science eye for the nonscience guy

There’s no escaping it. Science has officially been made hip, thanks to the trendy science-couture magazine, Seed. Billing itself as “the new face of science,” Seed has serious articles and photo essays by MIT artist-in-residence Felice Frankel, but is also chock-full of glossy photos of beautiful people like science heavyweights Gwyneth Paltrow and Ralph Fiennes, as well as ads for top-shelf liquors and designer fragrances. No pocket protectors or lab coats, please, in this bleeding-edge science scene. So, it’s not enough anymore to read the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books cover-to-cover to know what’s going on in society and culture; it seems that now even the trendoid has to be able to discuss string theory and the genomics revolution over his cocktail.

But how to gain entry to this brave new world? What if you’re just a poor liberal-arts major and think science is too hard, too technical, too dry? After all, where is the poetry in a protein or the drama in the decay of an atom? But at the same time, how can you have an intelligent conversation nowadays if you know nothing about DNA or quarks?

Are you starting to feel like the poor slob with back hair who didn’t know how to crack a lobster on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?

Unfortunately, the Fab Five won’t be coming to your home to explain rudimentary lab etiquette, or help you arrange petri dishes in a great new way that’ll make you go, “Wow, oh my God, wow.”

But it’s easier than you’d think to become science fabulous. You don’t have to read Isaac Newton’s Principia in the original Latin, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, or even Unix for Dummies.

You can be made acceptable to most of the scientific smart set and it won’t cost you anything — least of all, brain power.

Just as Latin was the common tongue of the educated world centuries ago, mathematics is the lingua franca of science today. Speak whatever language you will, an equation is an equation is an equation. But there’s another rawer, more-primitive language available. If you go a little further, a little deeper past the algebraic notation and integral signs, you’ll find a secret door that will allow you to enter the hallowed halls of science. And that door, my friend, is Star Trek.

Jump right in by watching as many episodes as you can get your hands on. But it can’t be Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek: Voyager, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It has to be the original series, at original strength, when William Shatner was still cool and blond, and could believably bed all the alien babes.

From the opening pings of the theme music with Shatner’s voice intoning “Space . . . the final frontier,” something about watching hundreds of hours of Captain James T. Kirk interact with Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy subtly alters — somehow mutates — your DNA. Watching Star Trek may not turn you into a scientist, but you’ll definitely have something in common with just about any engineer or physicist you’ll meet, or at the very least, those of a certain generation.

Star Trek was (and I suppose still is, because it’s constantly in rerun) hugely influential. It made science and engineering glamorous and exciting. For example, Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, credits the show’s African communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, for inspiring her career choice. It’s no coincidence that the first Space Shuttle Orbiter was called Enterprise, that cell phones look like Star Trek communicators, and that researchers have developed tricorder-like sensors and are working on teleportation (of particles of light, anyway).

But like radiation or steroids, Star Trek is heady stuff, and must be used with caution, its effects closely monitored. Let it be enough that you can now hold your own with some of the luminaries of science, and meddle not with the memorization of episode titles or the conversion of your significant other’s birthday to its star date equivalent. After all, you don’t want to end up spending all your free time writing online erotic stories involving Spock, Kirk, and the strange Vulcan mating ritual known as “pon farr.” But if taken in moderation — one episode per day — Star Trek can teach you to win friends, influence people, and, of course, live long and prosper.

This article appeared in the Light Reflection column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 8/26/2003.
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