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Federation Follies: C’mon Get Happy, Picard

C'mon Get Happy Picard

Have you ever had a bad day? A bad week? Sure, we all have. Maybe you’re fighting with a friend over which Star Trek captain would have made the best replacement James Bond. Perhaps you lost your job at the tarantula ranch. Or, if you’re like me, maybe your computer decided it was time to meet whatever spiritual deities computers worship and died a glorious warrior’s death. Possibly it just squealed like a stuck Targ and refused to run when you turned on the juice. Whatever the reason, you may find yourself frustrated. Angry. In despair. What can one do in a situation like this?

Turn to Star Trek. Duh.

To cheer myself up this week, I decided to seek out a little online therapy. I tried a Google search for “happy Picard,” and brother did it do the trick. As a public service to you, the readers of, I will share my results here; partly because this is a spiritual journey best shared with friends, but mostly because none of you should attempt it. Seriously, for some reason Google throws a naked picture of Ron Jeremy at you partway through. Picard was all like:

Jean Luc Picard
That’s alright, though… again, you just gotta Be Like JLP: roll with the punches. Was I shocked and a little disgusted? Sure. Was I confused by what the internet was trying to say about the captain of the Enterprise-D? Definitely. That’s alright, though. I chose to soldier on.

Jean Luc Picard
See, Captain Picard approves. When things get tough, but you hang in there, the captain respects you. And the captain’s respect is just what one needs when things look grim. So thank you, Jean-Luc. We give a big “thumbs-up” to you, too.

Jean Luc Picard
Sometimes it’s about maintaining perspective. Things could always be worse, right? Even when he has a Nausicaan blade through the aortic valve, Picard knows that one must laugh, or one will most certainly cry.

The journey did not end there, though:
Jean Luc Picard

… so I guess the moral of the story is: when life throws undressed adult actors at you and it feels like a knife through the chest, eat cake and remove your pants.

Jean Luc Picard

Jean Luc Picard

I certainly know I’m feeling better now. Thanks, Star Trek!

Science Fiction or Science Fact: Alien Life – Part 2

Surely Trekkers remember the series finale (All Good Things…) of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Q visits Picard to inform him he single-handedly destroyed life on Earth before it began. Remember the scene where Q and Picard stand over a “little pond of goo” at a time 3.5 billion years in the past? Q ponders the goo and finds that the amino acids failed to form the first protein that made life possible, which led to the extinction of all living organisms on Earth before they even emerged and evolved. This scene always haunted me as a child, and it still haunts me today as a scientist, but rest assured, there were trillions (a severe underestimate of the real thing) of amino acids in that pond and probably trillions of ponds just like it all over the Earth. And the formation of proteins is a thermodynamically spontaneous event, so it is highly likely to occur not once, not twice, but trillions upon trillions upon trillions of times (again, a severe underestimate of the real thing) over the course of a billion of years. Nevertheless, life cannot emerge without the proteins to support it, and that is why this Star Trek scene was so terrifying and so breathtaking at the same time.

Now that peptides have been formed with life-supporting properties, now comes the hard part: the formation of self-replicating polymers. Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a self-replicating polymer composed of nucleic acids in single-stranded form. Base pairing among RNA strands allows new, complementary strands to be created, which they themselves base pair with other nucleic acids in order to recreate the same sequence. It is this phenomenon which has led scientists to refer to RNA as a self-replicating molecule with the ability to catalyze its own copying mechanism. It is an observable feat and can be reproduced in a test tube (without the aid of bacteria or enzymes). It, like DNA, forms the genetic basis of life; in other words, RNA provides simple cells (like those expected to initially emerge from abiogenesis) with the essential instructions required to produce proteins. Specific RNA sequences can be associated with a particular protein sequence, meaning that a certain blueprint sequence on RNA (or DNA in the modern world) can be used to produce the amino acid sequence on a given protein. Natural selection would favor the association of these sequences because it is essential for life to have both DNA/RNA (the “blueprint” of life) and proteins (the “machines” of life). Therefore, the first unicellular organisms that emerged from the “muck of life” likely adopted RNA as its genetic material, since it is simple enough to replicate itself without the assistance of complex enzymes and pathways as those seen in today’s organisms.

This video shows the complexities of translation in a typical cell today, the process by which RNA sequences are read by ribosomes in order to generate the amino acid sequence of a specific protein. Please note, this is a demonstration of cellular mechanisms today, and the mechanisms developed by the simple protobionts that emerged 3.5 billion years ago were likely to be extremely primitive by comparison and no where near as complex as what is shown in the video. In fact, the self-replicating nature and base-pairing ability of RNA may be sufficient and simple enough to establish a direct link between RNA sequences and amino acid sequences in the pre-biotic world.

The next step is the formation of micelles and vesicles from fatty acids. The formation of micelles involves fatty acids in an aqueous (watery) environment. Fatty acids are mostly hydrophobic, which means they pack together in the presence of water, with water soluble portions exposed to the surface. When enough micelles are formed, they clump together and fold around themselves, generating a vesicle with water and other molecules trapped on the inside. We see a similar phenomenon in soap bubbles; in fact, the formation of bubbles from the conglomeration of soap molecules is not unlike the packing of fatty acids to form a vesicle. It is the hydrophobic nature of fatty acids in soap that forms the spheroid shape of bubbles in the presence of water and air. The formation of this vesicle (fatty acid membrane) is very important because it is the component of living cells that gives it its basic structure and physical barrier from the environment; it protects whatever is on the inside from the potential hazards outside (this is the main function of cell membranes).

DenovoThe fatty acid vesicle is a thermodynamically stable structure that spontaneously forms on their own in the presence of fatty micelles (the smaller sphere-like objects floating near the vesicle) and water (the white particles). No intervention, chemical or otherwise, is required to form this spherical shell, and it is one of the most important steps in the abiogenic formation of cell membranes.

