Monday, November 20, 2006

100 Years Young - Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

If you're ready to accept, or at least consider, that aging isn't a biological necessity, accepting the idea that things might grow smaller over time should be a relatively simple matter. At the same time, there are some logistical problems to work out. Consider the following comment from a book about how science-fiction writers can craft convincing alien life-forms: "Every creature I know of starts out as a smaller structure produced in the body of one or more adults of its kind. To become an adult itself, it must grow" (Aliens and Alien Societies, Stanley Schmidt).

Schmidt's comment that things "must grow" does make a lot of sense—and in principle I am inclined to agree with him. This illustrates our second instinctive objection to the Drayan life-cycle: A species cannot start fully grown, so the idea of a reverse life-cycle doesn't make any sense.

However, I would argue that this objection is rooted not in what we actually know about the Drayan, but in an overly-simplistic, overly-literal interpretation of what reverse aging means. While the episode gives few details about how reverse aging works, it is ridiculous to think it is as simple as playing a recording of "normal" growth in reverse. If that were the case the Drayan elder-children would have to continue growing younger and younger to the point of being embryos, zygotes, single cells . . .

There is no evidence that this is what happens. The episode suggests (although never shows) that after becoming "young children," they abruptly vanish—somehow transmuting into another form of life or into some kind of energy. If their end does not directly correspond to our beginning, then there is no reason to insist that their beginning directly corresponds to our end.

To put it another way, there is no reason to insist that in size or form they are born as fully grown old men and women with grey hair and wrinkles. The Drayan probably do have to start small and get bigger to be born, just as Schmidt states above. But beyond the point of reproduction and gestation, growth does not absolutely have to follow this trend in every aspect of a creature's life or all of the way to the end of that creature's life. There are examples of life right here on earth that directly or indirectly demonstrate this.

Life as We Know It
Butterflies - When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, its organs liquefy. It then reassembles itself into what is essentially a completely different organism.

Talk about inconceivable.

If you didn't know anything about butterflies—if you hadn't been familiar with them from childhood on—the very notion that any species undergoes such a bizarre transformation would be difficult to accept as anything but science fiction.

Because we have been exposed to this process of metamorphosis all of our lives, it has become just another fact—the sky is blue, the grass is green, caterpillars turn into butterflies. But when we look at a butterfly's life-cycle for what it really is, we realize that such a radical process of growth and development is really far more unbelievable, far more shocking, than the suggestion that an organism (which retains the same basic shape, the same organs, the same internal functions) just happens to get smaller and more youthful over time. If we are willing to accept a universe where caterpillars turn into butterflies, we have to be willing to accept the possibility of just about any biological process—even reverse aging.

Migratory Birds - In preparation for their long flights, some species of migratory birds undergo a fascinating process of reverse growth. Internal organs, such as their digestive tract and even their brains actually grow smaller, thus reducing their overall weight for the long flight ahead. This illustrates that growth does not always mean getting bigger over time.

If individual organs can be programmed to grow smaller, couldn't the same be true of an organism as a whole? Our bodies are able to coordinate the growth of all of our organs simultaneously as we grow up; it would certainly be no more complicated for that process to be coordinated in reverse.

In fact one creature does exactly that . . .

Turritopsis nutricula
- That is the scientific name for a jellyfish-like creature. After it matures and reproduces, this creature completely reverts to a younger state and starts its life over again. (Read more here and here.) So speculation and extrapolation aside, we do have here on earth proof that there is such a thing as reverse aging.

If only we could get poor turritopsis nutricula a new name. Perhaps Drayan would be most appropriate.

A Speculative Mode of Reproduction
The seemingly simple sponge has a particularly remarkable ability. If a live sponge is ground apart, the cells will group together and reform the original animal. If two sponges are ground up together, the cells will eventually separate and reform the two original sponges. National Geographic News states: "No other plant or animal can resurrect itself this way."

This suggests an intriguing possibility that could circumvent the 'start small and grow large' rule'—at least in the realm of science fiction—if we turn this unique ability into a mode of reproduction.

Imagine an alien species that is constantly shedding living cells, similar to the way humans are constantly shedding skin cells. Now imagine if those cells could, under the right circumstances, coalesce into a complete, functioning organism. Admittedly this is a bizarre concept, but not significantly more bizarre than what the sponge already does. Such a species could potentially produce full-grown offspring.

