‘Star Trek’ Is Right About Almost Everything
The epic series—celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—bases its science fiction on scientific fact.
By Jeremy Berlin
Resistance is futile.
For half a century now the Star Trek franchise has been winning new fans and inspiring real-world innovators. Over the course of 12 feature films (the 13th will be released next month) and six TV series—plus an ever-growing constellation of books, games, comics, magazines, and documentaries—it has boldly gone where no science fiction has gone before.
The secret to its success, says Andrew Fazekas, is its allegiance to science fact. Fazekas—a National Geographic writer and astronomy blogger known as the Night Sky Guy—is the author of a new book on the series’ reality-based astronomy and prescient technology. In Star Trek: The Official Guide to our Universe, he explains that unlike most sci-fi, the franchise has always rooted the innate human urge to explore in plausible science, providing “a hopeful pathway to a possible human future that’s not too distant.”
With Star Trek celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, National Geographic recently spoke with Fazekas about the real science and enduring appeal of the series.
You’re a science writer, amateur astronomer, and lifelong fan of Star Trek. This book, you say, represents a sort of Vulcan mind-meld of those passions. Tell me a bit about how and why it came together.
I’ve been an amateur astronomer—a backyard stargazer—since I was 10 years old. At the same time, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan. So I knew that I wanted to mix these two very different worlds together. But I wasn’t sure how.
Then I began to realize that in Star Trek, most of the astronomical objects and destinations have real-life counterparts. Watching the TV shows and movies, you hear names like Andromeda galaxy and Alpha Centauri—real things I’ve come across in my own travels across the night sky.
I soon began to find many instances where I could reference the series in terms of an astronomical object. Like, if I would show someone a supernova through my telescope, I could quote the Star Trek episode in which it appeared. And I could say, “Remember in ‘All Our Yesterdays’ when the Enterprise had to rush away because the impending explosion of the star would destroy the planet?”
About 10 years ago, I began to make a casual list of all the astronomical objects that have appeared in Star Trek. And as I went through the episodes, I saw, again and again, that the writers were always talking about real-life stuff. They were always taking real science seriously.
Tell me about your methodology. I imagine it involved a lot of research and collaboration with scientists. How did you decide what to focus on and explicate?
Star Trek is a fire hose of information and trivia. It’s overwhelming. So I decided that I needed to focus on a few things. Coming from an astronomy-education background, I knew I needed to make it easy for the reader. To make it something that they’d be familiar with: a guidebook about the night sky.
So we’d start off with things in the solar system. Then we’d move on to planets outside the solar system—the exoplanets. Then I’d explain the stars—where they’re born, how they live, where they die. And finally I’d get to the grandest structures of the galaxy.
The cornerstone of this book is looking at the destinations and the true science of Star Trek. Scores of today’s scientists and engineers and physicists—as well as mathematicians, chemists, even astronauts—were inspired as children by Star Trek to pursue these fields professionally. The show captured their imaginations.
And that’s what’s so cool about Star Trek. I mean, I’m not dissing Star Wars—I like that too—but I find it to be much more fantasy-based. I liken Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings. Star Trek is more of a realistic vision.
What were the biggest surprises you encountered in the course of writing this book?
One thing is just how accurate the science really is, throughout all the different incarnations. The foundation that Star Trek is built on is scientifically sturdy. You can tell that the writers and producers took the time to get the science right.
They did that by involving real scientific consultants, whose professional opinions were incorporated into the plotlines, the filming of the scenes. And over the decades—as our technology has gotten better, as we’ve pushed the boundaries of exploration, as we’ve learned more about our universe—new knowledge has made its way into Star Trek plots and story lines.
Nowadays the canvas that all these adventures play out on is almost hyperreal. With the computer simulations we have these days, Hollywood has the ability to re-create any kind of object in space, based on whatever knowledge we have, and give us the ringside seats to the cosmos that all we space geeks wish we had.
In an episode of the original TV series, crew members find themselves encircled by a force field at the O.K. Corral. Since it first aired 50 years ago, Star Trek has relied heavily on input from actual scientists, including physicists, astrophysicists, mathematicians, and chemists.
For instance, let’s say the Enterprise is hiding out in a nebula. Well, as earthbound stargazers we’re never going to be able to see what it would be like. We have only an outside view of these beautiful, colorful star clusters. But Hollywood can now place us within that nebula. And it’s based on computer simulations that real scientists are using to understand what these clouds are, how they form, how they evolve. It’s amazing! It’s like you’re there.
Of course, there has to be artistic license taken. The whole idea of warp drive or teleportation—those were plot devices that were included by [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry. He came up with those devices 50 years ago, to move the storyline along. You can’t have your characters taking 300 or 400 years to get to one star system.
The technology in Star Trek has often proved prescient in terms of real-world innovations. Specifically, what are some of those things?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that device that they called the PADD (Personal Access Display Device). It had no keypad; you just used your finger. Today we call it an iPad, or a tablet. Really eerie. The dream has come true! Life is imitating art.
Of course, it’s not a coincidence that an iPad and a smartphone and wrist-worn medical devices look like they do. They harken back to what we saw in Star Trek in 1966.
