Sunday, November 17, 2013

Captain's Log: Old Frontiers

From the beginning many if not most of the elements in the Star Trek universe were from what was then the 70 year tradition of science fiction in literature and film.  Trek honored that part of the tradition that favored scientific plausibility, especially in the technological foundations of its universe: warp drive, phasers, transporters etc. Many such elements were either projections based on new but existing technology (so that doors that swoosh open automatically would be in supermarkets in twenty or thirty years)  or fairly daring and imaginative extrapolations from scientific theories.

But as a television show, Star Trek was unique in using the latest scientific findings or theories as elements in stories or even as springboards for stories.  I think this much is generally acknowledged.  But in reading a few stories about recent scientific findings and controversies, especially regarding space and physics, I was struck by the realization that this adventurousness in using the latest science has been gone for a long time--perhaps since the later Berman era, but more surely in the Abrams era.

I felt the plausibility slipping away towards the end of Voyager, though there were of course lapses before that.  (I think the armor on Voyager did it for me finally.)  The writers for the first Star Trek JJA movie justified their new timeline reality with certain theories derived from quantum physics, but these theories weren't at all new.  I've noted that more scientifically literate fans than I have pointed out a number of plausibility lapses in the second movie.

Contrast this with the relatively new and very popular TV genre of the forensic science crime shows.  Producers for the one that some science publication judged the most scientifically accurate (Bones) embrace the idea of using the science and keeping up with new discoveries as a way to build stories.  There are staff members responsible for providing this information.

Though in some ways science is still catching up to Star Trek (and will for awhile longer), it sobering to realize that its essentials were established almost a half century ago.  Plate tectonics, for example, which is an axiom in earth sciences, was not even yet an established theory when Star Trek went on the air.

Black holes were such a new idea that there wasn't yet an established name for them. (A Trek episode referred to a "dark star.")  The term "black hole" was first used in 1967.  That was also the year that pulsars were first discovered.  The thermodynamics of black holes weren't mathematically described until the 1970s.

Just recently however an entirely new theory is being applied to how black holes behave internally, because neither general relativity nor quantum physics seem to work there.  New research is applying something called loop quantum gravity to the problem, and coming up with brand new theories involving fundamental questions about the universe.

Could this be used in a Star Trek story?  Could it even be the basis for one?  I don't know.  But recent experience suggests that it won't be, maybe not even in Star Trek novels anymore.

 Similarly, there are stories to be told that center on the vitally important and still evolving dynamics of Earth's climate crisis--not the science alone but the human responses.  But the Trek imagination seems stuck on wars and war metaphors, revenge drama and mostly on re-telling old stories with bigger visuals.  There's simply too much money at stake.  The tent pole must never shake.

Meanwhile, one basis for Star Trek from the beginning is accumulating more evidence: the existence of many worlds where life should be possible.  Applying the number of extra-solar planets already "found," the math suggests there are, yes, billions and billions of theoretically habitable planets. Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at Berkeley, extrapolated the findings across the open void of space, adding: "With tens of billions of Earth-like planets in each galaxy, our entire universe must contain billions of billions of Earth-like planets." 

Other recent discoveries should spark all kinds of stories.  Scientists are realizing that the universe is even bigger than believed.  A galaxy has recently been found that is thirty billion light years away.

Or recent discoveries about Mars suggests that it not only once had water--it was once a watery world.  NASA has a video suggesting what it was like, and the project to study the Mars environment--launching tomorrow (Nov. 18)  is explained by LeVar Burton in this video:

[Update: This spacecraft was successfully launched. ]Which might remind us that how scientists believe the Earth obtained water and even how life may have started has completely changed since the 1960s.

Even something like the Cassini photo of Saturn with the Earth a distant dot (at the top of this column--click on it to see it much bigger) inspires not only wonder but recalls the wonder that Star Trek represents, as in this story.  Although I feel existing Trek stories still have much to suggest in other ways, it does seem that new science and its implications has dropped out of new Trek.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing died last week at the age of 94.  Famous for pioneering realistic fiction, she is quite possibly the only Nobel Prize for Literature winner to have written science fiction novels. When she did so she was criticized both by science fiction fans and guardians of literature.  Even as her first book in her Canopus in Argos series was published, she was defending herself against criticism from the literature side.  She said that "space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now...I do think there is something very wrong with an attitude that puts a 'serious' novel on one shelf and, let's say, First and Last Men on another."

She meant Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, who was also the author of The Star Maker, which Brian Aldiss in The Billion Year Spree calls "magnificent...the one great grey holy book of science fiction."  There are of course a number of very good science fiction writers as well as many bad ones.  But there is definitely a line of writers who combine literary quality with science fiction, beginning with H.G. Wells and Stapledon, and continuing through Kim Stanley Robinson.  That line runs through Doris Lessing as well.

Trekville News

In Star Trek news, there's an interview in which Bob Orci expresses some regret for his outbursts insulting fans (see previous Captain's Log) though I'm not sure his logic would pass the Spock test.  And I don't see  he understands that he began it by abusing the writer of a legitimate and composed critique, not a rant in a fan comment.

And there's this from Patrick Stewart.  Though I question the premise--nobody listens to old men of any race if they're not famous--he's still making us proud.


Tom Gunn said...

I think you're giving TOS entirely too much credit for plausibility. While it's true that TOS was often eerily prescient, too often something would just "wink out" or Abe Lincoln would appear. Trek as always combined hard sf with what amounts to science fantasy. You don't like JJ Trek. You didn't like Voyagers armor. Fine. But I think you're reaching for reasons that I'm not sure totally hold up.

Adam said...

It seems kind of unfair to single out STID for being light on real science when no Star Trek movie has had a very science-y plot. Even in those times when real science was present in Star Trek, it was pretty sporadic. No one could claim with a straight face that the science on Classic Trek was accurate. TNG made more of an effort, but most of the time that meant the writers would go to science consultant Andre Bromanis, tell him what the story required, and he'd try to come up with something that sounded plausible. A lot of times, what he came up with would just be a sly wink at the scientific implausibility of the whole situation, like the "Heisenberg compensator" that makes the transporter work in spite of the uncertainty principle.

If TNG had needed a device to use gravity to crush a planet, it probably would have been something like a graviton beam fired from the deflector dish. Quantum particles of gravity sounded pretty cutting edge in the '90s. Nowadays, physicists love to theorize about exotic kinds of matter which twist the laws of physics in bizarre ways, so when Star Trek writers want to crush a planet now, they use an as-yet-undiscovered kind of exotic matter, "red matter." Both have a faint ring of scientific truth, but neither one is more scientifically plausible than the other. It doesn't seem to me like the JJ Abrams movies are doing a worse job with the science than other Star Trek did, especially when you consider that their pace of storytelling is a lot faster and there is less time for technobabble info dumps.

Captain Future said...

Plausibility within Trek has a couple of features: first, some vague scientific basis, but second and perhaps most importantly, consistency. Once how things work is described, they work that way all the time (and if they don't, it's a plot point.) I think that's what some fans were complaining about with JJA2. (And I objected to the Voyager armor on both counts. It made no sense given the ways shields operated, and they made no scientific sense.)

But my main point is that Trek responded to new scientific findings and speculations in TOS and TNG for example. Trek technology and the Trek universe responded to the latest ideas in science--which is why folks could write books about the physics, biology etc. of Trek. But Trek seemed to stop doing that. I didn't see any indication of that in the JJA films. As for the earlier films there was machine intelligence in TMP, terraforming in TWOK and III, etc. But I agree that new discoveries or ideas in science weren't often the core idea of a story.

Thanks for your comments.