October 14 — On October 14th, MSNBC.com’s Cosmic Log had the pleasure of hosting none other than Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner for a live streaming audio chat to discuss the subject of his new book, “Star Trek: I’m Working On That” —the advances science has made toward inventions once only possible on shows like Star Trek, and the inspiration scientists have taken from the show. MSNBC.com Science Editor and Cosmic Log writer Alan Boyle and MSNBC.com Chat Producer Will Femia moderate.
It’s my absolute please to introduce none other than Captian Kirk himself, William Shatner.
I should say that after slogging through questions all morning long, the number of topics we could discuss with you is mind boggling. But since this is only a half hour chat and not a ten hour Ken Burns documentary, we’ll try to stick with Star Trek and the new book you have out, “Star Trek: I’m Working On That.”
To begin with, maybe you could just introduce people who aren’t familiar with the book itself to what it’s about.
Well, I am trying to promote “I’m Working On That” the title of a book that’s in the bookstores now. It’s a book that reflects some of my curiosity about how things work. I took as the stimulus for the book, the science of Star Trek and wanted to see how far the world has progressed in technology from the standpoint of Star Trek. What Star Trek suggested might happen 300 years from now, where we are now, where we might be going, and also to some extent how the scientists that I interviewed were stimulated, if at all, by Star Trek.
By the way, there is a second book called “The Captain’s Peril” which is a fictional book written about Captain Kirk an his adventures, the 9th in a series of these books. They’ve been quite well received.
“The Captain’s Peril” is the new one out, it’s a sort of murder mysetery. You don’t have to have read the previous 8 to enjoy this.
And that’s just out this month?
Star Trek aside, do you think of yourself as technologically savvy? And, what tech do you most depend on in your day-to-day life and business?
No, I am not a technically savvy person, on the contrary. But I don’t know whether anybody can make heads or tails out of all the stuff.
I try to stay grounded by working on my house as much as possible, and the simplest things flummox me. Have you ever dealt with the toilet, for example, and the plunger and the thing that bobs on top of the water? How does it work? I have no real idea why the water stops and why the water goes down the drain at the speed it does.
So that kind of curiosity about everything around me has been part of me for a long time. And in the book I try to answer some of the questions by talking to the scientists and having them explain it to me in the simplest terms and words and concepts because I’m not savvy.
Technologically in my life, as simple as it can possibly be. I have graduated to the cell phone, I drive a car, and everything else is demoralizing in how inexplicable it is to me.
It’s funny you mention toilets because someone did submit a question asking how you went to the bathroom on the Enterprise, but I decided to leave that one off.
That’s too bad because I’m trying to figure that out too.
Surely you don’t hold it the whole time.
Well you take the right pill.
As a child, did you have any premonitions whatsoever about landing such a legendary role in Star Trek?
We could also ask that question about Star Trek itself as a predictor of future technology.
No, no premonition. It was of interest years later to look back on how all this came about, and it seems to be that as an actor who was trained for the classics and did a lot of Shakespeare and then carried that classical tradition with me for the longest time, and then, the year before Star Trek, I did something on film about Alexander the Great and learned a great deal about him and his choices and there’s a way I had of playing him, I think, that struck a chord for me and what I had learned all this time in my past.
So the following year, when Star Trek came about, I carried all of these elements with me into playing the part.
As for premonitions about the technology, no. I have no idea on a personal level what’s to come in the near future. Except, now, talking to these scientists, I’m awash with wonder at the potential of things to come.
Howdy William. I really dug the section I read from your upcoming non-fiction “Star Trek: I’m Working on That” which was posted on MSNBC. I am just waiting for Priceline.com to let me name my own price for it, and it will be mine... Question: What was your favorite part of the research for the book? Any part of the technology that astounded you more than others?
Were you standing on the bridge saying to yourself, “I should find out if any of this is really possible.”
No, I never really did that. To me it was all fictional 35 years ago. Now that I’ve talked to people, theoretically everything is possible.
