Trek Tech

Reporters use mega-movie release to explore innovations

I am not a Trekkie, despite my older brothers’ countless attempts to make me one. But the first time I saw a Bluetooth receiver, I just couldn’t help but think of Lieutenant Uhura and her iconic earpiece communicator.

With the release of the newest Star Trek movie, articles are pouring out of media outlets like Scientific American, U.S. News & World Report, the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsweek, examining how much modern technology has been influenced by the sci-fi juggernaut.

When Star Trek first premiered on NBC in 1966, earpiece communicators and needle-free hyposprays were just some of the quirky innovations developed for the futuristic series. “The fun in Star Trek didn’t come from copying science, but from having science copy it,” wrote Leonard Mlodinow, a former writer for the “Next Generation” series and former physics faculty member at CalTech, in the April 25 issue of Newsweek. “My job wasn’t to put real science into Star Trek, but to imagine new ideas that hadn’t yet been thought of.”

And, as several of the articles pointed out, many well-respected scientists and inventors have credited their innovations and influences to Star Trek’s forward-thinking technologies. WebTV founder Steve Perlman has been quoted as saying, “Episodes like ‘The Menagerie’ contemplated technology that could create an artificial reality. This was hugely inspiring to me, and it’s one of the things that drove me into exploring computer graphics, motion capture, audio perception.”

Throughout decades worth of television episodes and movies, the crew used a number of technologies—flat screen televisions, transporters , tractor beams, universal translators , non-invasive surgeries in the sickbay—that have real, modern day parallels. It was amazing stuff, and all the recent Trek-tech coverage amounts to an impressive record of just how influential science fiction can be.

But there are some Star Trek technologies that are still a bit too far-flung for modern science. According to Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek and a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth & Space Exploration (who was interviewed for nearly every article exploring Trek technology), transporters and time warping may be out of the question… for now.

“Gee-whiz” pop-science journalism is nothing new, of course. In the past two years, for instance, countless news outlets have treated their readers to stories about the quest to develop a Harry Potter-esque “invisibility cloak.” It’s certainly not the most consequential type of reporting, but some of it can be useful. Take, for example, numerous stories in recent years about the development of bionic prosthetics, which often couldn’t help but mention The Six Million Dollar Man.

Whatever the social relevance of the technology at hand, pop-science coverage usually piques the public’s interest in engineering and technology. Of course, it’s best when it has some grounding is practical application and doesn’t flirt too heavily with pure fantasy. Journalists can leave that part to Star Trek and watch where it goes.

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Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.