When these fatty acids form vesicles, some of them will trap proteins in the interior. Others capture RNA. But only a small percentage will capture both, and these small, non-living networks of self-replicating polymers (RNA) and their associated molecular machines (proteins) trapped inside a protective barrier of fatty acids (the cell membrane) form the basis of life. Scientists have already developed these self-replicating, self-maintaining structures (termed protobionts) in the laboratory using organic and inorganic molecules; they aren’t “life” yet, but it is the final step in the abiogenesis process before protobionts evolve into living, simple bacteria. It is a thermodynamically probable outcome and when all the conditions for life are present, it is only a matter of time (billions of years to be exact) before single-celled organisms can develop, grow, and evolve from non-biological sources into complex, intelligent life forms.

This video summarizes the step-by-step process of abiogenesis and how it could potentially generate life in the simplest form. It also includes scientific rebuttals to common Creationist arguments and misconceptions regarding the Theory of Abiogenesis.

It is important to note that while Earth was one of those few planets in the galaxy fortunate enough to have water in the liquid state, carbon sources, reductive molecules, and to be located sufficiently close enough to its local star to provide the energy necessary for the emergence of life (too far: Earth would be frozen over and lifeless; too near: Earth’s oceans would’ve evaporated and a runaway greenhouse effect would turn Earth into another lifeless Venus), not all planets are quite so “lucky.” Not all solar systems have planets, and those that do are mostly composed of gas giants. Most terrestrial planets may be too far or too near its local star to stabilize water in the liquid state, and, even if they are in that happy range, some planets probably don’t have any water or abiogenic compounds. But for the select few that do, the origin of life isn’t just possible; it is probable and the existence of life elsewhere in the universe is a calculable outcome. This brings us to the final determination of whether life can exist on other planets: the Drake Equation.

Astrophysicist Frank Drake developed a probabilistic expression that would approximately determine how difficult it was to detect technologically-advanced civilizations in the galaxy using radio waves. The variables of the equation are based on the step-by-step process of abiogenesis and evolution, starting with the habitability of planets and the emergence of life to the evolution of intelligent, sentient beings. The probability of the existence of life on other worlds is based on the number of stars in the galaxy, the number of stars with planets, the number of those planets with life-supporting properties, the probability that life evolves on those planets, the fraction of those life forms that evolve into intelligent beings, the probability that those intelligent beings develop advanced technology, and finally the probability and the time it would take for us to detect them—or rather it begs the question: do these civilizations last long enough for us to detect them before they go “extinct”? The following is the formulation of the Drake Equation:

Drake Equation

Where R* is the rate of star formation in the galaxy, fp is the probability that those stars have planets, ne is the average percentage of those planets that could potentially support life, fl is the probability that life emerges on those planets, fi is the probability that single-celled organisms evolve into intelligent life forms (this doesn’t occur overnight, it takes a REALLY long time), fc is the probability that these life forms develop advanced technologies, and L is the life expectancy of these advanced civilizations. Multiplying all these variables calculates the approximate number (N) of detectable, alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

Though some of these variables are determinable (such as the number of stars in the galaxy that have planets), other variables are a little harder to predict (like the number of planets with the capability of supporting life). The final variable L is completely arbitrary. If one were to assume advanced civilizations tend to destroy themselves very quickly, then this number will be small and therefore the galaxy would be sparsely populated with intelligent life. But if advanced civilizations, like the Federation, were able to solve their own socio-economic problems, evolve past the need to destroy, conquer, or consume beyond their means, and live peacefully in their own self-sustainable culture, then we can expect the existence of many alien races, exploring the stars and the planets in very much the same way Starfleet does.

Carl Sagan explains the Drake Equation very well in this video.

The Final Verdict

Looks like E.T. will have to “phone home” because the existence of life on other worlds isn’t just possible, it is probable! Therefore, the emergence of life on other worlds is a Science Fact. Bear in mind!!! This doesn’t confirm the existence of life on other worlds, it simply means that the prospect of alien civilizations is no longer science fiction because there is a measurable certainty that they can exist and the emergence of alien life is based on real science; however, it doesn’t prove their existence and we will never know until someone somewhere makes first contact (be it Zefram Cochrane or not).

When inputting the appropriate, most logical values for each variable in the equation, Frank Drake found the number of civilizations currently in existence to be “astronomical” (excuse the pun). However, they are very difficult to detect, and Drake hypothesized it is probably because they are too far away for our radio telescopes to detect or these alien civilizations do not stand the test of time long enough for us to detect them. Furthermore, there is a more serious issue we haven’t yet considered, and it may very well determine the fate of our own civilization if we aren’t too careful.

Stephen Hawking concludes that the existence of intelligent life on other worlds in the galaxy is highly probable, and it is likely there are hundreds of alien races thriving in the galaxy, perhaps even exploring other star systems; however, he warns that seeking them out may not be a smart idea. If aliens are indeed traveling around the galaxy, they may not greet us with a peaceful banner of exploration and friendship (and they certainly won’t be Vulcans). Rather, if they are searching the stars for something, they may be scouring for resources and food in a near-death struggle to survive. If they are more advanced than we are, they may see humans as inferior beings, and enslaving us might be at the top of their to-do list. Sending out radio signals with the intention of “seek[ing] out new life and new civilizations” may just mark the nadir of our own existence (assuming aliens do exist and that they are anything like the Borg, the Dominion, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, or even…the profit-seeking Ferengi).