Obviously, nothing directly suggests this is how the Drayan reproduce, but this is an example of how life-forms we have already discovered are capable of the unexpected, even the seemingly impossible. With a little extrapolation and imagination, the possibilities only increase. So let's give the Drayan, of whom we know so little, the benefit of the doubt.

A Possibility from within the Already Established Star Trek Universe
On the other hand, by the time "Innocent" first aired, the Star Trek universe had already introduced us to a species that produces full-grown offspring, albeit in a manner that is somewhat more conventional than the sponge-inspired speculation mentioned above.

The seventh season TNG episode "Liaisons" introduced an obscure alien race called the Iyaaran. One of the Iyaaran envoys reacts in total shock when he sees a child walking through the corridor of the Enterprise. On one hand it is hard to imagine that a space-faring civilization had never encountered a race that gives birth to small children before, but on the other hand it does establish that there other kinds of reproduction in the Star Trek universe.

He explains that their offspring mature in a 'natal pod' outside of their parents. So while they evidently start small and get bigger in terms of reproduction and gestation, the Iyaaran are "born" fully grown. It is conceivable that the Drayan have a similar method of reproduction. It would certainly give us a fitting starting point for their reverse aging.

Beyond Bio-Chemistry
In the brief description we get of their life-cycle, the Drayan leaders explains that their 'energy only remains cohesive for a limited number of years' from the time they are "created." It is possible that when she says "created" she is simply refering to pro-creation, but the word certainly evokes the idea of a moment where they simply come into existence.

Above I offered a theory on a biological possibility for this kind of coallesing. But in light of the statement about 'cohesive energy' the Drayan may indeed be "created" in a process that has more to do with the laws of quantum mechanics or sub-space phenomena than with bio-chemistry.

So perhaps their means of reproductioin is truly exotic and allows them to start life fully grown. They exist in a biological form for a number of years and then their energy is released.

One Last Option
One other possibility is that the Drayan do produce offspring in essentially the same way as other humanoid races. They may begin life as small babies and get bigger as they get older, until they reach a certain point when the reverse aging kicks in. If this is the case, perhaps there is something about the Drayan young-children that distinguishes them from the Drayan elder-children. Perhaps it is a difference that wouldn't even be obvious to outsiders but that is unmistakable to the Drayan themselves. In other words, when they are said to age in reverse, this may be a reference to the end of their life-cycle, not to their life-cycle as a whole.

When we put it all together—real world science, already established Trek science, and extrapolations thereof—there seems to be plenty of room in the Star Trek universe for the Drayan and some kind of reverse aging.

There are a few remaining unanswered questions about the history of the Drayan civilization. These questions relate back to their unusual life-cycle and will be discussed in a future post.

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Friday, November 03, 2006

100 Years Young - Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization


Regarding this first point, let me begin with the assertion that what we know as the aging process is not the fundamental truth we presume it to be.

I recently came across an intriguing short story called "Invariant" by John Pierce about a scientist who learns how to stop biological aging. As the story explains: "The regeneration of limbs in salamanders led to the idea of perfect regeneration of human parts. How, say, a cut heals, leavng not a scar, but a perfect replica of the damaged tissue. How in normal metabolism tissue can be replaced not imperfectly, as in an aging organism, but perfectly, indfinitely." (The story deals with some unexpected results of his research - you may want to find a copy of this story to see how it ends.)

The idea of "perfect regeneration" proposed in this short story back in 1944 is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Consider some recent comments from some leading minds in the field of human aging:
“We tend to think of ourselves and other animals in the same way we think of machines: wearing out is simply inevitable . . . . Biological organisms are fundamentally different from machines. The most fundamental defining characteristic of living organisms, in fact, may be their ability to repair themselves . . . .They are self-repairing: wounds heal, bones mend, illness passes . . . . Why, then, should [biological organisms] be subject to the same sorts of wear and tear as machines?”——Steven Austad, Harvard University biologist

