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‘Trek’ science shows its human side

Life ... the final frontier: These days, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its “Star Trek” casts are exploring future-tense analogues to the present-tense problems posed by human biology.
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Life ... the final frontier: These days, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its “Star Trek” casts are exploring science-fiction analogues of the science-fact problems posed by human biology. The TV show and the latest “Star Trek” movie, which opened Friday, delve into the frontiers of cloning, bioterror and a 22nd-century disease with echoes of AIDS.

WHEN IT COMES to “Trek” technology, most people think of warp drives, transporters and phaser beams. But these days, the people behind the long-running science-fiction franchise are equally intrigued by molecular biology and genetics.

“Those are fascinating fields of research,” said Andre Bormanis, who is the story editor for the TV series “Enterprise” and has served as science consultant for earlier “Star Trek” movies and TV shows.

On “Star Trek: Voyager,” for example, one episode played off the theory that mitochondrial DNA was incorporated into living cells as the result of one ancient organism gobbling up another. “We’re probably the only dramatic show on television that put the word ‘symbiogenesis’ into dialogue,” Bormanis joked.

In the new movie, “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the plot revolves around the idea that Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s DNA was used to spawn an evil clone.

“That’s an important element in the film — the question of to what extent does a human clone evolve and behave like the person he or she was cloned from,” he said. “How much is nature, how much is nurture. It’s an old question, but it has a new urgency today because we’re on the verge of human cloning.”

“Nemesis” also features a superweapon against which there is seemingly no defense — a Thalaron radiation device that kills living organisms while leaving buildings intact.

“That obviously has some resonance in the modern world,” Bormanis said.

And on an episode of “Enterprise” airing next February, it will turn out that T’Pol, the ship’s sexy Vulcan science officer, may have contracted an HIV-like syndrome as the result of a mind meld — an activity that’s frowned upon in the 22nd century, the era in which the show is set.

“It is something that can carry a very serious social stigma on Vulcan ... and T’Pol faces discrimination because she has to reveal that she’s experienced a mind meld,” Bormanis explained.


Only the most wigged-out fan would take the 10 “Star Trek” movies or the hundreds of TV episodes as a reliable guide to the future of medicine, genetics, physics or any other scientific field. Nevertheless, fans love to debate the plausibility of “Trek” tech: Could a mini-black hole serve as the guts of a Romulan cloaking device? (Probably not.) Would a human clone look exactly like the original? (Again, probably not.)

When it comes to the television show, it’s up to Bormanis to make sure the science makes sense — or at least doesn’t make nonsense. “We can be forgiven a little bit of dramatic license,” he said, “but I don’t think we should fall back on that as an excuse.”

Some of the standbys, such as the warp drive and the transporter, were developed by creator/producer Gene Roddenberry primarily to make it easier to shoot the show, classic “Trek” star William Shatner said in his recent book on the show’s technologies.


Bormanis tries to get the details right when he can — paying attention to the dynamics of a comet, the look of a nebula, the interaction of two orbiting pulsars. Bormanis, who has a B.S. in physics and an M.A. in science, technology and public policy, either figures out for himself what meshes with reality or finds the researcher who knows the field.

He recalled one “Next Generation” episode, written just before he became science consultant, in which a crew officer was injected with “75 ccs of inaprovaline.” Bormanis soon received a letter from a pharmacologist who noted that the dosage should have been listed in milligrams rather than cubic centimeters. Moreover, 75 ccs is a lot of liquid to shoot into a blood vessel, even if the patient is a Klingon.

Since then, Bormanis has checked every script for medical dosages.

“The writers kept writing ‘cc,’ and I kept saying, ‘milligrams, milligrams, milligrams,’” he said.

Sometimes what looks like a wrong turn in “Star Trek” science ends up leading closer to the truth: For example, one “Deep Space Nine” episode involved an analysis of neutrino spin to figure out that a casino operator was cheating. At the time, physicists didn’t think neutrinos could have multiple spin states — “but now scientists seem to have turned around on that question,” Bormanis said.


“Star Trek” has often been cited as providing inspiration for real-life researchers at places like NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Project. “I don’t think that group would exist if it weren’t for ‘Star Trek,’” Bormanis said.

But Marc Millis, the lead researcher at the Breakthrough Propulsion Project, says the sci-fi angle can be a double-edged sword. The effort is currently plugging along in “zero-funding limbo” and trying to find its footing as a privately funded consortium similar to the present-day SETI Institute, Mills said.

“Are things like ‘Star Trek’ helpful?” he said. “It’s helpful toward being an inspiration, definitely, but the other thing that happened is that it raised the expectations unreasonably high.”

Millis said he’s been bombarded with grand ideas that have little or no scientific weight behind them — many of which are detailed on the project’s Web site. Meanwhile, researchers have been chipping away at mysteries in fundamental physics such as gravity modification and vacuum energy.

But the job is by no means as easy as “Star Trek” makes it look, Millis said.

“When you get down to the gory details of what you need to do to make this happen, and then when you look at what ‘Star Trek’ is doing, it loses its charm,” he said.

In fact, one of the biggest “Trek” marvels might be something that moviegoers and TV viewers take for granted, he said.

“They obviously have synthetic gravity aboard the ship for the crew,” he said. “If you had the prowess to create that, you could put that outside the ship and use that for propulsion. When I looked at the impulse drive, and saw that they were basically using nuclear rockets, I cringed. Why are they still using propellant?”