Tom Caldwell is upperclassman at UCLA, currently investigating functional kinases that down-regulate muscle growth and studying biochemistry with a career goal of earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology

Science Fiction or Science Fact: Alien Life – Part 1

First Contact

…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations…

These immortal words stand as a testament to why Star Trek is one of the best science fiction genres of all time. While sci-fi tends to focus on the bad aspects of alien life, such as H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, Star Trek is famed for its spotlight on peacefully contacting other civilizations, sharing technological and cultural knowledge, and building friendships. Star Trek sets itself apart from all the rest by showcasing aliens in a peaceful light, rather than a violent one (of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun from watching space battles involving the Borg and the Dominion). The big question of the day, however, is whether or not life can exist on other worlds, and if so, what kind of life should we expect to see: a technologically advanced civilization or single-celled organisms?

In order to evaluate the probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe, one must understand the origin and evolution of life; more specifically, one must examine the scientific theories of abiogenesis and evolution and what they mean for life in general. Before we begin, let’s get one thing straight: evolution is not the same thing as abiogenesis. While they are related and the same rules can apply to both (i.e. natural selection), evolution pertains to the diversity of life and how it changes over time, whereas abiogenesis is simply the origin of life from non-biological sources. For matters of simplicity, I’m going to discuss the abiogenesis aspect; the beginnings of life is just as important as, if not more than, the evolution of simpler organisms to more complex ones (i.e. from bacteria to humans).

The Breakdown

The Theory of Abiogenesis is an attempt by scientists to rationally explain how life could have developed on Earth. It claims that life originated from inorganic sources (like carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and water). The most likely mechanism of such origin is the reduction of carbon dioxide in the presence of ammonia, water, hydrogen, and sulfur dioxide. Such a reaction is known to generate amino acids, fatty acids, nucleic acids, and other biologically important organic molecules (the Miller-Urey experiment confirms this). This carbon-, ammonia-, and water-based mixture is very relevant to life on Earth because it was the composition of Earth’s atmosphere nearly 4 billion years ago; if a few scientists were able to reproduce organic bio-molecules in a “test tube” using this same mixture over the course of a few weeks, imagine what could have developed on Earth with an abundant source of energy from the sun, hydrothermal vents in the ocean, and electrical discharges in the atmosphere over the course of a billion years.

The next step is the formation of organic polymers from these amino acids. Amino acids culminate to form long peptide chains (in other words, proteins). Different amino acid sequences produce different functions, such as catalyzing a biologically important reaction to generate energy or even maintaining an appropriate cellular pH—all necessary for the maintenance of life. Most random sequences are useless and really wouldn’t do anything, but small, simple sequences with amino acids in just the right places are sufficient to produce positive effects for a living organism.

Amino AcidThe basic structure of amino acids: the alpha-carbon (the central carbon) is chemically bonded to an amine (the nitrogen group with two hydrogens on the left), a carboxylic acid group (the carbon group with two oxygens and a hydrogen on the right), and an R group which is unique and different for each type of amino acid (some are acidic while others are hydrophobic, some are positively charged while others negatively charged).

As said before, the same rules of evolution can apply to abiogenesis (even though they are not the same thing). Natural selection favors those amino acid sequences that produce positive effects over those that produce negative effects; therefore, the probability of seeing life-supporting proteins over random, unimportant proteins is markedly higher than one would expect if natural selection was not occurring. Why is that? It is because natural selection is a NON-RANDOM process and even the most unlikely outcome can “occur” more often because natural selection favors those outcomes. Over the course of a billion years, we shouldn’t be surprised if a diverse array of proteins were generated from this lifeless muck with different functions, structures, and stabilities; natural selection favors those few proteins that support life over those that do not.

Amino Acid ChainA protein is a chain of amino acids folded on itself to generate a specific structure. Depending on its structure and the sequential orientation of the amino acids, this protein can adopt a certain biological function.

Hemoglobin, the main protein found in red blood cells, consists of a specific amino acid sequence that gives it the molecular structure and functionality necessary to carry oxygen to the peripheral cells in the human body. It is highly unlikely this protein could have developed in pre-biotic Earth because natural selection didn’t favor the amino acid sequence that gives rise to this protein…yet. One would have to wait a few billion years before oxygen-breathing animals required a protein with this kind of functionality for natural selection to favor it.

Our look at the possibility of alien life will continue tomorrow in a second installment of Science Fiction or Science Fact. Stay tuned!

Tom Caldwell is upperclassman at UCLA, currently investigating functional kinases that down-regulate muscle growth and studying biochemistry with a career goal of earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology

Federation Follies: Judging A Book By Its Dragons

Star Trek Here There Be Dragons

A few weeks ago my fiancée and I were shopping for used Star Trek books. We found a little “friends of the library” shop with 25¢ paperbacks and hit the jackpot: DS9 and TNG novels! We both loaded up (buying two identical copies of a DS9 story in our frenzied zeal) and it wasn’t until we got home that we really looked at what we’d purchased… and boy, was I surprised by this little treasure:

Allow me to present Here There Be Dragons, Star Trek: The Next Generation Novel #28, written by Mr. John Peel. Now, before I go on, most of you are probably wondering: “Does his fiancée really go looking for used Trek books with him? Is he actually the luckiest man alive?” The answer is yes, she does and I am. The rest of you are thinking, “yeah, he’s super-lucky… and the name on this book’s cover makes me think a British spy wrote it… but what else is there to get excited about?” Apparently that little castle in the corner reaching for Riker’s epic beard didn’t clue you in, so let me hit you with some KNOWLEDGE (courtesy of the book’s back cover):

Penetrating the cloud, the Starship crew is shocked to discover a world of knights and serfs lifted right out of Earth’s Middle Ages. Ruthlessly exploiting the planet is a ring of interstellar trophy hunters preying on the immense, native dragon-lizards, twenty-feet tall and armored like tanks.

See, Agent Peel isn’t just using that cliché for a title to grab your attention; no, he’s more Pro than that. He has the crew of the Federation’s flagship straight-up fighting dragons. Or riding them. Or teaming up with them to defeat Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. I don’t know. I haven’t actually READ this book yet. I’m too in awe of it, afraid it won’t live up to the images that cover conjures up in my head. I’m honestly a little intimidated… although that’s mostly due to the front cover’s nasty case of Creepy Data Smile.

