and energy challenges and pointing out that we urgently need to exploit science and technology to meet them.

Will we have the wisdom to move towards a future where all of humanity has a common goal? Will we as a species finally discard the silly religious myths that separate groups and get in the way of an honest and realistic assessment of the world around us, so that we can address real problems with real solutions?

Star Trek does not present a world free of conflict, emotion, jealousy, love or hatred. The essential tension between the chief protagonists, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, over what is logical versus what is right forms a key dialectic, but the show ultimately presents a world in which human emotions and reason can peacefully coexist.

It remains to be seen whether science and reason can help guide humanity to a better and more peaceful future, but I think this belief is part of what keeps the Star Trek franchise going. I can only hope that it is not as unrealistic as falling into a black hole and coming out in one piece.

Lawrence Krauss is director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and the author of The Physics of Star Trek (1995).

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