“At the molecular level our protein molecules are subject to continuous turnover at a rate characteristic of each particular protein; we thereby avoid the accumulation of damaged molecules. Hence if you compare your beloved’s appearance today with that of a month ago, he or she may look the same, but many of the individual molecules forming that beloved body are different. While all the king’s horses and men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, nature is taking us apart and putting us back together every day.”——
Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist

"If you understand the mechanisms of keeping things repaired, you could keep things going indefinitely."——
Cynthia Kenyon, professor and director of the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)
Far from being a well understood biological necessity, the mechanisms that cause aging are a poorly understood biological puzzle. The mystery of aging is touched on in the DS9 episode "In the Cards." Dr. Giger suggests that the only reason we dies is because of cellular boredom - our cells simply become bored of doing the same thing over and over and over again. So he devises a cellular regeneration and entertainment chamber to counteract the problem. While the presentation is tongue-in-cheek, the issue is genuine: Why should a self-repairing, self-replicating system die in the absence of disease or trauma?

Aging only seems an intuitive concept becuase inanimate things deteriorate over time and because life as we know it does the same. But the above quotations demonstrate that aging is actually counter-intuitive when we realize that—in terms of the molecules and cells inside us—we have perpetually young bodies. In theory, we should be, or at least could be, perpetually young organisms.

This brings us to a startling realization: Aging may not inevitable—it may in fact be a quirk of how life on earth behaves.

That is probably a difficult concept to accept. But science fiction can and should challenge our assumtions and expand our minds to explore possibilites outside of our ordinary experience. Moreover, there are organisms on earth that do not age in the traditional sense of the word. What is more, even present human biology demonstrates a capacity to be ageless.

The classic example of an eathly organism that is for all intents and purposes immortal is the amoeba. Amoeba's do not grow old and die—they just keep dividing . . . indefinitely. Think about it. An idividual amoeba might be killed by something in its environment, but otherwise it will divide in two, and in two, and in two . . . without ever "wearing out."

If these single celled organisms can divide indefinitely (in fact, they must be able to do so for the species to survive), theoretically couldn't the individual cells within a larger organism do the same thing?

Actually they can—the cells in the human body already do this, in a manner of speaking.

A child's body is made up of cells that ultimately originate with its parents. Because the child has its own life—because we view it as a discreet organism in and of itself—it is easy to overlook the fact that our offspring are actually an extension of our own bodies. In a sense they are us. An aging human body can create, from its own cells, a perfectly vibrant, healthy, functional, youthful body.

We wouldn't even exist if the human body couldn't generate youthful cells. That would make us incapable of reproducing. These new and youthful cells make up every coneivable tissue and system of the human body. Couldn't those same mechanisms be used internally to replace older cells in our own bodies? If you can make youthful skin, or a heart, or a brain for your offspring, why can't you make them for yourself? The "stuff" we're made of keeps living indefinitely outside of us in our offspring and their offspring. Surely that "stuff" can live indefintely inside of us as well.

Being multi-cellular obscures it, but in the end we're really not that different from the amoebas. Our ability to reproduce proves we have the capacity to be ageless. And if the possibility of ageless life exists in our real universe, there certainly must be room for the possibility of a species like the Drayan in a fictional universe extrapolated from our own.

Beyond the issue of aging, we also need to address the process of growth that goes along with it. This will be discussed in my next post.

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Real-Life Universal Translator (Almost)

Today I came across this interesting story: "'Tower of Babel' translator made." This is an innovative approach to creating a real-time, audio translator - something akin to the Universal Translator.

The article explains, in part:
Electrodes are attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as the person silently mouths words and phrases.

Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words.

The system is then able to translate the words into another language which is read out by a synthetic voice.

Sensing the movement of the speech organs, rather than an interpreting sound-waves, allows the device to come as close as possible to real-time translation without the trouble of having overlapping voices. The effect is "like watching a television programme that [has] been dubbed."

This is a huge leap forward, but clearly they have a long way to go. On Star Trek, people's lips always match what you hear them saying, no matter what language it is being translated into
.

But if they can perfect this device, and add some kind of holographic lip-synching we'll have Universal Translators before we know it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

100 Years Young - Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization


Reverse aging. It's one of the most intriguing concepts in xenobiology introduced into the Star Trek universe. A quiet little episode of Voyager called "Innocent" features a Delta-Quadrant race called the Drayan that have this kind of life-cycle. Unfortunately the concept was introduced but barely explored. The cursory treatment of the idea probably left most fans scratching their heads, dismissing the whole notion of reverse aging, and forgetting about the Drayan as just another alien-species-of-the-week.

