(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

Teaching science through <em>Star Trek</em>

How Mohamed Noor, SMʼ95, PhDʼ96, uses science fiction to help students engage.

Duke University biologist and natural sciences dean Mohamed A. F. Noor, SM’95, PhD’96, helms an array of enterprises. Heʼs an author, convention and cruise presenter, media consultant, and YouTuber. His mission: to energize science education, with a Trekkie touch.

On the convention circuit, Noor met Jayne Brook, a Duke graduate who plays Admiral Cornwell on Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered in 2017. That friendship helped him break into the consulting business, advising on biological science aspects of Discovery, starting with the season that ended in January. “If you actually look at the credits, my name is in there now,” says Noor. “It’s the same page with the caterers.” His comments have been edited and condensed.

When did you start teaching science through science fiction?

The first convention I went to was Atlantaʼs Dragon Con in 2014. It was my daughterʼs idea—she was a big Doctor Who fan. They had different fandoms and tracks, including one called Trek Tracks, run by Garrett Wang, who played Harry Kim on Voyager. There were all these science talks, real science, so later I reached out to Garrett and said Iʼd be interested in doing a talk on evolution as depicted in Star Trek. I did my first Trek talk in 2016 and that led to a book.

The book, Live Long and Evolve: What “Star Trek” Can Teach Us about Evolution, Genetics, and Life on Other Worlds (Princeton University Press, 2018), is basically the introductory course I teach at Duke on genetics and evolution, framed using Star Trek examples. I knew the science, but I was scared about the Star Trek part because Trekkies can be a little picky. I read scripts and watched episodes for a year. There are over 700 episodes and 13 movies, so far.

Does your fandom raise eyebrows in academia?

I got some grief from people outside my unit when I offered my Genetics, Evolution, and Star Trek course. I kept telling them, repeatedly, Iʼm not teaching Star Trek, like who the first captain of the Enterprise was. It was Robert April, but anyway. There are some people who are engaged in science from day one—theyʼve been birdwatchers their whole lives, or catch insects. There are people who watch popular TV. My goal is to reach some of that latter group who may be interested in biology but havenʼt found a good entry point.

Are your students Trekkies?

When I offered Genetics, Evolution, and Star Trek as a class for nonmajors, there had been a decade of no Star Trek on TV, so I was nervous. Discovery was new and requires a subscription to watch. Half of the students had never seen anything. Some had seen one of the series and some the reboot movies. It seemed like they were just looking for a neat way to satisfy their natural sciences requirement.

What’s it like working with Star Trek writers?

Erin Macdonald, an astrophysics PhD, is the science adviser for all of the different Star Trek series. Sheʼs kind of the science sheriff, whereas Iʼm the person who is occasionally deputized.

The writers might be interested in a season-wide arc, like the red angel from Discovery season two. They might say, “We have this time traveling space suit. What are some of the challenges?” Sometimes Iʼll help with specific elements, like alien design suggestions inspired by Earth biology. I might include sample dialogue that they may or may not use. And sometimes they just want to know if a line of dialogue works.

Other than Star Trek, what series or film portrays science particularly well?

The Martian. You could tell they did their homework. It wasnʼt perfect, but it was very well done. A lot of series donʼt try very hard. Itʼs OK because when youʼre watching The Expanse or whatever, you donʼt think that youʼre watching Animal Planet. This is complete fiction, but you can still use them for educational purposes.

Why does Star Trek have so many humanoid alien species?

One explanation the show offers, from The Next Generation episode “The Chase,” is that four billion years ago something was seeded on Earth, and on Kronos, and on Romulus, and on all these other places, so essentially weʼre all related. It is possible that life on Earth came from life elsewhere, a hypothesis called panspermia. I applaud them for the effort, but thatʼs a little problematic, because why would everything evolve to look so similar? That denies the important role of chance events in evolution.

From the original series episode “Return to Tomorrow,” Kirk and the others beam down to a planet and find a glowing ball that says, “I am Sargon.” And it has some long speech like they always have—900 centuries ago, my people were going across the universe, spreading their seed, and maybe Adam and Eve were two of their travelers. The nice thing there is that it’s a much more recent common ancestor, which is good, but it implies that we’re not related to anything else on Earth. That doesnʼt really work, but to their credit, a character in that episode said that their science shows life on Earth evolved independently. They pointed out the problem.

The last one, which probably works the best with a tweak, is from the episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” again from the original series. The crew beams down to a planet and there are orange trees and fish and Native Americans. Thereʼs this big obelisk there, and Spock translates some of the stuff that was on it and says that it was placed there by a group called the Preservers, who go around to the planets and identify populations at risk of extinction and move them to other places. So aliens came from Earth and were put in other places.

Thatʼs way too recent—a Native American isnʼt going to change into a Klingon. But maybe if you went back to Homo erectus, that could work, but only in an environment where they could live. You canʼt plop people on Neptune. What’s great about that one is that it’s testable. You can get a DNA sample from a group of aliens, and what you should find is that theyʼre more closely related to each other, and to humans, than any of us are to chimpanzees. If we ever find humanoid aliens, I recommend we do that.

Could convergent evolution explain the humanoids?

Convergent evolution is when similar pressures from natural selection in an environment cause unrelated forms to look similar. Think about dolphins and sharks. They have very similar body forms and they live in the same environment. But dolphins nurse their young; sharks donʼt. Dolphins are warm-blooded; sharks are cold-blooded. Dolphins and sharks canʼt interbreed. But humans can make viable hybrids with Vulcans. Bajorans are basically human except for a little ripple on their nose bridge. Weʼre too similar to be explained by convergent evolution.

If we ever find alien life, or it finds us, will we recognize it?

If it finds us, definitely. But let’s say we go to Enceladus [one of Saturnʼs moons] or [Jupiter’s moon] Europa—if you see something moving, great! But what if something moves on the timescale of centuries? It might have biological processes, but if itʼs ridiculously slow, probably because itʼs so cold, we might not easily recognize it as life.

Star Trek: Discoveryʼs starship traverses the universe near instantaneously using a network of … mushrooms?

You can find exactly where this came from—a TED Talk by real-world mycologist Paul Stamets, called “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” He mentions the same species of fungus [cited in the show] and claims that fungi in space is a “foregone conclusion.”

Discovery originally navigated using a tardigrade-like creature—a giant version of Earth’s space-resistant microscopic eight-legged water bears. In real life, a lunar lander carrying tardigrades crashed on the moon. Will we end up with an advanced society of moon bears?

They can survive in the vacuum of space, and they can survive radiation. If you put both together, you donʼt have 100 percent death, but youʼd have like 99 percent death. People overstate the tardigrade thing, like “you canʼt destroy them!” You absolutely can destroy them. I mean, maybe theyʼll evolve. The ones on the moon, probably not, but who knows? It only takes a couple.