Then there’s voice recognition—talking to your device. It reminds me of a scene in Star Trek IV—the one with the whales—where Scotty goes to this engineering firm, and wants to talk to the computer. So he goes, “Hello, computer.” Then Bones says to him, “You’re supposed to use the mouse!” And Scotty says, “Oh, how quaint.” And then he speaks into the mouse.
Scores of today’s scientists and engineers and physicists—as well as mathematicians, chemists, even astronauts—were inspired as children by Star Trek to pursue these fields professionally.
Andrew Fazekas | author, Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe
We’re already there. We can dictate. We have voice recognition. We can type a letter or an email without even touching a keyboard now.
In the first Star Trek series, they had a quadriplegic character sitting in a big, burly machine. All you saw was his head. And he could communicate only by using this flashing light—two flashes for yes, one flash for no.
Look what we have now. Stephen Hawking is able to communicate through his computer. He can speak full sentences. He can write books! It’s not just a flashing light. So technology there has far surpassed Star Trek. And that’s supposed to be 300 years in the future! We’ve gone much farther, much faster than they envisioned back in 1966.
Conversely, which visions of the future haven’t come to pass? Are there any things—in terms of astronomy, technology, or general science—that Star Trek has really gotten wrong?
The biggie is warp drive. That may very well remain science fiction. It depends on which scientists you talk to. But right now there are scientists doing experiments in the laboratory, on very small scales, to see if this is something we might one day be able to do. Equations exist that show that this might be possible.
Still, warp drive may very well never materialize. The same thing with teleportation. Quantum teleportation—moving a particle from one system to another—does exist. And one day we may, perhaps, be able to move inanimate objects. But teleporting humans—I mean, would we ever really want to do that? You would have to literally deconstruct a living being onto a molecular level, then reconstruct it. Its DNA would be pulled apart.
I was recently asked: Are we molding our future the way we are because we’re trying to mirror and mimic Star Trek? Or is it just happening on its own? I think it’s the former. We’re being influenced by this very popular science-fiction franchise.
I think one of the things that distinguishes Star Trek from other sci-fi is its philosophical bent—its thoughtful consideration of life, the universe, and everything. Do you think that approach is the reason why it has endured and thrived for so long, finding new audiences across half a century?
There’s definitely something there for everyone, for different kinds of fans and generations. And that thoughtfulness you mention is what touches so many people. Even folks who aren’t science geeks, per se. They like the message that Star Trek has of a hopeful future for humankind. That we’ve passed through these petty problems and difficulties we have now amongst nations and cultures and races. In the Star Trek future of humankind, we’ve gone beyond all that.
Also, this yearning and passion for exploring the unknown—for pushing the frontier. I think that’s very deeply rooted in the DNA of humans. The desire to go where no one has gone before. North America would not have been explored if we didn’t push beyond the European continent. In Star Trek, the stage is not one continent or planet; it’s the entire Milky Way galaxy—and beyond.
On an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew modifies a photon torpedo, which they'll use to mine a nebula for subatomic particles known as vertions. The astronomical objects we see in Star Trek often overlap with those in our own universe.
These are the things that really speak to people. And I think what also captures their attention, through all the incarnations of Star Trek, is how the series has always incorporated social issues of the times. The civil rights movement, for instance, was very big in the original series. Remember that iconic kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk? That made a lot of waves at the time. It was one of the first interracial kisses on TV.
William Shatner wrote the foreword to this book. Did you meet him or any other Star Trek stars during your research? Were you ever, um, starstruck?
I knew right from the start that I wanted to have Shatner involved—to have him launch the book from the beginning and introduce it. Because it’s a grand, sweeping cosmic adventure that’s very much like the stories that take place in Star Trek. And who better than Captain Kirk to set the scene?
So I begged my editors: “Please get Shatner! If we need to, appeal to his roots and let him know that the author is also from Montreal, and that we went to the same university.” It seemed to work. They made it happen, the stars aligned, and Shatner was part of the book.
You can see from the intro that he wrote that he’s very much into science and science fiction. And you can tell that he wrote it. I’m very keen to thank him personally.
But no—unfortunately I haven’t yet met anyone from Star Trek in person. I’m hoping to rectify that during my book tour. I’ll have opportunities to meet up with most of the cast members of the different series at the major Star Trek convention in New York—the grand 50th anniversary gala—in early September. My dream is to have the cast members all sign my book.
Star clusters like these are perfect laboratories for examining the evolutionary path of stars. But while earthbound astronomers can only observe them from afar, Starfleet crews get to conduct their studies up close.
What effect do you want this book to have on readers? What’s the desired takeaway?
As an astronomy educator and communicator, I hope that people who aren’t familiar with the night sky but love Star Trek will take this book and understand what they’ve actually seen—the true science behind an exploding supernova, for instance.
The sky is a natural resource that we’ve really become disconnected from. People sit at their computers, in front of their devices. And that part of the future that Star Trek has shown us is coming true. But it’s detached us from nature—from the grandness of nature that is the night sky above us. And that’s the canvas that Star Trek plays out on: the heavens above.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.