However, I would argue that this is a concept worthy of further consideration and is even a plausible idea——if not in the real world at least within the confines of the Star Trek universe.

To address this topic I will begin by briefly outlining the episode, focusing on how it introduces reverse aging, and identifying some of the specific reasons why the concept seems so problematic. Subsequent posts will attempt to address those problems and offer suggestions as to how all of this relates to the Drayan and what we know of the Star Trek universe.

An 'Innocent' Idea
At first "Innocent" appears to tell the story of the stoic Vulcan stranded with emotional children. It plays out like a cross between Picard stuck in a turbo-lift with three children in "Disaster" and Spock trying to command a stranded shuttle crew in "The Galileo Seven." But the children-in-danger-Tuvok-out-of-his-element story is really just a set up for the twist ending.

The children are not children at all, they are actually elderly. The Drayan age in reverse. When they are old, they become young and enter a state of total innocence. Then they come to a sacred moon——supposedly where the first spark of life came from——and they return from whence they came.

As much as I love twist endings, to really work they have to serve the story well. Unfortunately the big revelation in "Innocent" comes so late in the episode, and leaves so little time for us to come to terms with the Drayan life-cycle, that the ending falls a little flat. The concept is just too radical for us to process and accept without giving some further explanation and more time to really believe in it.

For example, consider the "little girl's" sudden, seemingly miraculous recovery from her amnesia-of-innocence. One moment she doesn't have a clue who she is or why she's there, the next she's reminiscing about her grandchildren. It's a jarring transition that underscores how rushed the ending is, and it makes the resolution feel contrived. That, in turn, contributes to the feeling that the premise of reverse aging itself must be phony.

All that being said, the episode does (almost) redeem itself during its final moments. There's a wonderful scene with Tuvok accompanying the child-elder during her final moments. It reflects the level of emotion a story about reverse aging could have had throughout had it been told a little differently.

With a little less plot trickery and a little more heart, this episode might have had a dramatic impact similar to the TNG episode "Half a Life" (which deals with an alien culture where people are expected to commit ritual suicide at the age of 60). In "Half a Life" the twist wasn't reserved for the end of the episode. It was far enough in to be surprising, but early enough that the concept could be explored. That kind of story-telling would have served the idea of reverse aging very well and would have allowed enough time to address a lot of unanswered questions.

Now please take this criticism with a grain of salt. Whatever its shortcomings may have been, "Innocence" obviously intrigued me enough to watch it and rewatch it, trying to figure out what this reverse aging stuff was all about. It genuinely captured my imagination, —and therein lies the story's power. To tap into that power, we just need to give it a chance.

But to give it a chance we're going to have to set aside some of our most deeply ingrained ways of thinking about life - which is not the easiest thing for any of us to do.

"I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think it Means"
"Inconceivable!" (Can't you just hear the Grand Nagus saying that?) That's probably what most people would call the idea of reverserese aging.

And for seemingly good reasons. All of our experience tells us that everything grows older—— never younger——and inevitably starts to deteriorate and then die. Soran put it like this: "You can try and outrun it with doctors, medicines, new technologies, but time will hunt you down and make the kill." Picard replied, "Our mortality defines us. It's part of the truth of our existence." (Star Trek: Generations).

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine there could be any other truth (any 'new truth,' as Soran put it). Some kind of timeless nexus aside, aging appears to be a universal characteristic of biological life. But we need to realize that when we say "universal" we are actually talking about a phenomenon we have only observed on one planet, our planet. You cannot demonstrate a pattern on the basis of a single point of data——and when it comes to aging that is, in effect, what we have: the earth, a single point of reference in an unfathomably large universe.

So how do we make the inconceivable, conceivable?

Basically, there are two related conceptual hurdles to accepting the possibility of a race like the Drayan: (1) Biological aging——the deterioration that comes with the passage of time——appears to be an inevitable biological fact. (2) Growth, by definition, work in one direction; organisms all start small and get larger as they get older.