When you watch Star Trek, especially earlier episodes (of almost any series), it can sometimes be painfully clear that you’re watching a television show. Some of the immersion is lost when Picard beams down to Planet Cardboard Sky, or when Data drags the Enterprise out to help a little alien girl with an auto-tuned voice and bad prosthetic pinky-fingers. The budget for the effects just isn’t there. When you read the books, though, that’s not an issue; all the limitations on alien design and such go out the window at high warp. I read one book where the crew of the Enterprise-D picked up a scientist who turned out to be a dolphin in a hover-bubble, and then they cruised over to the Mirror Universe to read Shakespeare. And now John Peel (Agent of MI:6) has written a book with dragons and Predators in it!

If you’ve never read any Trek novels, give them a shot; they’re fun, they’re funky, and they’re better than the current TV iteration (Star Trek: Nothing-Because-We’re-Waiting-For-Another-Movie-and-I-Can’t-Afford-the-DVDs). Promise me, though, that if you begin with Here There Be Dragons you won’t spoil the ending for me. I’ll get to it eventually.

(Don’t buy it new on Amazon for 78¢, though — That’s three times what I paid.)

“Federation Follies” is a weekly humor column by Willie Laundrie, taking a look at the lighter side of Star Trek.

Federation Follies: Diary of a Red Shirt

Diary of a Red Shirt

Personal Log, Stardate 5917.3: Only one day aboard ship, but WOW is it different than the academy! These Constitution class cruisers are titanic; the schematics they included with my duty orders don’t begin to do this ship justice. I’ve been assigned to operations, and I’m excited to get started… but I’m concerned there’s been some sort of mix-up with my uniform. Instead of the brand-new cardinal-red tunic I was expecting, I found a used uniform with (what I’m assuming are) phaser burns. I’ll be sure to speak to the ship’s purser in the morning.

Personal Log, Stardate 5918.5: First away mission today! There’s always plenty of excitement ship-side, of course, but I joined Starfleet to seek out NEW life and NEW civilizations; you only get that on the ground! I have to say, though, this is one area that the academy oversold a bit: it was incredibly dull. Everything went smoothly… no miscommunications with this new race, no accidental insults, no problems. Not bad for a first assignment, just… routine. Ah well. “Be careful what you wish for,” as they say…

Personal Log, Stardate 5921.5: It’s been four months now, and Starfleet is proving to be fairly dull. After my first few away missions, the captain has been calling for me to join more and more of them; he calls me his “good luck charm.” Not sure how to take that… or why he’d need the luck. If this is what life is like on the frontier, I should have stayed back on Earth.

Personal Log, Stardate 5921.9: I haven’t wanted to comment before now, but I think my fellow officers are starting to treat me oddly. I can’t compare notes with anyone else my rank in operations; they seem to come and go before I can get to know any of them. Not sure why I haven’t been getting promoted with my spotless record…

Personal Log, Stardate 5922.1: Had to have my uniform tunic replaced today. Again. The purser couldn’t believe that it had lasted this long, and made some offhanded comment about the “red shirts being disposable.”

Personal Log, Stardate 5923.4: Now I know it’s not just in my mind. The senior staff have been giving me the craziest looks. “Six months… seriously?” they ask each other when they think I’m out of earshot. I don’t get it.

Personal Log, Stardate 5926.3: Haven’t been able to write in some time. I go on away missions constantly. Sometimes they won’t even let me carry my phaser. Thank heavens for those self-defense classes. Also, what the heck is a “Mugatu?” Mugato? Gumato? Whatever, now I can say that I’ve wrestled one.

Personal Log, Stardate 5927.9: I would almost swear that I heard the captain himself refer to me as either a “coward” or a “freakish miracle thing” on multiple occasions.

Personal Log, Stardate 5928.1: I’m being transferred. I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t understand it, but it’s an incredible honor: I’m being sent to serve aboard the Enterprise. My captain says I’ll “meet” my “destiny” there. I guess that’s good? Starfleet is strange.

“Federation Follies” is a weekly humor column by Willie Laundrie, taking a look at the lighter side of Star Trek.

Trekette: Day of the Dove

Klingon Mara

Ah, the American late 1960’s. Such an exciting time, full of conflict, protests for peace, arms races, and liberalizations of sexual mores- I am sorry I missed it, and not just for all the free love, concerts and drugs. It was an especially interesting time for women. We were embracing the power of our miniskirts, only a few years away from the braless 70’s. In pop culture, television was starting to go along with our rising ambitions. Star Trek especially was daring for its time, showing an empowered, intelligent and beautiful woman, Uhura, on the bridge.  However, we women had a long way to go in terms of our social progress being mirrored in pop culture.

As progressive as Star Trek seemed to be, it was still a TV show which was constrained in its futuristic vision of equality by the male-dominated worldview of the time it was aired. Uhura’s mere presence as a smart and much-needed crewperson was a giant leap for womankind. However, for each step forward, Star Trek seemed to take two steps back in their female characters. For a woman to have any power, there was always some mitigating precondition — that she be a brainless Eymorg capable of brainpower only at the consent of long-dead ancestors, for instance, or that she be a sociopathic scorned former lover of Kirk’s, bent on revenge for the wrongs she feels she has been dealt based on her gender, as was the case with Janice Lester.

Rarely does a woman join Uhura in the ranks of females who command respect based on their own qualities. Recently, though, I was re-watching an old TOS episode, and it dawned on me that there is one class of females whose power is rarely questioned- the Klingon female. I say “rarely,” though, because even the first Klingon woman we meet has to play that same tired role- the single-use sex object who inevitably needs saving.

