Monday, September 5, 2016

Star Trek at Fifty Years, and the First Week of a New Semester

Source: Copyright Paramount Pictures
I spent part of my evening watching some Smithsonian Channel shows regarding the 50th anniversary of the initial voyage of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek (TOS; that's "The Original Series" for those of you who aren't Trekkies). The show was a part of my youth; I am one of those lucky people who saw at least some of the episodes during their original airings on network television. It was in black and white (in my home, anyway), but I found it fascinating. This minor television hit from the 1960s had such an optimistic view of the future of humankind, as well as being filled with really neat devices and technology.

I talk about Star Trek during the first week of every class I teach. I ask my students about their attitude towards "science", and two words invariable come up: boring and hard. As we continue a discussion about how science works we talk about how science is a body of knowledge, a codified organization of facts and principles that we agree are "real" despite the cultural background of anyone studying science. In other words, we can believe whatever we wish. We can even decide, for instance, to deny the existence of gravity. But no matter how hard one believes that gravity isn't real, one will still drop like a rock if one steps off a cliff. So we start to collectively begin to understand how science works. But still, there are challenges in learning and mastering science. It can indeed be hard (and maybe boring, but I can't imagine how...). On the other hand, what a privilege to be living in the times that we do, with the knowledge that we have access to!
This was the Solar System of my youth

That's where Star Trek comes in. Episode after episode imagined "strange new worlds", and most of them included bizarre planets far removed from our own. To me, back in those primitive years before the Hubble Space Telescope and the Voyager satellites, the science of astronomy was an exercise in frustration. I would head to the library week after week, checking out every astronomy book in the stacks, hungering to understand our own Solar System. And we knew so little! Venus was shrouded in clouds. Mars had visible features, but they were unidentifiable from earthbound telescopes. Jupiter and Saturn had spectacular clouds, but their moons were simple points of light. Nothing could be discerned on their surfaces. Neptune and Uranus were small disks, and diminutive Pluto was a dot of light. I wanted to know more!
Mars, up close. The various orbiters we've sent have mapped the surface of Mars with more detail than much of the Earth, since oceans obscure much of our own planet.

The advances came so slowly (at least to this young growing child). The first satellite missions to Mars in the 1960s revealed surface features (and a lack of alien civilizations). And in the late 1970s, the two Voyager spacecraft began the grand tour of the outer gaseous planets. It was an excruciating wait as the small satellites passed first Jupiter, then Saturn, followed by Uranus and Neptune (years passed between each visit). Then, knowing the satellites had arrived, there was the excruciating wait for the pictures to be downloaded and processed. It was worth the wait. The pictures and data were astounding, revealing worlds never imagined by humans, even on Star Trek! Volcanic moons, ice moons, cratered moons, moons with atmospheres, rivers, lakes and seas. It was a menagerie of strange new worlds, and they were in our own back yard.

Jupiter from the Galileo mission
The Voyager missions were one of humankind's greatest adventures, and they continue as the satellites actually leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space. They continue to send data, even after 39 years. And other incredible missions followed, the Galileo to Jupiter, Cassini to Saturn, the New Horizons to Pluto. And most recently, the arrival of Juno at Jupiter. We are only now seeing the first pictures.The quality of the photographs and scientific data are astounding.
From the Juno mission THIS WEEK! Our first ever view of the north pole of Jupiter.

And what about all that cool Star Trek technology? Who could have believed that some of the craziest bits of technology from the original show would be commonplace less than fifty years later. Communicators and tricorders became the flip-phones and smart phones and tablets of today. Essentially the entire library of human knowledge can be carried in anyone's pocket (and what do we do with it? Send each other pictures of kitties...priorities!).

And this is what keeps me going every day as I approach my thirty-fifth year in the front of a classroom. The adventure in space continues, as it does in all areas of science, including my own in geology. Just in the last year we saw Pluto up close for the first time, as well as the largest of the asteroids, Ceres. More planets and planetoids remain to be discovered. The launch of the Webb Space Telescope in a few years promises to extend our vision to the edge of the known Universe. It is an incredible time to be alive! I feel privileged to have seen a vision of adventure in outer space through the many permutations of Star Trek, as well as seeing a vision of humankind at its potential best. But I'm glad I'm still around to see the real human adventure of science exploration continuing.. And that's what I hope my students will come to understand as well.
From Paramount Pictures
Thanks Gene Roddenberry, and all the cast members, living and gone, who've been part of the Star Trek universe. Happy 50th anniversary!

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