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last word the last word
Beam Me Up
Life as Star Trek
Are we boldly going where someone has gone before?

In 1966 when “Star Trek” made its TV debut, our imaginations were tickled by exciting new concepts in technology, like traveling at warp speed, and a computer that contained the sum total of galactic knowledge. Mr. Spock could ask “Computer, identify all of the M-class planets in the Delta Quadrant,” and before you could say “Holy Warp Speed, Scotty” the computer gave the answer. The Enterprise crew had lots of other cool stuff, too. They had handheld, wireless “communicators.” They came to mutual understandings with alien cultures via a “universal translator.” And of course, Scotty beamed Kirk and Spock safely back to the Enterprise.

Two decades later, in “The Next Generation,” we learned more about the cool stuff. Electronic “personal access display devices,” or “PADDs” made for a paperless starship. Replicators materialized food from abundant, generic “matter.” There were also encounters with the Borg, a juggernaut of a cybernetic collective consciousness that prowled space assimilating other species with the mantra, “Resistance is futile.”

In 1966, “Star Trek” seemed to be purely science fiction. Like most of America, I was only dimly aware that computers even existed. I didn’t have a personal encounter with a desktop computer until the mid-80s. And in pre-Internet 1987, research was done with books, in libraries.

Today, in doing the research for this piece, I asked my computer: “Google, tell me all about the technology of “Star Trek,” and I found 1.2 million links. Although still disorganized and a bit random, the universal database is actually in our sights. Think about how irritated we already become when information we want is not on the web. (And in case you’re interested, a Google search for “M-Class Planets” yielded 2,340 results in 0.14 seconds.)

I am constantly and thoroughly wowed by the speed of technology. We are, I believe, just moments away from “Star Trek.”

Now, 36 years after the first episode, everyone has a wireless handheld “communicator.” “Star Trek’s “PADDs” have become PDAs and Palm Pilots. We even have translation programs, and though far from universal and often hilarious, they are a step in the right direction.

And while we mercifully haven’t met the Borg, we are definitely becoming our own cyber-linked collective consciousness. On Thursday night, Seinfeld’s friend Elaine says, “Yadda, yadda, yadda.” On Friday morning at water coolers across America, it is on everyone’s lips. We already have an electronically enhanced, common frame of reference that connects us across nations.

Does life imitate art? Does science imitate science fiction? The answer is yes. No less an eminence than physicist Stephen Hawking calls it “a two-way trade between science and science fiction,” saying that “Today’s science fiction is often tomorrow’s science fact.”*

The creative imaginations of “Star Trek’s” writers fuel those of the scientists and inventors, and vice versa. The potent words “what if” stir a whirlwind of possibilities; the sparks of creative intelligence begin to fly, and one day “what if” emerges as cell phones, or warp drives, or the runner’s once “impossible” four-minute mile. If we are able to imagine something, to articulate it, then it becomes possible.

“Star Trek” is still on the air because its world is our world, just a little further along. So as we hover on the verge of a universal database, and dream about warp drive. I leave you with one more wonderful possibility. According to Star Trek, with the invention of the replicator in the 22nd century, both hunger and war vanished. And people from a united federation of planets boldly set off together to explore the next frontier.

* in Hawking’s forward to The Physics of Star Trek by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, he also notes that Einstein’s general theory of relativity does allow for the possibility of warping spacetime to achieve Star Trek-like space travel. “Although there are problems with negative energy, it seems that such warping might be within our capabilities in the future.”

Barbara Marshall is Associate Vice President of College Relations & Marketing.

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reporter contents :: albright college