In TOS, we meet the Klingon female for the first time on the episode “Day of the Dove.” Though she is introduced as the wife of the Klingon commanding officer, Mara proves herself to be more than just the captain’s wife. She is also the Klingon science officer, making her their version of Spock. In “Day of the Dove,” Mara, and her intellect, plays a pivotal role in the story. However, she still meets the common fate of many female characters- she is reduced to a helpless damsel in distress, powerless against the atmosphere of male aggression.

When both the Enterprise and the Klingons receive a false distress signal, they quickly become locked into an escalating conflict on board the Enterprise. Strange and impossible things are happening, as improbable events occur which place the Klingons and the crew at equal numbers, the better to fight each other. Hostilities are at such a level that the crew barely seems to notice how odd it is that their entire armory has been converted from phasers into antique swords. Testosterone is running high, clouding the senses of the crew. Especially affected is Ensign Chekov, who has some great lines- I especially enjoyed the creative use of the word “Cossacks!”

Chekov spends the entire episode in a state of heightened rage. Of course, we eventually learn that this is as a result of an evil energy cloud which feeds on aggression. This leads the crew to hack senselessly at their evenly matched Klingon enemies. However, no matter how many wounds are inflicted, no permanent damage is done to a single crew member. Sickbay is crowded with security officers, whose wounds heal rapidly, allowing the carnage to continue. Though the fighting is continuous, only one character is faced with aggression which could have left any permanent damage- Mara, the Klingon science officer. When the enraged Chekov comes across Mara, his lust for blood devolves into simple lust, and he rips at her blouse with one obvious intention. Unlike the female warriors we come to see in later incarnations of the Klingon woman, Mara seems to shrink away from this attempt, barely even struggling against Chekov, and has to have Kirk save the day for her.

MaraIn light of what we come to know about the Klingon woman later on in other incarnations of Star Trek, the treatment of Mara is especially unlikely. It just goes to show what audiences expected at the time- even a strong and smart female like Mara could be easily diminished. Sure, she gets to be an educated and intelligent member of her ship’s crew, and she gets to wear shorts instead of a dress, but she couldn’t possibly have enough presence of mind to fight back against even attempted rape without a man’s help. I mean, even Janice, helpless stereotypical female extraordinaire, thought to scratch that bad boy up during her brush with male aggression!

Happily, as the Star Trek universe developed, the roles of women became less and less shallow. The next time we meet a female Klingon, we find that she is no shrinking female. Instead, a new class of badass women warriors rise to the challenge of overshadowing their predecessor, Mara. So, here’s to those women, characters created out of a time more advanced in terms of roles for women than the 60’s era Star Trek. I know who I’d rather be!

Trekette OUT!

“Trekette” is an ongoing series by Victoria Wright looking at Star Trek through a female perspective.

Science Fiction or Science Fact: The Cloaking Device

One of the most famed technological themes of science fiction is the ability to make ships and objects invisible. It was perhaps one of the greatest achievements in science fiction that Star Trek had made from since its beginnings. The Romulans had it. The Klingons had it. Even the Federation employed the cloaking device on three different series (“The Pegasus” on The Next Generation; “The Enterprise Incident” on The Original Series; any episode on Deep Space Nine in which the USS Defiant appears). But will we, Mankind, ever have it? Will scientists ever develop a cloaking device that could mask a ship against the background of glittering stars, or will our hopes and dreams for this technological revolution “vanish” into thin air?

The cloaking device has been described by characters on Star Trek as an energy field of tachyon radiation or other elementary particles that bends light around an object so that it appears invisible to the naked eye.

Physically speaking, a cloaked object isn’t really vanished or that the material on the object is transparent. Invisibility is an application of optics, the branch of physics that deals with light and all of its properties. If a cloaking device is to have any scientific credibility, the theoretical framework of such technology would be mired in our understanding of the behaviors of light and how it can be manipulated.


In order to make objects invisible, light traveling in the direction of the object must be able to bend around the object such that it would appear as though nothing was in its path. The image above shows how light rays (black curves) would have to be bent around the inner sphere to mask its presence. This is the cloaking effect. The object itself is not invisible; rather, it is made to appear invisible via an elaborate “optical illusion.” If an observer were to stand in front of the inner sphere, he/she would not see a sphere, but only the space behind it. Below is a more detailed explanation on how a cloaking shield might work on a Bird of Prey.

The image on the left shows a Bird of Prey without its cloaking shield. Light hits the hull of the ship and bounces off to reveal an image in view of an observer (Enterprise A); the reflection of the light rays can leave shadows in the path of the light beam’s propagation. With its cloaking shield activated (right), the object is made to appear invisible, theoretically of course, by passing light around the barrier and out the other side. No shadow is created, and while the Bird of Prey isn’t physically invisible, it appears invisible because the observer receives the photons from the original light sources as though they were never interfered upon by an object in their paths.

Unfortunately, there is no information available that could rationally explain the mechanisms of a cloaking “shield” in practice, let alone whether particle radiation could be propagated to form a “shield” in such a manner. Therefore, the above depiction of a cloaking shield in Star Trek may be more science fiction than actual science. However, the notion of a cloak of invisibility is not quite as far-fetched as one initially believes. The theory of the cloaking effect remains faithful to optical physics, so the development of the cloaking device is not impossible. In fact, scientists have already developed a similar cloaking apparatus, and the most exciting part is that it depends more on geometry and material sciences than it does on technology (meaning essentially that we do not need tachyons or radiation or hypothetical shields to make objects “invisible”).

Scientists at Duke University were able to use a series of rings that propagate radio waves around an object so that the radiation entering the ring structure pass through with little interference, essentially rendering the object less visible in the presence of radio waves.

