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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Column: To boldly go

I love “Star Trek.” I love it so much. People, I love “Star Trek” so much that I even sat through most of the Scott Bakula ones just for the love of the Federation, and if you know “Star Trek” you understand how painful that was.

So clearly, I know a lot about most of the series (except the original series which is rarely worth watching, and GO AHEAD and send me hate mail because I don’t even care). You know what I know almost nothing about? Science.

So for this column, I thought I’d combine one of my great passions with one of my most appalling areas of ignorance. Ladies, gentlemen and others, I here present a few “Star Trek” inventions, the “science” behind them and a celebration of their awesomeness.

OK, let’s start with the most recognizable item to “Star Trek” noobs — the communicator. You totally already know what I’m talking about. It’s the thing that goes “boop-boop” when you flip it open and with which you talk to your fellow space adventurers.

Later in the series, communicators turned into this badge on your chest that you just tap and talk in to. They could reach any crew member and the ship’s main computer and even transmit through the cold vacuum of space. The tech behind it had something to do with wave frequencies and creating standing waves I think. Whatever.

But the coolest part about communicators is that if you set them to a special frequency, and turn them way up, the resulting sound waves could tear down solid objects. So rad!

Ready for something even cooler? Boom! Tractor beams! These actually show up in lots of space-opera-type TV shows and movies. They’re responsible for the iconic image of a spaceship picking up a car or cow with a beam of light. For example, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In “Star Trek,” they often use tractor beams to snag other ships and hold on to them, like a crazy laser vacuum cleaner.

And guess what. They’re a real thing now! Some wonderful nerds at MIT created “optical tweezers” that can pick up cells and things, just with the power of light. How can anything be that cool?!?

I know I said I’d stick to hard pseudo-science here, but I want to delve real quick into some social science as well, because this would be a poor article indeed if I didn’t talk about the Prime Directive. Have you ever taken an intro-level anthropology class? If you have, then you’ve probably talked about cultural relativity. This is the argument that it’s inappropriate to try to interpret and judge the practices of one group through the ideology of another.

In the world of “Star Trek” this gets taken to a whole other level. See, the “Star Trek” series are set in a universe where a group of planets and civilizations have banded together to essentially be the boss of the universe. The resulting Federation has given itself the task of sending spaceships all over the galaxy to do science (ugh), and to seek out new life and new civilizations (awesome).

But sometimes those new civilizations are not as technologically advanced as the Federation. Actually, sometimes the shows portray them as not as civilized either, which is usually just a result of the messed-up racist allegories the writers sometimes indulged in.

So a Federation ship comes upon this less advanced society, sneaks in disguised to collect data on the civilization and realizes that on this planet they do something totally abhorrent. What’s a crew to do? According to the Prime Directive, exactly nothing.

This vitally important rule states that unless the Federation is directly threatened (or you find an Omega molecule, but we’ll get into that another time) you absolutely do not interfere in another culture’s development. That means no flashing anachronistic technology, no interfering with repressive governments because they seem unfair and no getting freaky with green chicks and leaving behind half-human babies, Kirk.

Of course, every captain has bent the Prime Directive at one time or another, because you don’t get to be a Star Fleet captain by not being a stone-cold badass willing to break the rules for the greater good. Yet another reason why “Star Trek” is the awesomest thing ever.

And by the way, KATELYN HEMPSTEAD’s favorite captain is unequivocally Benjamin Sisko, and if you have a problem with that then by all means, come at me bro — via e-mail at khempstead@ucdavis.edu.


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