Star Trek tests technological frontier
ABC Science Online
Star Trek heralded real developments in science and drew on the great classical myths, an Australian researcher says.
Dr Djoymi Baker, a self-confessed Trekkie from the University of Melbourne, watched more than 700 episodes of the cult TV series as part of her PhD.
Baker, an expert in media and popular culture, says scientists often dismiss science fiction for getting it wrong.
But she says it can foreshadow or even influence developments in science, adding that more members of the public watch science fiction than "science factual".
"Because it's gone on for so many decades [Star Trek has] had a big impact on what people think about space and what might be possible in the future," she says.
"A lot of NASA astronauts cite it as their inspiration; scientists have cited it as their inspiration for new technology."
For example, NASA's first shuttle of 1977 was named Enterprise after a campaign by Star Trek fans.
The Star Trek influence can also be seen in new 'spray on' drug delivery technologies, the computer chip and even the flip-top mobile phone and automatic doors, she says.
And after the catchphrase "beam me up Scotty", scientists have started to experiment with dematerialising and rematerialising helium, and 'cloning' laser beams.
"They can't beam you up yet but they're starting to do experiments along those lines," Baker says.
While Star Trek described life in the future, it also had what is now regarded as a quaint pre-Copernican tendency to place humans at the centre of the universe, she says.
Back to the future
Baker says Star Trek still holds a huge fascination even as space authorities like NASA fight for funds, recognition and good publicity.
"Scientists often don't like science fiction because it can get it wrong, but on the other hand it can be very inspirational," she says.
"NASA might be struggling [but] on the other hand we have science fiction which says we can achieve great things in space, not only in terms of exploration but in terms of what sort of race we want to be, and that's quite a powerful message."
Baker says Star Trek not only looks forward to the technological future, but harks back to the heroic past of ancient myths like Homer's Odyssey.
Not only do mythical figures like the Amazons, the god Apollo or the sirens of Homeric lore appear in space, but Star Trek contains the sweeping themes of intrepid adventure and bold exploration that lie at the heart of classical mythology.
"Mythology is a bit of a recurring theme in science fiction television shows," Baker says.
"Just as you might have met strange creatures in an ancient myth, instead you find strange creatures in outer space."
Shows like Star Trek were also an indirect offshoot from the great cinematic "sword and sandal" epics of the 1950s and 60s, she says.
"Mostly TV was constrained by much tighter budgets so it just couldn't do those types of spectacles," she says.
"So myth goes into other genres and one of the genres ... is science fiction.
"Instead of going into the ancient past, you fast forward into the future."