The image on the left shows how radio waves (red and blue lines) behave when propagated against an uncloaked object. The radiation strikes the object and casts a shadow (the patch of green that appears to emanate from the center of the circle). Sensors are able to detect the shadow, which indicates that it is visible in presence of the radiation. When activated by an electrical current (right), the electromagnetically charged rings curve the radio wave around it without “touching” the object at the center of the ring. The majority of electromagnetic waves that hit the apparatus pass through with only minimal phase shifts. The shadow cast by the radiation is less noticeable when the cloak is active, making the object appear less visible in the presence of the radiation.

This YouTube video demonstrates the cloaking effect achieved by Duke University on a two-dimensional scale:

While objects can be made invisible to radio waves, it does not mean they are invisible to the naked eye, so this cloaking apparatus does not completely satisfy the invisibility cloak a Trekker would expect from Star Trek. Recently, however, science provided testament to the contrary. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley developed a material (termed “meta-material”) of a specific geometrical design that refracts light at negative angles so that electromagnetic radiation (i.e. infrared radiation, visible light) could pass through with little or no phase shifts, meaning that the properties of light entering the material remains nearly the same as when it leaves the material. In layman’s terms: the object masked by this “meta-material” does not cast a “shadow” when placed in the path of light, so it is, for lack of a better word, “invisible.”

Scientists have only been successful with wavelengths in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. microwaves, radio waves), so a true cloak of invisibility has not been fully achieved. Nevertheless, this technology is the first step in making objects appear invisible to the naked eye, perhaps even in the near future.

In this YouTube video, the Associated Press interviews the Berkeley scientists that constructed the meta-material and applied it to cloak three-dimensional objects, a feat only previously achieved on two-dimensional objects and holds far-reaching implications on its use in the future.


In light of my analysis, I must rate the cloaking device as a Science Fact. The theory behind cloaking technology is based on real science, as did my previous topics of warp technology and antimatter reactors; however the difference here is that the cloaking device is much more practical and the experimental design of a cloak of invisibility has already been achieved. Of course, the technology is no where near perfect, and the structural array of meta-materials generated thus far have only been able to achieve a partial cloak in the presence of visible light. Nevertheless, modern technology is advancing much more quickly than it did ten years ago, so we may expect the development of a fully functional cloaking device to arrive much sooner than expected.

For more information on the discoveries made by the Berkeley researchers, visit this Science Daily article on the theoretical design of a cloaking device and its possible applications.

Tom Caldwell is upperclassman at UCLA, currently investigating functional kinases that down-regulate muscle growth and studying biochemistry with a career goal of earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

Federation Follies: Constructive Criticism

Whenever an artist creates a work for public consumption, a certain level of criticism has to be expected. I’ve written a few articles here at TrekNews at this point, and it’s been great knowing my work is out there for Star Trek fans to read and (hopefully) enjoy.

The responses I have received have been mostly positive (thanks Mom!), but I know that my work will only truly improve through good, strong, constructive criticism. On that note, I thought this week I would share one of the more, well, colorful responses I’ve received:

Evil Picard speaks

“Federation Follies” is a weekly humor column by Willie Laundrie, taking a look at the lighter side of Star Trek.

Trekette: What (Some) Women Want

Scotty and Palamas

What do women want? It is a question which has inspired endless human art and literature. The original series of Star Trek, however, seems to have the answer. Women want an alpha male to tell them that they’re PRETTY!

Ah, our ultimate goal.

Of course, this is not always true- after all, most girls do go for Kirk, but Spock, Chekov, and even our favorite old country doctor get some love interest action throughout the original series. Generally, though, the Star Trek: TOS love interest subplots tend to follow this or a couple other predictable patterns. This stereotype is featured in many episodes, including “Space Seed,” in which a highly educated, intelligent officer allows herself to be completely subjugated by the powerful genetic monstrosity that is Khan Noonien Singh, forgetting all of her training and loyalties in her desperate need to look soft and womanly to her new love interest. And who could forget Yeoman Janice Rand, feverishly hoping that Captain Kirk will just ‘look at my legs!” In another episode, Yeoman Rand isn’t fazed even by attempted rape; she actually says that she wouldn’t have told anyone because she did not want to get Kirk into trouble.

Even Starfleet scientists feel this hunger. Just look at Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas of the episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?” In this episode, Lt. Palamas, archeology and ancient civilizations expert, beams down with Kirk, Chekov, Scotty and Bones to advise the captain in his mission to free the ship and crew from the alien entity once known on earth as Apollo. Apollo has taken the ship captive with a massive, hand-shaped field of energy, one of the godlike powers he possesses. Apollo means to hold the crew on the surface to provide the worshipping masses that sustain his life. Once she meets this Olympian alpha male, however, Carolyn simply melts under Apollo’s constant lavish praise of her beauty. When Apollo uses the same power source which holds the Enterprise hostage to dress her up in a pretty pink gown, she gushes happily, eyelashes fluttering, at its Grecian loveliness. I guess that all it really takes is a cute new outfit and a man of power to crush on and all of our advanced training simply disappears!

Carolyn PalamasMr. Scott, meanwhile, has been pining after Carolyn the entire episode, much to Kirk and Bones’ amusement. Mr. Scott manages to get himself hurt several times in this episode by committing unwanted gestures of male bravado in Carolyn’s honor, which she is too dazzled to notice. Maybe Scotty should have taken a cue from Apollo- the way to a gal’s heart is to say she’s beautiful, not tell her she looks tired, and should join you for a cup of coffee. Thanks a lot, Scotty! I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. As Bones dryly notes, “he thinks he’s the right man for her, but I’m not sure she thinks he’s the right man. On the other hand, she’s a woman. All woman. One day she’ll find the right man and off she’ll go, out of the service.”

