Star Trek at 50, fiction meets fact: Bob McDonald

Host Bob McDonald reflects on technologies Star Trek predicted that we saw come true.

When art and science come together, it is usually a beautiful thing.

Star Trek, which celebrated 50 years in television this week, predicted many scientific advances that have since come to pass. (Paramount Television/Associated Press)

This week, science fiction fans celebrated a half century since the intrepid crew of Starship Enterprise set out on what started as a five-year voyage into the unknown, and ended up a long-lived and very prosperous franchise. Ten years later, CBC's Quirks & Quarks began chronicling incredible changes in real science and technology, many predicted in the science fiction series.

When art and science come together, it is usually a beautiful thing.

The show featured futuristic technology such as handheld wireless communication devices, portable tablet computers, information stored on solid chips, video conferencing, voice recognition computers, beam weapons, used by an international American, Japanese and Russian crew, plus one Vulcan. (Canada had representation, too: William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is Canadian, as was James Doohan, who played Scotty.)

Members of the Star Trek cast, from right in front: DeForest Kelley, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, and back row from right: James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, couldn't have imagined technological advances like the internet or cell phones when the show first kicked off 50 years ago. (The Associated Press)

All those technologies, and flight crews — with the exception of the Vulcan — have come true.

What has not emerged is faster-than-light warp drive, transporters that can beam people from place to place, and from the Star Trek: The Next Generation: holodecks, food replicators and androids that behave like humans. We also haven't contacted any aliens... yet. But we're working on it.

At the same time, Quirks & Quarks has documented the emergence of scientific discoveries and technology that could not be imagined in 1966. Back then, the internet did not exist and telephones were still attached to the wall. No one predicted that our phones would go far beyond the small wireless communicator Captain Kirk employed to say, "Beam me aboard." Now, our devices are able to connect us instantly to anyone, anywhere in the world, with voice and live video. It can show you where you are anywhere on the planet, take photos, store just about all the music ever recorded, allow you to do your banking, check your home while you are away, play video games and use countless other apps not even dreamed of back then.

We have also learned that space itself, where starships fly freely, is actually made up of invisible dark matter, which is mysterious because no one knows what it is. Equally mysterious dark energy — a force working against gravity — is pushing the universe outwards and making Federation Space even larger.

While Dr. McCoy had wonderful touchless diagnostic tools such as the tricorder, the recent genetics revolution has become a powerful new tool that has transformed medicine, biology, forensic science, archaeology, population studies, and genealogy, just to mention a few.

Star Trek's starships are capable of warp speed, allowing them to cross light years of interstellar space in minutes. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Our spaceships are ponderously slow compared to the Enterprise, but we have boldly gone where no one has gone before, at least in our cosmic backyard, with robots that have explored strange new worlds. These include every planet in our solar system, from Mercury to Pluto, hundreds of bizarre moons, comets, and beginning this week, the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will literally touch an asteroid and bring a piece back to Earth.

Real science can seem like science fiction, especially when we see the bizarre things such as the behaviour of sub-atomic particles that can communicate with each other instantly over great distances, or the strange warping of time and space around a black hole.

But we also need the imagination of science fiction writers such as the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, who had the vision to imagine a future where energy and money problems have all been solved and technology takes us to the stars to meet our cosmic neighbours. Whether these dreams come true or not is unimportant. It is the desire to reach beyond ourselves that matters.

Science fiction points out directions we could go, and science provides the best tools to get there.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.