Spock, the scientist: An appreciation

With Leonard Nimoy’s passing, the original Spock will not grace the screen again. I want to take this moment to explain what he has meant to me as a scientist.

Nimoy was much older than I, but Spock and I are contemporaries. I was born in 1967, while the original Star Trek ran for three seasons, 1966-1968. Then it was canceled, and only became seriously popular in reruns, in the 1970s. I first saw it at the age of about seven or eight. It was on every evening at that time, as I recall. I watched it most nights, becoming obsessed.

Spock was my favorite character from the beginning. I dressed as him for Halloween when I was nine. My mom got me the ears, and the insignia patch, which she sewed onto a blue long-sleeved jersey like Spock’s, and I think I had a phaser and tricorder. This was, without question, the high point of my Halloween costume career.

What was it about Spock that was so appealing? It was not nearly as crude as the trademark dialogue about “logic”.

Yes, Spock was an outsider, not in on the jokes of the popular, fun crew members, many of which were at his expense. And yet he managed to stay cool, earn everyone’s respect, and fit in in his own way, and with that he warmed the hearts of nerds watching everywhere. And yes, the plots in which his strongest emotions showed – where he let on how much he cared about Kirk, especially – said something genuine about the fundamental importance of friendship and love, corny as some of those moments were.

But to me, most of all, he was important as a scientist character in the popular culture, and as such he was a complex and true role model.

Spock’s brilliance was not mechanical; it was not just technique. He was creative, bold. His genius lay in generating the ideas as much as in using logic to follow them to their conclusions or test them against evidence. “Speculate, Mr. Spock,” was a request Kirk made in more than a couple of episodes. Spock complied not as an officer obeying a command, but as someone being freed, given license. Spock was calm in the exercise of his powers of deduction and calculation – as when drawing Kirk’s gentle amusement with his excessively precise estimates of probabilities – but his eyes lit up and his voice became electric when new understanding struck, causing him to utter his expression of scientific passion: “Fascinating”.

Spock was ethical. In “Devil in the Dark”, he and Kirk are charged with exterminating a creature that tunnels through rock and has been killing human workers under the surface of a mining colony. As he and Kirk are trying to figure out how to kill the creature, Spock realizes that it may be the last of its species, and thus that to kill it would be “a crime against science”. Later, Spock uses the Vulcan mind meld – a capability, exercised in a few episodes, that demonstrated as literally as possible that he did not just live in his own head – to determine that the creature has been acting in self-defense; the miners had been destroying its eggs.

Though Spock sometimes did seem clueless about social cues and insensitive to the emotions of others, he had moments of profound empathy, even without using the mind meld. The episode “Amok Time”, in which Spock goes into heat and has to go back to Vulcan for a mating ritual, has a subplot about Nurse Chapel’s feelings for him. (I know, the original Star Trek was not great in the roles for women department.) Spock is holed up in his quarters, his hormones driving him nuts, and Miss Chapel tries to bring him his favorite homemade Vulcan soup. He angrily rejects her advance, throwing the full soup bowl out of his door and against the corridor wall.

Later, she comes into his quarters again while he is sleeping. She tries to touch him, can’t bring herself to do it, and turns to leave, tear-eyed. He wakes, and in a moment of clarity he says, looking her right in the eyes: “Miss Chapel. I had the most startling dream. You were trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear you.” They have an exchange in which he tries to let her down easy (he is bound by law and genetic urge to the bride on Vulcan towards whom the Enterprise is aimed at high warp), expressing tenderness through his calm rationality. He ends by asking that she make him the soup after all. He understands that to make it for him is what she needs, and he cares, even though he’s not into her. Her face, turned away from him but showing joy to the camera as she leaves, shows that he has asked in just the right way.

Finally, of course, Spock was not just a supporting character. He saved the day in many episodes, through both bravery and science. He made us young science geeks think that we could be heroes even if we lacked Kirk’s suave charisma, and he did it without being a dysfunctional or arrogant jerk like Sherlock Holmes, House, or many of the other scientist types on TV.