As for the things that amazed me the most, everything amazed me. Any of those subjects that I touched, my jaw dropped when I learned the extent of the information we have and the things we’ve discovered and the mystery that lies beyond it.
Take a subject, take the human genome project. Millions of genetic codes and all of them suggesting that nature works in a very predictable fashion and yet unfathomable. An incredible percentage of our genetic structure doesn’t do anything, it’s dead. But what it is is history. It indicates that as we evolved we went up many blind alleys and then stopped. And then went back and continued to find the most efficient way of living -the niche with which we fitted. And the amazing part of it is how closely we resemble every other living thing.
The genetic structure of every living thing is more closely allied than it is not, and as go you further up the complex structure, you get closer and closer to the same genetic structure as human beings. It’s the most amazing scientific facts that are coming to light.
And on top of that, the essential simplicity of the way things work.
Bill, I just wanted to ask, since you’ve voiced so much interest in genetics whether that’s something you might like to work into future books. Is that something that you think will play more of a part in your science fiction?
Yes, it is an area that we now in this culture are just beginning to divine the secrets of and the potential for good and evil that lie in front of us.
The potential for curing diseases, the potential for increasing our abilities (which has great danger in it in that who would control those increases and what kind of increases in our potential?)
It is rife with possibilities both scientific and fictional.
One other question, toward the latter part of your book you spend a lot of time talking about cryonics and the idea of preserving people whether it’s Khan or Ray Kurzweil for future generations. Is that something you’re personally considering? What do you think about having that done to yourself?
I don’t think that it can be done now. It can’t be done now. I’m not sure about the future of preserving -about stopping us from dying. I base that on the observation, from talking with people obviously, that all things live and die. In the grandeur of the skies, with galaxies living and dying, as well as stars and then coming down to the minutia of viruses, all living and dying. Everything has a cycle. What is interesting also is that that cycle continues after death in that the material that was used to create that which died is also the very material that is there for re-creation in some way.
It is there that I believe eternity lies, that the stardust material comes back and regenerates over the eons.
On this subject, probably the msot asked question on the list was about the resurection of Captian Kirk for future movies can you give us any insight on that?
Sufficient time has passed I think, that it seems obvious that the people at Paramount are content with the way the next generation is going, the potential fo the new series, Enterprise, and its possibilities.
I think the old cast is just that. We’ve gotten past the age of where people might want to see us. I would love to think that it would be possible to come back in some form, some way, and bring an element of wisdom perhaps, of experience, that these characters have, and that I’ve been writing about in these books about Captain Kirk.
The essence of the nine books that I’ve written in conjunction with Gar and Judy Reeves-Stevens reflect the passages of my life and some of the personal tragedies and the evolution from those tragedies in my life, I”ve foisted upon the captain kirk character. And as a result, the experiences I’ve had and lived through and come through and where I might say a word or two based on my experience that might apply to somebody else’s life or might not, I have Captain Kirk doing the same thing.
So perhaps it would have been possible to have brought Kirk and Spock back in some elderstateman way, but it doesn’t seem likely.
Mr. Shatner, do you believe Science provides grist for Hollywood movies, or does Hollywood stimulate Science through tv/movies?
Well that’s a very good question. I think it’s a two way street. I think it’s symbiotic for both fact and fiction. And the proof of that is innumerable scientists that I interviewed said that they were stimulated, their curiosity, their imagination, their desire to find out, was stimulated by their early look at Star Trek -and in the cases of the guys I interviewed, they were talking about he verision of Star Trek I was in.
And from that they said, ‘Well, how could I make a ….” And then they would point at what it is they were working on and say that it was as a result of Star Trek that stimulated my ideas to research this or that.
By the same token, a lot of science fiction is written taking some laboratory ideal and projecting that to as far as the writer can imagine so that something in science provides the fodder for a fictional science.
On the question list, may wrote in who had met you before, including scientists...