How do we come to terms with these seemingly undeniable facts? My next post will examine the first of these two issues.

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Friday, September 08, 2006

An Away Mission to Poland


It has been far too long since I have posted anything. I didn't fall of the face of the planet, I just went to the other side - I took a two week trip to Poland. I intended to post something before I left, which became as soon as I get back, and weeks later I’m still trying to finish what I started before I left . . .

So in the meantime, I thought I would share something from my trip and one other random thought—both Star Trek related, of course.

While some friends and I were in Krakow, we ran into Jacek (pictured here). He struck up a conversation with us (his English is very good) and I quickly learned that he was a fan of Star Trek. When he said “Live Long and Prosper” shortly after we met him it kind of gave it away.

We ended up inviting him to eat with us in the old town square where we were able to talk Trek for a while. He told me his favorite series is The Next Generation. He described watching Star Trek in Polish and said sometimes the translations aren’t quite right – but knowing English helps him out.

As you can see in the picture, he was walking down the street carrying a dented satellite dish (maybe a deflector dish actually). He felt a little awkward carrying it into the cafĂ© where we ate, but he came along anyway. He had picked it up somewhere hoping he could turn it into a “solar oven or directional microphone.” When we started asking about it, he explained that Star Trek has prompted his interest in science and technology, so he has become something of a tinkerer/inventor.

So there we were, ‘seeking out new life, and new civilizations,’ and we met someone who knew what all that was about. It was one of many memorable moments on the trip.

Now for my random thought.

When I got back from Poland, someone introduced me to the Picard Song. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth checking out.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Photons and Forcefields

In my entry "The Thing About Being a Hologram . . ." I discussed some of the oversights and inconsistencies involving the nature of holodeck characters, in particular sentient holodeck characters. But a number of episodes have inconsistencies revolving around holodeck "matter" leaving the holodeck. It has been elsewhere stated the holodeck "matter" cannot do that.

The Nitpicker's Guide for Next Generation Trekkers, written by Phil Farrand, is a classic work of Star Trek commentary discussing inconsistencies and bloopers from throughout the series. (In fact, I must credit Mr. Farrand for inspiring the name of this blog - he has a subheading called "Ruminations" in his discussion of certain episodes.) The problem of holographic objects leaving the holodeck is touched on throughout the book and finally summed up in his entry on the sixth season episode "Ship in a Bottle":
If holodeck matter cannot exist outside the holodeck, the following anomalies exist. [1] Wesley, drenched in Holodeck water, walks off the holodeck and remains wet in "Encounter at Farpoint." [2] Picard, kissed by a 1940s holodeck woman is "The Big Goodbye," leaves the holodeck with her lipstick intact on his cheek. [3] During "Angel One," a snowball flies out of the holodeck and hits Picard. [4] And finally, Data carries a piece of holodeck-created paper to a meeting of the senior staff in "Elementary, Dear Data."
Farrand points out (in his earlier discussion of "Elementary, Dear Data") that the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual makes a "valiant effort" to reconcile what happens in these episodes with the clear statements made about how holographic objects cannot leave the holodeck. But, in his opinion, the effort wasn't good enough. While I am not going to rehash all of his reasoning here, he demonstrates that the specifics of the Technical Manual's explanation are not consistent with evidence from the episodes themselves.

However, I would argue that there is a way to reconcile the four "anomalies" Farrand describes with what we know of the holodeck. In fact, the visual and logistical evidence suggests that at least some of what the Technical Manual says was on the right track - just not applied in a way that was consistent with the show itself. I will first attempt to outline the premise of my theory and then demonstrate how it applies in the episodes in question.

"Automatic Updates Available Now"
In the 21st century technology is upgraded and improved faster than most of us can keep up with it. It makes sense that this would also be true in the 24th century. The episode "11001001" (TNG) actually shows us the holodecks receiving an upgrade, and we can assume that there have been many other upgrades - both in hardware and software.

The look of the holodeck itself has changed from the yellow on black grid of TNG to the metallic framework seen on Voyager. When I first saw the "new" holodeck on Voyager I thought, "That's not a holodeck. Holodecks don't look like that." That's probably nostalgia on my part for the days when TNG was first on the air. I also think their is something visually striking - something classic - about the clean lines of the original look. But whichever look you prefer, the technology clearly changed over time.

