To Explore the Same Old New Worlds
“to go with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before… …veiled in cloud and crowned with unimagined stars”
H.P. Lovecraft, 1943
Star Trek is back, with a galaxy full of worlds, life and civilizations. Now, far be it from me to criticize the holy Trek, which formed so much of my space-bound world view. But sometimes I do wish the new worlds were a bit more strange.
Gene Roddenberry’s mid-60’s vision included a galaxy full of Earth-like planets. Now that the franchise has been reborn, with its original universe intact down to the futuristic mini-skirts, it’s interesting to see how it stacks up against our knowledge of the galaxy four decades after the Enterprise was launched into our living rooms and warped permanently into the public consciousness. Its no mystery why most Star Trek planets look like places within a day’s drive of Southern California. Yet we’ve now had more than 40 years of planet treks throughout our solar system. We’ve discovered that (as Roddenberry correctly assumed) our galaxy is full of planets, and only just begun to characterize their actual diversity.
What have we learned? Within our own solar system, the message seems to be “there’s no place like home.” The variety and strangeness of other worlds continues to surprise. That giant scorpion creature that chases Kirk on the Ice Planet of Hoth (yes, I know.) is pretty cool. But, forgetting for a moment about artistic license or Hollywood pragmatism, should we be bothered when he gets beamed to an unknown world where the gravity is normal, and where he doesn’t explode or fry or freeze or suffocate? What are the chances? Planetary exploration has brought home to us how alien other planets are. Kirk would not do well if he were beamed to any nearby planet other than Earth.
I do love Trek, but I also wonder if over the years the vision of so many Earths, more fantasy than science fiction, hasn’t contributed to widespread popular delusions about aliens that can just come down to Earth and walk among us, kidnap people, impregnate us and eat our cattle.
Now, in defense of Star Trek, once we learn about enough planets, despite all the inevitable diversity, there probably will be a class with liquid water and life. Out of deference to the Trek universe, we should perhaps call these “M Class” planets. There won’t be any lifeless M class planets – only a planet with a biosphere that chemically resembles ours in the way it interacts with its environment will have an Earth style atmosphere. The plant life on such planets uses oxygen in the atmosphere to store solar energy like a battery, and uses that energy to power animal life. These planets might even commonly have the same amount of oxygen as Earth, where plants, following the prime directive to go forth and multiply, have maxed out the O2 to just below the level where organic matter would spontaneously burn. Gee, now that I think about it, there may be plenty of worlds where Kirk, beamed at random, could in fact breathe the air.
When I started writing this column I was bothered by the ordinary, familiar nature of Star Trek planets, which seemed like a misleading convenience threatening to reinforce an irrational view of the universe. Now I have convinced myself that the M-class worlds of Star Trek just might really exist and that Gene Roddenberry may have been a scientific prophet. May we live and prosper long enough to find out.