Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Boldly Go...

"Can anybody remember when we used to be explorers?" Captain Picard asks at the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection. Exploration is officially the main purpose of Starfleet. Even though Star Trek stories of exploration focus mostly on "new life and new civilizations" rather than science, the Starfleet ethos of exploration has inspired scientists of today. I came across impressive and specific evidence of this accidentally, when reading a new book about the impact of computer simulations.

After the main text by Sherry Turkle, there are several case studies by other authors in Simulations and Its Discontents (The MIT Press 2009.) The chapter by William J. Clancey is about the team in charge of the two Mars Rovers, as they explore the surface of Mars. Though they come from different scientific backgrounds with different areas of expertise, several describe themselves as explorers. One is even more specific: "I've often said that I do space science because I couldn't join Starfleet."

The following chapter, by Stefan Helmreich, is about the scientists aboard a deep sea research vessel. The ship Point Lobos and its remotely operated diving vehicle Ventana explore an extreme environment with lifeforms as alien as anything in science fiction. Again, the scientists aboard are from various disciplines, and they consider themselves explorers. And again, a connection is explicit: marine biologist Rob Haldane, the chief scientist on the mission, "told me that as a child he was riveted by Star Trek...As an adolescent, he studied the migration of large animals and particularly liked the movie Star Trek IV, in which the crew of the Enterprise returns to twentieth-century earth to save the whales..."

Star Trek is the latest saga to impart a sense of adventure and mystery to exploration, to discovery, confronting the unknown, being the first to see or learn something, or more broadly, the quest for knowledge. All of that is significant, for it inspires imagination and feeds the soul.

But there are more specific correspondences between Star Trek and the situations described in these chapters. Most obviously, Point Lobos is a ship, and like the Enterprise, it has particular characteristics, opportunities and limitations. A group of people are in a confined space, dependent on the ship and each other. Their relationships are in some sense dictated by being on a ship. While not a military vessel, even a research vessel can operate only through a delicate balance of authority and cooperation. A ship must have a captain, and a crew with particular expertise and responsibilities.

But this is a research ship, and the common task--the common motivation--of exploring also requires teamwork and shared knowledge and tasks that transcend each area of expertise. This is also true of the Mars Rover team--and while they aren't aboard a ship, they work to the same small facility, apart from the outside world. In both cases, geologists must know some biology, and biologists must learn something about the machinery they use. They must learn give and take in each other's research goals, and how to pursue knowledge that transcends one field.

Like the crew of the flagship Enterprise, these scientists are among the best. This is especially true of the Mars team--they were selected from many applicants. But even though they are used to standing out, they must learn to subsume their egoes to the mission, to the exploration.

Another close similarity is their dependence on technology to do their exploring. The Mars explorers are on Earth, and do their exploring through the Rovers. They talk about the Rovers almost as beings, and as extensions of themselves. The Point Lobos is actually in the environment it explores, but it explores with the remote sensing vehicle, the equivalent of "probes" sent out from the Enterprise. There is a more specific resemblance, according to the writer: "The similarity between the view-screens on the starship Enterprise and the screen through which we look at the video feed from the Ventana makes the comparison with Star Trek seem natural."

But unlike the crew on the Enterprise, the crew of Point Lobos spent a fair amount of time being seasick. Nevertheless, they want to be there. This speaks to the most important difference between Star Trek and how space exploration is now conducted--by unmanned vehicles. It also seems to be where space exploration is heading. Similarly, the Point Lobos may be one of the last ships to take scientists on the sea. "In the future, scientists might explore the ocean by surfing the Web."

But despite the discomforts, the scientists aboard the Point Lobos want to actually be on the ship. "The scientists I study want to be immersed in the sea. In some sense, they want to lose themselves in the place they study."

The practicalities aside, this has to be one of the attractions of space travel: to be immersed in the alien grandeur, the ultimate in beauty and terror, of space. It's a call of the soul.


Prof. Sci-Fi said...

Excellent post. I think nowadays exploration is viewed so much as a luxury. In fact, it's hard in my mind to see it as a necessity. I'm reminded of the quote from Mike Collins: "Exploration isn't a choice, really; it's an imperative." So much of our culture has conditioned what parts of our souls we listen to--and the part of the soul that longs to explore often gets drowned out by consumerism or mere survival. It's awesome to see that some people still have the heart to explore and are willing to sacrifice for the sake of exploration.

I really thought those kinds of people were gone. Thanks for mentioning this book. Definitely will have to take a look.


Captain Future said...

Thanks for your generous comment, Prof. Sci-Fi. For commenters in general: because of increasingly intrusive spamming, I have gone to the "comment moderation" mode, which means that there may be some gap between the time you write your comment and the time it appears. It depends when I get to reading and approving them as legitimate non-spam comments, that actually have something to say about the post or at least about the subjects of this blog. Thanks for your patience.

Steve said...

Hey love your blog, I have recently discovered the Star Trek Books which I think you may also find good!