Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stark Trek, 50 years

When I was a child, I first learned about Star Trek when I saw the first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was on national TV, dubbed into Spanish and with ads all in between. I became a fan immediately. But more than the special effects, the spacecrafts and the aliens, the adventures of humans in space planted in my mind a romantic and powerfully attractive idea, which is best expressed in these words: "to boldly go were no one has gone before". Maybe because of that, in part, I decided to become a scientist.

The classic dichotomy about the stories in space is brought out when people ask: Star Trek or Star Wars? I always go with the first. The second is no more than a TV soap in space. What really makes a difference is that Star Trek is not about of the happenings in a galaxy far, far away; on the contrary, it is about us in the future. Certainly a fictional future, one which serves as a playground to explore the problems of the human nature in a different context.

It is very unlikely that three hundred years from now we have the ability to travel in spaceships faster than the speed of light and that we find humanoid species answering in English to our questions. However, the extrapolation of the present conflicts to metaphorical situations has always been exquisite. For instance: Must a superior civilization interfere with a less advance one? Change civilization by country and we find ourselves talking about actual political conflicts.

Beyond semi-political situations, my favorite episodes were those in which the unknown presented some riddle based on the nature of the universe. How to forget that episode where a propulsion experiment went wrong and starship Enterprise goes all the way to the border of the universe (whatever that means), where thought and reality got intermixed. How was it possible to travel so far in so little time? Was it possible that the structure of space and time had secrets still waiting for us to unravel? In that moment I wanted to be able to absorb everything physics could possibly say about the topic. To that episode belongs one of the most beautiful images that I can remember: the Enterprise in the galaxy M33.

That was one of the first episodes of the "Next Generation" that were broadcasted on national TV in the year 1990. It was exactly the same year in which the Hubble space telescope was launched into space. What that means is that all those wonderful photos of galaxies and nebulae taken by the Hubble and found all over the internet nowadays, still didn't exist. I even remember very well that in an effort to preserve the memory of that image of the Enterprise in M33, I recorded the episode in a VHS cassette and took a photo of the TV screen. It was with a photographic film camera. Digital cameras where still years ahead in the future.

How to forget also that time in which the crew is put to the test by the omnipotent Q, who sees humans as savages. The response of captain Picard was a quote by Shakespeare, exposing the high qualities of mankind against its barbarism:

What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason? How infinite in faculty, in form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel; in apprehension, how like a god...

Years later, that quote was my inspiration to read Hamlet.

I could go further mentioning more episodes that left something in me. At the end of the day, I can summarize it saying that Star Trek is the future dreamed by humanity. A future where there is no hunger, no war and money is no longer a problem, technology is used to solve the problems and to foster exploration of space: the final frontier.

I quote the words of captain Kirk in the sixth of the movies, which was the last one with the original crew. Here we see a depiction of the harsh sentence brought onto mankind by the temporality of life and the certainty that the things we have started will be carried on by the generations to follow:

This is the final cruise of the starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man – where no one – has gone before.

On September 9th, Star Trek turned 50 years. I couldn't miss the opportunity to join the celebration of a TV show and several movies that project the longing of a better future. A future that accentuates the profound curiosity of mankind, a quality that has always given us the best of science and art, in the continuous search for understanding ourselves and the universe in which we live.