This means that the way a holodeck works in one episode does not have to be identical to the way a holodeck works in another episode set a year or two later. In fact, it would be unusual if it did always work the same way. While we should expect some broad level of consistency, we should not demand every detail to always be the same every time a holodeck is used. Technology changes. I will refer to this concept as the Upgrade Principle.

Not Everything on a Holodeck is Hologram
During the seven year run of Voyager the phrase "photons and forcefields" was thrown around as a description of the Doctor and holograms in general. In the episode "The Phage" the Doctor demonstrated what this means by slapping Paris and then asking Paris to slap him. As a hologram, the Doctor could have as much or as little "substance" as he wanted - he hit Tom, but Tom's hand passed right through him. (He pulled a similar trick when he was attacked with a sword in the episode "Heroes and Demons.")

Evidently photons and forcefields are used to create most of the inanimate objects on the holodeck. And it appears to be the only way to create a holgraphic character, this is to say any thing "living", whether human, alien, or animal. The gangsters in "The Big Goodbye" (TNG), the book Picard throws though the doorway in "Ship in a Bottle" (TNG), and the Doctor's arm in "Projections" (VOY) all disappear when they leave the holodeck. These are all examples of holograms, that is to say simulations made of "photons and forcefields." They depend on the holoprojectors to maintain the illusion of substance.

(Clearly the disappearing gangsters must have been photons and forcefields because as their feet and legs disappeared they remained suspended in the air. A physical object would have collapsed. That the disappearance of the gangsters was less abrupt than the other two examples mentioned here can simply be explained with the Upgrade Principle. Evidently later holoprojecters behaved somewhat differently.)

I would argue that all of the statements made by Picard and others to the effect that 'holgraphic matter' cannot leave the holodeck are referring to this concept of holograms. In other words, the expression 'holographic matter' is basically a euphemism for that which appears to have substance on the holodeck but is actually made out of photons and forcefields.

On the other hand, some objects on the holodeck clearly are not made of photos and forcefields. Instead they must be replicated matter - completely real and solid. To reach this conclusion we simply have to refer to all the statements about 'holographic matter.' If 'holographic matter' cannot leave the holodeck, then anything that we have seen leaving the holodeck by definition could not have been 'holographic matter'. And since these were not objects brought onto the holodeck by the crew (such as the costumes or sports equipment we sometimes see them wear or carry onto the holodeck), these object must have been replicated by some system within the holodeck itself.

Beyond that general reasoning, there is other evidence demonstrating that, at least in some instances, replicated objects appear on the holodeck. In the episode "Ship in a Bottle" (TNG), Data throws his communicator at the holodeck wall to demonstrate that they are, in fact, still on the holodeck. When it hits the wall it causes a disruption in the holographic image and falls to the ground. This indicates that - at least in situation where the simulation is not programmed to account for it - real, physical objects can disrupt the holodeck if they are suddenly thrown at one of the walls.

Now compare that to what we saw in "Encounter at Farpoint." Data throws a rock. It hits the holodeck wall and disrupts the simulation. This strongly suggests that the rock was not a hologram (photons and forcefields). Evidently it was an actual rock (okay, an actual, replicated rock). And if the rock was replicated, it stands to reason that other objects on the holodeck may have been replicated as well.

Also, consider the matter of food on the holodeck. In the Nitpicker's Guide, Farrand refers to the crumpets Moriarty serves to Dr. Pulaski in "Elementary, Dear Data": "When she leaves, does that matter evaporate? (I know some people who would think this wonderful. Enter a holodeck. Gorge yourself. Walk out, all gone!)" His offhanded remark actually highlights a strong argument that the holodecks can and do produce replicated matter.

On one hand, it is conceivable that holographic food could be ingested, sit in your stomach, and then later disappear. Compare B'Elanna's holographic baby in the episode "The Killing Game" (VOY). This seems like a fairly sophisticated use of the holodeck, perhaps one that was not always possible (in line with the Upgrade Principle) but, at least by the time of Voyager, it was possible to have holographic food.

