Thursday, October 19, 2006

Best Headline Ever

Today on Yahoo! News there is a headline that reads Scientists Create Cloak of Partial Invisibility, which is easily the coolest headline I've seen in some time. Now you might think the next line is "scientists have done no such thing," but in fact, in a sense they have. The article deals with a group of scientists at Duke University who have created a device that takes incoming microwaves, bends them around the object, and then reconstructs them on the other side. So to a hypothetical viewer who uses microwaves as his visible spectrum, the device would be more or less invisible. (I say "more or less" because there are some drawbacks: it only really works in direct line-of-sight for the time being, and the shadow is, of course, not completely eliminated.)

Reading this reminds me of the quantum teleportation achieved by Australian scientists a few years ago, and conversations we had about it in the teachers' room at the school I taught at in Seoul, South Korea. At that time, there were lots of us geeks working there - heavy on the Star Trek fans. So naturally the quantum teleportation brought up talk about whether transporters would ever be technically possible. (To be fair, the BBC article that broke the story to us - and is linked above - indulged in the same speculation.)

Now, I'm on record having very mixed feelings about Star Trek. I was an avid fan in junior high school - I won't deny it. Specifically I was into the original series - though Next Generation had only just come out and was taking its time becoming truly annoying. I enjoyed watching seasons 2 and 3 of TNG, but lost interest after that. In the meantime, I branched out into other series, and these days, when all is said and done, I absolutely despise Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which I never liked). I still actively like the original series and Voyager, though I can only take either in small doses anymore. (I never bothered watching an entire episode of Enterprise and don't really have any plans to remedy that.)

All that said, Star Trek is undeniably interesting as a cultural phenomenon. Something about it is really attractive to people: witness the fact that not only is it still around and going strong 40 years after it aired, but it spawns generations of truly annoying obsessees on a level that has no comparison. It's not like there aren't other TV shows, movies and novels that have cult followings, of course. But Star Trek seems to do a better job than the others at blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality for its victims. It's not just that you meet people who talk about Klingon as though it were a real language, or quote Starfleet regulations as though they applied to...well, anything, really... it's that you meet so many such people. No doubt there's a person holed away somewhere who thinks he's really seen the TARDIS materialize, or who think Star Wars really happened "a long time ago," but these people are rare. Trekkers, on the other hand, are just shy of ubiquitous. Which begs the question: what's up with this?

I don't really know, and I suspect there are PhDs written on this by people more informed than I - but my two cents on the matter is that there are two main explanations. The first is that Star Trek tickles some fairly universal wish-fulfillment centers. Lots of cult scifi programs don't exactly deal with universes you'd really, at the end of the day, want to live in. Star Trek does. Star Trek shows a universe with no material need or inequality, all the technogadgets you could ever hope for: a comfortable life. It's not really that far from the kinds of dreams that level-headed people have for their lives here in reality, when you think about it. Who doesn't want a job that pays well enough that he can accumulate enough money to just do what he wants? And of course, intelligence is the main virtue in the Star Trek universe, which is another, similar selling point. The trouble with heroes who are physically stronger and/or more agile than everyone else is that we've alredy been there. That's the alpha male law of the jungle - it's what we had before civilization, and to a certain extent it repeats itself on the playground in school. The trouble with physicality as overriding virtue is that there is a clear top dog, and everyone else is secondary. Intelligence is more subtle. There's no agreement on how to measure it, really, and it seems like such a complex phenomenon anyway that there's really nothing illogical about imaginging that there could be different kinds of intelligence. In any case, it allows for a division of labor. People who are smart at biology don't necessarily go head-to-head with those specialized in economics, etc. So it's every nerd's fantasy: no material wants, and therefore no need to compete and work unless you want to. And if you do want to, the contest isn't stacked against you from the start on account of the body you were born with. There won't be only one winner, so even if you "lose," it's not so bad, really. The second is that it takes great care to present itself as plausible. And in fact, this is the thing that originally started to annoy me about it: the much derided treknobabble. Star Trek writers find it absolutely impossible to (a) leave anything unexplained (from the point of view of the characters), (b) actually create tension. The 42nd minute of any episode is the fictional equivalent of call/cc. Things aren't going your way, so you just jump out of events by invoking some technobabble no one saw comming. It's all very "safe." It annoys me, and annoys many people - but it also has the (dubious) virtue of making Star Trek seem real to its fans. Whatever the natural alarm bells are that say "this is fantasy!" are, Star Trek has managed to turn most of them off. And the best guess as how is this veneer of scientific plausibility that it creates. It looks like a show that's committed to rational empiricism.