I’m not even sure if I’m offended by that quote because it’s NOT true of women, or because it IS true- of this particular character, anyway. Unfortunately for the rest of us strong Star Trek females (not you, Janice), Carolyn Palamas is the epitome of a weak, fluttery, vain female, needing love to survive just as much as the lonely and temperamental Apollo. Carolyn is yet another single-serving love interest for the men of the episode- someone to ogle at and provide convenient plot twists. Carolyn’s historical expertise (“I’m a scientist!”) is a mere footnote to her real purpose- to give the men something to fight for possession of. Her character only serves as a love interest, and her knowledge of ancient history is mentioned merely as an aside in her rejection of Apollo. Asserting that he is merely a specimen for her examination marks one of the only references made in the episode to the fact that she is, in fact, a person of great knowledge and learning.

UhuraMeanwhile, on the bridge, Uhura is reworking the entire communications array, aiding Mr. Spock with restoring communication with the away team. Just working away, helping to save the day again so that the Enterprise can continue to boldly go. Does she get any thanks? Nope. But that’s OK! One day, she’ll meet the right man and she can quit the service.

Trekette OUT!

“Trekette” is an ongoing series by Victoria Wright looking at Star Trek through a female perspective.

Science Fiction or Science Fact: Matter-Antimatter Reactors

Geordi LaForge inspects the warp core

In the last installment of Science Fiction or Science Fact, I talked about warp technology and how faster-than-light travel was theoretically possible because it does not violate any of the laws of physics. Unfortunately, warp travel is impractical because of its energy requirements—it would require an amount of energy equivalent to the mass of Jupiter. Like most things in Star Trek, there is a scientifically valid solution to such problems (or a very clever circumvention that ignores the laws of physics). In this case, the employment of matter-antimatter reactions is a theme of Star Trek that resolves almost every energy issue one would expect from a science fiction show: from powering warp engines to phaser technology. The big question, however, concerns the concept of harnessing energy from matter-antimatter reactions; is it scientifically plausible…or pure science fiction?

In order to understand what matter and antimatter are, it is necessary to understand their origins and how they fit into the “big picture” of the universe. Matter is the “stuff” with which we are all so familiar. We are made of matter. Everything in the universe is made of matter—from atoms to stars and planets. Matter is a very “normal” object made of smaller particles known as atoms, which are themselves made of even smaller particles termed subatomic particles (like protons and neutrons). Protons consist of a positive charge, and according to physics, there is an even smaller particle that gives it a positive charge: the positron. Positrons are the very essence of positive charges in the entire universe.

The Breakdown

As the name implies, antimatter is the exact mirror opposite of matter. So for every particle in the universe, there exists an antiparticle with reciprocal properties. The antiparticle to a particle with a positive charge is one with a negative charge: the electron. The electron is the negatively charged particle that orbits around the atom. Electrons never collide with the positively charged center of the atom because they are constrained in orbitals around the nucleus.


This atomic model demonstrates how electrons never collide with the nucleus as their angular momentum around the nucleus keeps them in a “stagnant” orbit (though this model is not completely accurate in light of Molecular Orbital Theory). For the most part, this is the basic structure of the atom.

But what would happen if an electron were to collide with a positron? According to some scientists, that may have been the driving force of the Big Bang, the very moment in which the universe was created. When matter collides with antimatter, the two essentially annihilate one another and are converted into pure energy at 100% efficiency. At the moment of the Big Bang, trillions (this is a severe underestimate of the real thing) of particles collided and released tremendous amounts of energy, causing a nearly infinite expansion of space and time. Fortunately, there was a little more matter than there was antimatter, so the remaining particles coalesced into atoms, then eventually to galaxies, consisting of stars and planets.

As it should be apparent, the collision of an electron with a positron is a highly energy-releasing process. The scientists of Star Trek have already found a way to harness that energy. However, scientists today are only beginning to produce antimatter, and that is the most exciting part. Particle colliders, like the one at FermiLab and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, are used to mash protons together in order to produce positrons—the antimatter equivalent of electrons. The only drawback is that we’ve only ever produced a few milligrams of antimatter and it is a costly process. Furthermore, scientists haven’t even begun to imagine how such energy could be harnessed.

This video demonstrates how antimatter is produced and how costly it is.

The Final Verdict

And now my final verdict: Science Fiction. Though we are now able to produce antimatter and its application in energy production appears to solve many of our problems in the future, from energy crises to warp technology, it has one serious drawback—a drawback that makes burning fossil fuels a better alternative. The energy required to produce antimatter is far greater than the energy we could possibly harness from its annihilation. Essentially, the matter-antimatter reactors of Star Trek consume more energy than they generate; so humans from a future Earth that become reliant on this technology would not be speeding toward other star systems, rather they would be speeding toward an early death. No energy-producing plant would ever utilize a process that requires more energy to run than it actually produces. So it is, unfortunately, a technically flawed design.

If you’d like further information, you can check out NASA’s status on antimatter technology.
Tom Caldwell is upperclassman at UCLA, currently investigating functional kinases that down-regulate muscle growth and studying biochemistry with a career goal of earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology

Federation Follies: Rank Amateurs

Star Trek's John Cho

I want to make sure I start this column off by making one thing perfectly clear: I LOVED JJ Abrams 2009 Star Trek film. It was a fun, it was fast-paced, and it was, in my opinion, true to the sense of adventure that so many of us respond to in Star Trek. I always tell people about dragging my dad down to the theater on opening day and seeing how excited he was after; he never gets into movies like that, and the last few Star Trek films had left him a bit cold. Not this one, though. This one he could get behind.

Most folks agree with him. I think.

That being said, the film is still far from perfect. The out-of-left-field Spock/Uhura romance. The overly busy starship interiors. The lens flares. I forgive all of that, though, because the movie is THAT GOOD. Still, there’s one thing about the movie that is nigh unforgivable:

The complete and utter disregard for rank. Holy cripes.