Perhaps what was most compelling about Star Trek, and what seems so romantic now, was that Spock was in the position to be a hero in the first place. He had the clout on the Enterprise that he needed to hold Kirk and the others to his high standards of intellectual honesty and ethical behavior. More than the scientist as technical problem solver, Spock was the scientist trying to use reason in order to figure out how to live by principles, collectively as well as individually, and succeeding at it.

As scientists, we want what we do to matter. In the 21st century, we face science denial on climate, vaccines, and evolution, and a broad anti-intellectualism and lack of respect for reason, in Congress and in a significant portion of the culture at large. The societal rationality that Spock embodied, much more than the transporters or warp drives, seems the most utopian thing about the 23rd century portrayed in Star Trek.

AGU

I just spent two days in San Francisco at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This is a conference of scientists from all the earth sciences, and from all over the world. Its 24,000 people overflow the Moscone Center in the SoMa district of downtown SF.

I heard some great science there, but today am just writing about the more personal dimensions of the experience. Nothing about extreme weather or climate change today, sorry, come back later for that!

I was at AGU just for the first two two days (it continues all week), and I was already exhausted by the time I left. AGU is thrilling, but overwhelming. There are two enormous buildings full of large-to-giant rooms in which talks and poster presentations of new research are going on ten hours a day for five days. There is so much going on that it’s impossible to take in even a small fraction of what you’d like to.

Some young scientists, new to the experience, study the schedule, figuring out what they want to see the most and putting together a plan to run from one session to the next. The oldsters like me have mostly given up on that, just taking it one day and one hour at a time.

I can’t sit in a big dark room listening to one 15-minute talk after another for that long without losing it. But the poster sessions make me even crazier than the oral ones. Subterranean indoor spaces the size of multiple football fields are filled with endless rows of posterboards, each row so long you can’t see from one end to the other. Each board has a poster, basically a 4’x6’ oversized index card full of graphs, charts and words. The scientist who made each poster stands in front of it hoping to attract customers to talk to about their results. It’s a small-city-sized open air market full of hawkers selling the latest scientific research for the price of the time it takes to stand there and take in their spiels. There’s just so much there that it’s hard to know where to start. I feel awkward either walking past the posters that have no takers, trying to see enough to decide whether I want to stay while not slowing down so much as to get the lonely author’s hopes up in case I decide no; or else trying to elbow into the little crowds gathered around the really popular posters.

If you’ve been in the field for a while, there will be many, many people you know at AGU. Some say the reason to go is not to go to the talks or posters, but just to talk to people. The volume of research published these days is so great that one can’t hope to read but a fraction of it, and talking to people is a quick way to find out about the most interesting new stuff. Research collaborators from points distant get a chance to sit and look at their plots together; groups of various sorts can meet in person without having to add another trip somewhere, since most people are at AGU anyway; big research institutions in the field (including mine) hold evening parties for their alumni; and old friends get to catch up.

But even talking to people can be hard. Sure, you know lots of people, but if you don’t plan, you may not run into the ones you want, to, and you definitely may not find time to actually talk to them – they are also running around from session to session and meeting to meeting, trying to make the most of their time. So like with the formal presentations, the informal interactions take planning at AGU.

Whether because I’m not much good at that kind of planning, or because of other factors in my psyche that I can’t control, I inevitably leave AGU feeling somewhat depressed. Sure, I heard some interesting new science and saw some old friends and colleagues, but I missed so much. I don’t even know what I missed, really, but surely some of it must have been great, right?

But ok, it’s still wonderful to be able to go. That AGU has grown so large is a sign of the intellectual health and excitement in the earth sciences. And while in many respects I probably get more out of smaller meetings – where one can just show up and pretty much be able to take everything in – there’s nothing like the electricity of a giant event where it seems as though everyone you know (plus tens of thousands of people you don’t) is there, and where everywhere you turn your head something potentially interesting is going on. It’s like a really, really big wedding, or some other kind of party with huge numbers of friends and relatives that you don’t want to miss even though you know you’re going to fail to catch up properly with most of them.

Plus, it’s in San Francisco.

AGU wears me out, and every year I say I need to take next year off from it. Sometimes I do, but most years I seem to be back.