Leonard Nimoy's legacy reaches far beyond science fiction
'Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations' of scientific leaders, NASA official says
Leonard Nimoy didn't just leave a lasting impression on the science-fiction world, he also left his mark on science itself.
Seth Shostak, who researches the possibility of real-world extraterrestrial life as the senior astronomer at SETI Research, recalled that Nimoy was regularly willing to lend the organization a helping hand. When he was asked to narrate a planetarium introduction or appear as a guest at an event, Nimoy did so graciously and never charged.
"That struck me then, and it strikes me now," said Shostak. "If you play a famous alien, you might have little interest in how science is searching for real aliens, but Nimoy was actually interested in the science — and he was always willing to help us out."
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Remembrances poured in from beyond the entertainment spectrum after news spread Friday about the death of the 83-year-old actor, who played the half-alien, half-human Spock in Star Trek films, TV shows and video games. NASA, Virgin Galactic, Intel and Google all sent messages, as did other groups motivated by Nimoy and his role as the truth-seeking science officer.
"Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts and other space explorers," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. "As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most."
NASA posted a photo online taken in 1976 of Nimoy and his Trek cast mates in front of NASA's real-life space shuttle Enterprise, parked outside the agency's manufacturing facilities in Palmdale, California.
Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut aboard the International Space Station, similarly tweeted her condolences from space.
"Live Long and Prosper, Mr. #Spock!" she wrote.
'Spock was a cool geek'
Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab, said he was inspired to go into science not just because Nimoy's portrayal of the logical Mr. Spock but also because of In Search of..., the curious 1970s TV series hosted by Nimoy that was dedicated to mysterious phenomena.
"Despite the fact he worked in fiction, anyone who can inspire that many people to look into the sky and wonder has done something really important for mankind," he said.
Lincoln noted that Trek and the character of Spock, armed with his Vulcan nerve pinch and phase set to stun, provided the world with a dynamic look at someone interested in science.
"The fact is that Spock was a cool geek," said Lincoln. "Scientists are not always portrayed as being very strong. Usually, they're the guy with the tape on their glasses and their pants too high. He was clearly a person who had desirable components beyond just being smart."
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Nimoy's commitment to astronomy frequently warped from beyond the Alpha Quadrant and into the real world. He and his wife, Susan, donated $1 million to the renovation of the iconic Griffith Park observatory complex overlooking Los Angeles. The observatory's theatre is named after Nimoy.
"Mr. Nimoy was committed to people, community and the enlarged perspective conferred by science, the arts and the places where they meet," the observatory said in a statement. "The theatre honours Nimoy's expansive and inclusive approach to public astronomy and artful inspiration."
The actor, director and photographer narrated several films focusing on astronomy, including a 2012 short film about NASA's Dawn mission and the 1994 IMAX documentary film Destiny in Space.
"All I can say is if and when we pick up a signal, it'll be wonderful if the real aliens are half as appealing as Mr. Nimoy was as Spock," said Shostak of SETI Research.