I think most of you already know what I’m griping about, but for those who don’t: aboard this starship Enterprise is basically being run by a bunch of college kids. There is ONE seasoned veteran on that bridge, and he disappears partway through! I get that there’s some crazy business in the Laurentian system and that most of remaining ships get sent to the big Risa In The Sky while defending Vulcan, but… seriously? We’re going to just hand the ship over to the rookies?

Let’s look at the command crew of the Enterprise here, the ship named for the historic vessel that helped found the United Federation of Planets and is Starfleet’s “brand new” flagship:

• Captain James Kirk: I know there was a ceremony at the end and Tyler Perry was there and everybody was happy… but they were going to kick this kid out a few days ago?

• Chief Science Officer Spock: Okay, the OTHER seasoned veteran… who should be in COUNSELING. He watched his mother die… if he had been younger, he would have been halfway to Batman status.

• Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy: Rank of commander because why not? Heck, we never even see her onscreen, but you kind of get the impression Nurse Chapel has more field experience than he does.

• Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott: Had been banished to some backwater facility on Hoth, basically. Suddenly learns to do Impossible Transportations, and is thus given command over each and every surviving engineer already on the ship.

If I were Sulu I would be seriously cranky every darn day at work. Really, shouldn’t he have been next in line? I’ve got his officially-licensed movie action figure and I know that little stripe on his sleeves says he was a lieutenant. Don’t even get me started on Uhura, and how nobody can decide if she’s a lieutenant or a cadet for most of the movie. They never released her action figure in a duty uniform, so the jury is out on this end.

Again, I loved this movie and we all know that the crew needed to end up assembled as it is. I just think it’s worth keeping in mind the next time you watch: Sulu should be at the helm of that ship! Forget Starfleet or the chain of command (everybody else sure did); Hikaru Sulu gave Kirk that bad boy. “Oh my,” indeed.

“Federation Follies” is a weekly humor column by Willie Laundrie, taking a look at the lighter side of Star Trek.

Trekette: In the Body of a Woman

Turnabout Intruder

In this week’s installment of Trekette, we’re going to take a look at The Original Series episode, “Turnabout Intruder.” The 79th and final episode of the series ventures into new territory: an admission by Kirk of the sexism that Lester had faced in Starfleet Academy. Dr. Lester attributes her sex as the reason for her failed ambition to become a spaceship captain. Kirk even agrees with Lester, who claims, “Your world of spaceship captains doesn’t admit women. It isn’t fair.”

Ah, the plight of women’s equality in the workplace. It’s so unjust to think that a person’s gender, something over which they have no control, could dictate the direction of their career. We are left to assume that there is some kind of glass ceiling which no female could shatter to enter into the ranks of starship captains. However, in this case, Dr. Lester’s gender was not the factor that curbed her ambitions.

Now you know the indignity of being a woman. For you this agony will soon pass, as it has for me. Quiet. Quiet! Believe me, it’s better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman. It’s better to be dead.

It is Stardate 5928.2. The Enterprise has sent an away team to the surface of the planet Camus Two in response to a distress call from a group of scientists stationed there to explore ruins of a now-dead civilization. Among those scientists is an old flame of the Captain’s, Dr. Janice Lester, who is one of only two survivors found on the planet. Dr. Lester, the expedition’s leader, is apparently suffering from an ailment which her companion, the expedition’s surgeon Dr. Arthur Coleman, claims is radiation damage. The other members of their company are all dead. As the rest of the away team leaves to search for life signs, Kirk and Lester find themselves alone, discussing the unhappy end of their former relationship.

Dr. Janice Lester has little in common with other females who were single-use, disposable love interests for the captain or other members of the crew. Her status is that of a leader, in charge of a scientific expedition. Clearly, Lester possesses qualities which would qualify her for this in her own right, whereas many other one-episode female characters on the show came into their authority through family connections, or tradition. Nor has her fate descended upon her due to her feminine helplessness, as is common in other female non-recurring characters. Lester is nothing like one of Mudd’s women. For example, her motives are inspired by a desire for power, not a desire to catch herself a husband.

Turnabout IntruderDr. Lester’s failing stems from her pathological need to grasp for more than she rightly qualifies for. Being a leader of a scientific expedition, a position rewarded to her based on her qualifications, is not enough for her- instead, she craves authority which she neither deserves nor has the temperament for. She couldn’t cut it as a candidate for command, but instead of looking to her own deficiencies, she externalizes her failings. Sexism means to be prevented from an equal opportunity based solely on ones gender, despite any skills they might have to make them an equal or better candidate for a position. There are many women who have experienced this, but Dr. Janice Lester is not one of them. Rather than accept that her actions and personality have barred her from the elite order of captains, she indulges in the idea that she has been unfairly dismissed due to her gender.

A starship captain must face his (or her) Kobiashi Maru: accepting that there are “no-win scenarios.” A good captain must have the temperament to move forward in the face of difficulties. You’d never catch Captain Janeway stamping her foot and throwing temper tantrums — this is the very reason that Lester could never have become a captain. Deeply disturbed, hysterical and sadistic, Dr. Lester presents no redeeming qualities which would lend sympathy to her cause. To suggest that her character represents an unfair treatment of women in general would be highly illogical. In this case, the blame which she shifts from her own shortcomings delegitimizes the plight of others who have actually faced sexism.

Dr. Lester, you are making all female Starfleet personnel look bad. Clearly, it is not your sex which caused you to fail in her pursuit of a command- instead, it is your mental instability, your willingness to go to murderous lengths to get your way, which disqualify you. Luckily, Uhura didn’t appear on this last episode- she would have been ashamed on behalf of all female professionals.

So beam me up, Scotty: there are no positive female role models on this episode.

Trekette OUT!

“Trekette” is an ongoing series by Victoria Wright looking at Star Trek through a female perspective.