Whatever happened to the movie you were working on at the Biosphere facility just outside of Tucson Arizona a couple years ago. There weren’t any tables available in the main dining room so we “had” to eat in the back room with the crew. You stopped by our table to say hi and we were thrilled......
What a remarkable coincidence. The movie we were shooting there is called “Groom Lake.” It’s a movie… I wrote the story, helped write the screen play, directed, and even found myself acting in it. And my wife, performing sort of associate producer work on it. It’s a very personal film. And that film is finished and in the hands of the people who are going to sell it.
So very soon you’ll find it at your nearby video store, and look for it on pay television or on a network show. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to be sold, but the companies that wanted to represent it are not representing it. So the final act of making a film -the first act being conceiving the idea, the second act being making it, the third act, equally important or even more so, is the act of selling it. And that’s been completed. So the movie now it on its own and going out there very soon. We’d appreciate your feedback when you do see it.
Something that that question made me wonder in terms of you talking to these scientists for your book, personally how did you react to the realization and when that realization come, that you had influenced all of these great minds?
Well, I was awestruck and found it hard to believe. In fact, in the beginning when I started out and people would say “oh we’re so glad to meet you, you’ve changed my life” or “the show changed my life” I thought they were kidding. Then when I began to hear it a sufficient number of times… now, it’s true I have heard that statement made over the years and accepted it, but I never thought that a world class scientist would still carry that childhood fantasy. And yet, lives were changed by Star Trek and I found it very hard to believe it and to accept it that something I had worked on some many years ago as a piece of entertainment had changed lives, but apparently it did.
If you knew then (at the time you were starring in the TV show) what you know now, would you do anything differently with respect to how you portrayed Captain Kirk?
No, because I think if I brought anything to Star Trek, the first pilot had been made and didn’t sell. And when Gene Roddenberry showed me the pilot with his desire to have me take over the leading role, I think the one thing I might have brought to Star Trek, in conversations with Gene when we redid the concept and in my playing of the part was a sense of, “This isn’t brain surgery, this isn’t as pedantic as it seemed to me to be in the first pilot. This is work-a-day men doing their job.” So I think any sense of self importance that a realization that this is changing people lives would have carried would have influenced me badly. I’m glad I didn’t think of that and I tried to play it with humor.
There are a fair number of questions on the list with little “gotchas” and inconsistencies.
I believe that traveling the speed of light is possible.however thre are three problems 1.the time it takes to speed up to light and slow down. 2.if your hit a small space rock at the speed of light. 3.and enough air and food for the trip.
Hi Bill, Here’s a question that you may never have been asked... If the Enterprise’s transporter can pick up a totally new object or person from ‘on’ a planet that the Enterprise visits, then WHY IN THE WORLD do people and objects on the ship (itself) need to go into the transporter room to be ‘beamed’ down??? It seems to me that this is a major flaw in the logic of the ‘technology’.
How much did you or the cast influence the script...
It’s not influencing, it’s the fact that all of these listeners are right. That there are inconsistencies, probably more so in our show than in any other show (although I don’t know that for a fact) because it was done with such haste and with so little money. We were in a position of getting the network ordering the show late in the pickup season so that once they said “ok, make 22 of them or 24 episodes,” then everybody had to scramble to find the writers, get the stories, write the scripts, built the sets, and shove the pages into the actors’ hands and say, “Now go act.”
And frequently we didn’t have the scripts until that very day, which would mean that the production people didn’t have them for very long, and it would result in inconsistencies both in writing and production and in acting. And the only thing that you could do in that case in production is grit your teeth and get through it, and in watching, be a little more forgiving than in some hundred million dollar film where they have plenty of time to look things over and reshoot that which is inconsistent.
Bill, one of the questioners asked what you thought of the film “Galaxy Quest” where the kind of made fun of that whole Star Trek convetion.
Right, I thought it was wonderful fun. I enjoyed it tremendously and laughed long and hard.
