Geologic Column: Lessons from the final frontier

by Lisa A. Rossbacher
Thursday, February 2, 2012

Somewhere, out there, beyond the stars Arcturus and Pollux, the TV signals from the final season of the original “Star Trek” are radiating outward. The series has been a teaching tool for a generation, and the programs offer multiple lessons for earth scientists.

Lesson 1: Life

One of the challenges of space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life is the human assumption that all life is carbon based and therefore has some similarities to us. “Star Trek” introduced the concept that life could evolve in other ways and be based on other chemical structures, such as silicon. The “Star Trek” episode “The Devil in the Dark” aired in 1967, the first season of the new series, and it introduced the Horta, a silica-based life form. Many carbon-based life forms — including William Shatner — consider it one of the very best shows.

The short answer to the question of whether silicon-based life could evolve is “probably not,” but the idea remains a valuable teaching tool for emphasizing our human-centric assumptions that all life must be like what has evolved on Earth. The Horta offer a message about preconceptions, discrimination, fear of the “other,” and carbon chauvinism.

Lesson 2: Exploration

The series' Prime Directive for space exploration states that exploration cannot interfere with the development of other civilizations. This, too, is relevant to geological studies. Fieldwork should not interfere with any biota in the area — civilized or otherwise. Practically speaking, this means not disturbing wildlife, bothering the livestock or offending the local residents.

Lesson 3: Good record keeping

The Captain’s Log provides the narrative in “Star Trek,” and it is a model that any geologist could follow successfully. Regular documentation of time, date, location and current observations is a key to good record keeping, whether investigating questions on Earth or exploring strange new worlds.

Lesson 4: Hazards of fieldwork

Fieldwork on “Star Trek” was often hazardous. Being assigned to a landing party was particularly dangerous duty. Security officers and geologists were often the first to land on an unknown planetary surface, and often became the victims of radiation and attacks from strange plants, animals and aliens, both beautiful and ugly. The frequency with which the red-shirted security officers on “Star Trek” died after arriving on the surface led to the concept of a “red shirt” — a minor character who is killed soon after being introduced. (This was satirized in the 1999 movie “Galaxy Quest,” a parody of “Star Trek” and similar science fiction films, in which a minor character spent most of the film worrying about imminent death because he, too, wore a red shirt.) This concept also led to wise advice: “Never beam down wearing a red shirt.” Geological fieldwork on Earth isn’t usually as hazardous, but caution in new terrain is always a good idea — and hopefully wearing a red shirt here won’t get you killed.

Lesson 5: Differences “out there”

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that “Star Trek” made to geology was introducing the concept of a wide range of planetary bodies, with different origins, histories, characteristics and, almost always, civilizations. The United Federation of Planets included about 150 members in 2373. For dramatic, rather than scientific, reasons, nearly every one of the planets had life and environmental conditions that were reasonably comfortable for humans, but otherwise the variety of these planets was remarkable.

Taurus II’s rocky surface was covered with fog. Rigel 12 had constant dust storms. Janus VI had living, sentient rocks. Minara II was dry and craggy. Alpha 177 had temperatures down to minus 85 degrees Celsius. Sigma Iotia II was convincingly Earth-like. Beta III was controlled by computers. Gamma Trianguli VI had exploding multicolored rocks, a constant planetwide temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, and random lightning striking the ground from a red, cloudless sky. Ariannus had a seriously polluted atmosphere. Eden had acidic vegetation. The mineral zenite on Ardana emitted poisonous gas. “Star Trek” planets also underwent climatic change; Sarpeidon experienced an “ice age” 5,000 years ago, and Exo III was remarkably Earth-like until the star it orbited began cooling about 500,000 years ago.

Vulcan, Spock’s home planet, was understood in more detail than many of the planets. It had higher gravity and a thinner atmosphere than Earth; the surface included mountain ranges, large deserts and extreme storms. And Vulcan had a unique geomorphic process: “sand fire storms” combining strong winds, blinding sand and electrical discharges in events that could last for days.

In addition to emphasizing the variety of planets, “Star Trek” also emphasized the sense of scale for our own planet and our individuality. In the episode “Balance of Terror,” Dr. McCoy stated, “In this galaxy there’s a mathematical probability of 3 million Earth-type planets. And in the universe, 3 million million galaxies like this. And in all that, and perhaps more … only one of each of us.”

Remember the lessons of “Star Trek.” And: Live long and prosper.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.