I don't really know of any other shows that are concerned with this to an even roughly comparable degree. Sure, you get standard pseudo-explanations for how various trappings of the universe work. We're told, for example, that the TARDIS' interior is out of dimensional phase with the exterior, which is how it's able to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. We're told that faster-than-light travel in the Babylon 5 universe is possible via entry into a hyperspace region. And. so. on. But no other show feels the need to try to convince you that absolutely bloody everything has some kind of grounding in physics that we in the 2000s are hypothetically only decades away from developing! Babylon 5 is just as happy to have things like "mysterious alien artifacts" and religious rituals that work, ESP, etc. And as for Doctor Who well...let's just say it's not at all shy about the unexplained and leave it at that. Even the fiercely military and retro-techno new Battlestar Series shows a religious miracle or two. No, it's really only Star Trek that has absolutely zero tolerance for the idea that "there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Which puts the show on a curiously Popperian footing, if you think about it. Any conclusive scientific proof that one gadget or another on the show were impossible would bring the whole thing crashing down.

Unfortunately, this latest achievement at Duke means that we can cross cloaking devices off that list. The technology is clearly possible, thanks to this microwave-bending thing. More's the pity. And the quantum teleportation in Australia? Well, that means we can look forward to decades of annoying Star Trek junkies insisting that transporters will someday be possible. In fact, the doubly annoying thing about each of these real-world discoveries is that, in addition to making the actual devices they correspond to on Star Trek seem plausible, the way they function is really not too far from how they were described on the show. The first time we see a cloaking device is in the original series episode Balance of Terror, in which Spock explains the newly-discovered Romulan device to Kirk by mentioning the "theoretical bending of light around an object," adding that Star Fleet experimented with it but "couldn't solve the power curve." And as for the transporter - we're told that a person's atoms are "broken down and scattered, reassembled elsewhere." That's not exactly what the scientists did in Australia (what they actually did was destroy the atoms in one place and reassemble them in another - so it's not "beaming" exactly) - but it's close enough for the fans I'm sure.

I can't actually find a link, but there was a "stand-up-n-cheer" article by J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) at one point talking about some of the annoying technology on Star Trek. I remember that, in particular, he'd singled out the universal translator as problematic (and I wholeheartedly agree with that). There was a line to the effect of "Universal translator? We don't have one." And so on.

Well, I guess I have my own opinions about these things too. I find the universal translator idea highly implausible myself. I'm willing to buy subspace radio, and I never had any problem with cloaking devices whatsoever. Warp drive is a little harder to swallow - but of course you can't think about that because without it the series simply wouldn't be possible. So I'm more willing to suspend my disbelief about that than about other things (though it would really, really, REALLY help if they would just not talk about it - not mention things like "stable warp fields" etc., which of course they do ad nauseam). Transporters, replicators and the holodeck, though, are things I just can't buy.

There's word on the internet that Straczynski is pushing Paramount to revive Star Trek with him at the helm. I would be 110% behind that. I've always though it was ironic that Straczynski spends most of his editorial time complaining about ST when Babylon 5 is so obviously similar. He's a fan at heart - but he knows what's wrong with the show and how to fix it. Babylon 5 is in many ways proof of that.

All the same, I think it would be better to just let it die off. I get that people don't want to let it end on as low a note as Enterprise - with people like Berman and Taylor having called the shots all the way down with the sinking ship. But enough is enough already. Star Trek was great for TV scifi when it came out. I do believe that there would be a lot less scifi on television had it never aired. It got too big for its britches, though - and for a time there in the 90s, everything was some kind of Star Trek clone or another. Time to let the more mystical side of scifi out of the bottle - return to shows like Space: 1999 and Doctor Who, which aren't plausible visions of any future and happily don't aim to be.

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