Astronomer Explains How 'Star Trek: Discovery' Warps Science

By Gaensler, Bryan; Institute, Dunlap et al. | The Canadian Press, September 28, 2017 | Go to article overview

Astronomer Explains How 'Star Trek: Discovery' Warps Science


Gaensler, Bryan, Institute, Dunlap, Toronto, University of, The Canadian Press


Astronomer explains how 'Star Trek: Discovery' warps science

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Bryan Gaensler, Director, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto

I've been alive for 44 years, and I've been watching "Star Trek" for 44 years.

I was a baby sitting on my father's lap for re-runs of the original series. I watched "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" at the drive-in. And on I watched, through another 11 films and 624 television episodes, and finally, this month, to the brand new "Star Trek: Discovery."

Yes, I'm a Trekkie.

"Star Trek" is set in space. At its very heart, it aims to be a story of exploration, of advancing knowledge, of science. Or to quote the show's original creator, Gene Rodenberry himself, the continuing mission of "Star Trek" is "to explore strange new worlds ... to boldly go where no one has gone before."

But despite its claims, "Star Trek" is not really a show about science. "Star Trek" is at its finest when it explores the human condition, and when it sets a standard for what we aspire to be.

Strange new worlds aren't like Star Trek's

While "Star Trek" makes a passionate case that science and technology can bring us peace and prosperity, it often also presents an optimistic and simplified view of our current best scientific understanding.

Some of the very first scenes from the newest series, "Star Trek: Discovery," illustrate this. Capt. Philippa Georgiou and Cmdr. Michael Burnham walk together under open skies on a desert planet. It is not especially bold to predict this will be the first of many more such "away missions" as the series develops. What an astronomer would give for this to be true! But sadly, even desolate desert planets are the rarest of the rare.

In the real universe, we now know of more than 3,500 planets around other stars, and not a single one of these is hospitable in the way seen on "Star Trek." Gas giants with crushing pressure but no solid surface, planets hot enough to melt lead, and rain storms of molten iron: these are truly the strange new worlds that await us.

While it's perhaps just a matter of a few more years before we begin to find planets that deserve the title "Earth-like," worlds with normal gravity, breathable air, bearable temperatures and safe levels of radiation will remain exceedingly rare. Heading down to the surface for a stroll and a look around will seldom occur, and not before a great deal of careful study and testing.

Folly of research and exploration

Another "Star Trek" anomaly for me is that many episodes begin with the crew carrying out a scientific study of a star, a nebula, or some other cosmic phenomenon. …

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