We spoke to Michael Wong, a planetary scientist who is holding a lecture titled “The Science of Star Trek” this Friday February 3rd at Caltech.
Science and Star Trek have always gone hand in hand; one of things that separates Trek from other science fiction franchises is how it embraces real science. With that in mind Michael Wong a planetary scientist from Caltech is holding a lecture this Friday titled “The Science of Star Trek.”
We caught up with Michael to talk about his lecture, the future, and his favorite captain.
You’re hosting a lecture called “The Science of Star Trek” at Caltech this Friday February 3rd at 7pm, what inspired you to talk about the science of Star Trek?
My love for Star Trek fuels my passion for science, so honestly this talk seemed like a natural thing to do. As a PhD student in planetary science at Caltech, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know several other scientists who were similarly inspired. A few of them—Elise Cutts, Peter Gao, and Cecilia Sanders—will join me on the Q&A panel following my talk.
What is in your opinion the most realistic and the least realistic pieces of tech or science in Star Trek?
The ship’s computer and personal communicators are certainly the most realistic pieces of tech in Star Trek. In some cases, we have already eclipsed the capabilities of these devices from any televised iteration of Star Trek. Just look at our tablets and our phones. My goodness, my phone can do way more than Kirk’s flip-communicator from The Original Series! I feel sorry for the guy. I mean, what if he wanted to text Bones a joke behind Spock’s back? Or send Scotty a photo of Sulu sleeping at the helm? He couldn’t even do that.
The least realistic piece of tech? I’d have to go with the transporter. You have over a billion billion billion (10^27) atoms in your body. I know I just lauded our advances in computer tech, but can you imagine the computational power required to record the exact structure of our bodies? I can’t. And then you have to get around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle—a rule that comes from quantum mechanics where you can’t even know both the location and momentum of a particle to any arbitrary accuracy—with this magical device called the “Heisenberg compensator.” At last year’s Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, I asked Mike Okuda, who came up with the Heisenberg compensator for the show, “How does the Heisenberg compensator work?” His famous reply: “It works very well, thank you.”
You’re a planetary scientist, what inspired you to pick planetary science as your specialty? Can we assume that you’d be in a blue shirt?
In college, I really wanted to study astrobiology—you know, “to seek out new life and new civilizations.” But that wasn’t a major! So I decided that if I can’t study aliens, I might as well study where aliens might live. That lead me to my current PhD program in planetary science at Caltech, which, amazingly, has allowed me to tackle questions related to astrobiology!
I actually see myself as more of a gold shirt—or red shirt in the 24th century—in command of an exploratory vessel. At least, that’s where I want to be one day! For now, I’m just a lowly ensign scrubbing plasma manifolds in the lower decks. Just kidding, grad school is SO much better than that.
Pop science articles on the internet love to claim that the Star Trek future is just around the corner, how far are we really from that world?
When I think of the Star Trek future, I don’t just think of the technological and scientific marvels, but also of the state of humanity—how we treat each other, how we treat other living things, how we treat our planet, how we yearn to better ourselves and the world with every step we take. Now, I’m generally an optimist, but I don’t think we are super close to living in the Star Trek future. In fact, in light of recent political and social developments, one might argue that we are on a course in the opposite direction. But as Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” The development of humankind is certainly punctuated by dramatic, unforeseeable events. In the Star Trek timeline, one of those was Zefram Cochrane’s warp flight in 2063. Something similar could be just around the corner that ushers us into a bolder, more compassionate future for our species.
Which piece of Star Trek science or tech is your favorite?
As a scientist, I’d have to say the tricorder. Can you imagine how lovely that would be? We scientists worry so much about what intricate instrument and elaborate technique we are going to use to find the first evidence of extraterrestrial life…and Spock just glances at his tricorder and says, “Captain, I’m reading a biosign 200 kilometers ahead.”
Your expertise is planetary science, as a scientist what world in the Star Trek cannon would you most want to visit?
You know what? Earth. People often forget that Earth is a planet, but it’s the most important one. I want to see Earth in the future, learn a few things, and maybe bring some of that cool science back to our century. We’re supposed to have weather regulation in Star Trek, right? I’m extremely curious to see how we combatted climate change and took control of our own planet’s climate through environmental engineering.
Star Trek seems to be the piece of science fiction that’s most loved by scientists, why do you love Trek?
I loved Star Trek long before I loved science. Growing up with the show, I went through different phases where I appreciated different aspects of it. When I was a little kid, I thought—this is so cool, space battles, cloaking devices, phasers, pew pew! And then I grew older, gained a little more life experience, and began to appreciate the wisdom of the characters and the beauty of the storytelling. And then I learned more about history, and I came to realize that Star Trek has actually been an influential vehicle for talking about social and moral issues, for showing us the better parts of humanity, the parts worth fighting for. And throughout all of that I was learning science so that one day I could ask questions of the universe myself.
As a fellow Trekkie we have to ask, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer?
Picard, Janeway, Sisko, Archer, Kirk—in that order. Yeah, I have it all thought out. Why Kirk last, you might ask? I see Kirk is one part of a triad. He is the Id to Spock’s Ego and Bones’ Superego, and honestly he’s not really complete without the two of them. So in a ranking of just the captains, I think all the other captains are a little more well-rounded.
If you’re a Trekkie in Los Angeles you’re not going to want to miss this lecture. Admission to “The Science of Star Trek” is free and the event will be held this Friday February 3rd at 7pm in at the Cahill Center for Astronomy. Click here for more information and directions.
Be sure to follow Michael Wong on Twitter.
What do you think? Are you going to go to “The Science of Star Trek” this Friday? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments below.