Your new book brings up the importance of reasonably accurate science in the sci-fi genre. I know that Hollywood uses many technical consultants on their projects - my question is: How are these consultants chosen, are they employed full time by the studios (or production teams), and how much influence do they have in the final product be it novel, film or television?
Let me answer the last question first. Chip Walter who was my co-writer on this, is a science writer. And when I had the idea and then chose him to accompany me, it was a list that he helped draw up of the leading people in the areas that he and I agreed on that we should go after, it was his list of well known scientists.
The people I interviewed are well known in their field and anybody with any knowledge would recognize their names. I, of course, wouldn’t have known them and Chip did.
As for the technical consultants, it’s a very strange amalgamation of thought and deed when you hire a science expert (I don’t know whether he’d be a scientist but he’d certainly be an expert in that particular field) in a science fiction film. Because everything has to bend to the story. So if the technical advisor says, “Well, I don’t know whether that’s possible,” then the director might say, “Well, do you think it might be? Is there a sliver of a chance?” And the advisor would have to say, “Well, yes, I suppose there is a one in a million chance.” And that’s all you need, a one in a million chance. Fine, I’ll take that chance. Let’s go with that way of solving the plot.
So it’s a bit of a fabrication to have a technical advisor on the set or in the writing to give you scientific advise. What they might be able to do is suggest to designers, “Well, if you build a space ship like this, it’s most likely to have that because they need to do this.” And therefore the designer might make an interesting shape out of a technical necessity.
In addition to being technologically inspirational or influential, Star Trek was socially influential. A few people wrote in about you kissing Uhura as being the first interracial kiss. And even just recently I was, believe it or not, fighting with someone in the chat room about whether U.S. policy in Afghanistan was violating the Prime Directive.
Would you ever consider doing a social/political follow-up to “I’m Working On That?”
Yes, that’s a very perceptive comment. Social, religious, personality types, the theme of “I’m Working On That,” which is essentially what the work-in-progress is at this point in time as against what was suggested 300 years from now in Star Trek, that theme lends itself to go in a variety of ways, which I would like to do. And if “I’m Working On That” is successful enough, Simon and Schuster might let me.
And it would be a very interesting pilgrimage to make to see based on what Star Trek suggested, in for example, the non-interference directive, where that would take us in real life, and talk to a variety of people who make American policy and whether that thought of non-interference has ever occurred to them and if so what they would have done about it.
As for present day interference with governments, it would seem that that is a necessity and it certainly resonates, the Iraqi situation, it resonates with many stories in Star Trek.
I’m saddened to see we’re coming close to the end of our time alotment. Generally I like to end these with cosing comments either on this book or something we missed that we absolutely should cover before we have to let you go, or future stuff...
Well, there’s a lot of questions, and this is a Pandora’s Box. I had to be highly selective of the areas that I went into and the level at which I wnet into them because they are so complex and they are so vastly interesting, you could do a book on one of the subjects, or ten books. The curiosity is limitless, and the explanations are unending. But in some small way, “I’m Working On That” is an attempt to explain some of the more obvious workings in simpler terms so that most of us could understand it. And that’s what I attempted to do with “I’m Working On That.”
As for “Captain’s Peril,” as a piece of entertainment I think it’s really fun, and it might make you read some of the Captain Kirk books that I’ve written in the past and I’ve got two more to do, at least under present contract, and they’ve got wonderful themes as well, and I think you’ll enjoy those as well.
Thanks very much for taking this time with us. And thank you very much for this book because I completely failed at Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time” and I felt like a complete mucklehead.....
Well, I got about a quarter of the way through it and failed myself.
Well this is more my speed and maybe even after looking at this I can take another shot at his book.
It might be, and I’m going to do the same thing, I’ve made that mental note some time ago. Thank you so much for having me, I’m looking forward to another visit with you.
Thank you, bye bye.
Check out Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log for an excerpt of the book and more.
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