On the other hand, it isn't probable that the crew would want to eat food that wasn't real. Think of all the food and drink the crew had at Sandrines or at the pub in Fair Haven. Think about Seven of Nine's lobster dinner in "Someone to Watch Over Me" (VOY). Surely most - if not all - of these must have been actual, replicated meals. (If someone consistently ate disappearing, holographic food I could see it becoming some kind of 24th century eating disorder - call it holographic bulimia. Barclay would probably end up with it.)

So while there may not be specific dialogue establishing it, the above points demonstrate that holodecks interface to some extent with the ship's replicator system. This brings us back to the Technical Manual, which says the holodeck has a "matter conversion subsystem" that creates physical props as well as a "holographic imagery system" that uses "shaped forcebeams" to create the illusion of objects with substance. Its subsequent explanation of how the two systems interact may be flawed in comparison to the show itself, but the basic premise must be true. There must be replicated matter on the holodeck. The question then becomes, when and why does the holodeck use the matter conversion subsystem?

All Together Now
If we put together the Upgrade Principle with the premise that objects (but not living matter) can be created by the replicators, a theory rather naturally suggests itself. While the holodecks have always had both capabilities, and evidently still do, it seems that early on they relied much more heavily on replicated objects. The "shaped forcebeam" technology (the photons and forcefields system) was not as refined early in the history of the holodeck. As time went on, more and more things were created as holograms, but for some items (especially food) replicated objects were still more feasible or desirable to the user. This rather neatly explains why these supposed inconsistencies cropped up early in the run of TNG - not because the writer's hadn't figured it all out, but because the technology itself was not as sophisticated at the time. Now, let's apply this theory to the specific "mistakes" Farrand identified:

1. Wesley's Water "Encounter at Farpoint" - We have already considered that at least some of the rocks in this simulation were replicated rocks. Since the water was able to leave the holodeck it also must have been replicated. We know from "Caretaker" (VOY) that starships can replicate large quantities of water very easily. On the other hand, getting forcefields to imitate water may be a considerable challenge. Getting just the right feel of its wetness, surface tension, and so on was perhaps impractical or even impossible in the early days of holodeck technology. In fact, water may still be replicated on a fairly regular basis since someone going for a swim or walking along a holographic beach may want the experience of really getting - and even staying - wet.

2. Picard's Lipstick "The Big Goodbye" - Again, the limitations of early holodeck technology may have come into play. The subtle texture of a thin layer of lipstick left on a person's cheek may have been beyond the capability the holodeck to duplicate convincingly with forcefields. Alternatively, the programmers of the Dixon Hill holo-novels may have intentionally included replicated lipstick as a kind of practical joke on the wanna-be private investigators out there.

3. The Snowball Effect "Angel One" - This is very similar to the liquid water in "Encounter at Farpoint." Image trying to simulate millions of little snowflakes, with all their facets, how they stick to each other, how the slide over each other, how they fall apart. We can conclude that this was beyond the system's capabilies so it replicated the snow. Also, serious skiers may feel that holographic snow just doesn't feel right - that it's not enough like the real thing. So they use the replicators to conjure up real snow.

4. Moriarty's Sketch "Elementary, Dear Data" - This fourth case is admittedly harder to rationalize. It happened later than the other three and involves a rather simple object - a piece of paper. It would be difficult to argue that the holodeck couldn't simulate a piece of paper. Yet this paper left the holodeck, so it could not have been a hologram. So why would it have been replicated? Consider two possibilities.

First, this may have been a feature of the Sherlock Holmes programs in general. Perhaps whoever devised the stories saw some entertainment value in actually replicating certain props, certain clues, for the participants to find and even keep as "souvenirs" of some kind. This way they could collect trophies from all the cases they solved, just as Holmes collected significant items from his cases.

A second idea revolves around the unique situation in this episode. The computer created a hologram with ability to beat Data. This granted Moriarty sentience and a measure of control over the holodeck. He could even call for the arch. Perhaps he also had access to the matter conversion subsystem and had been experimenting with conjuring real - albeit lifeless - objects, and this paper just happened to be one of them. Or he may have intentionally created this for Data as a demonstration that he was a force to reckon with. In any event Moriarty's case is so unique we should not be surprised that other unusual holodeck activity was associated with this incident.
While there is some seeming confusion about holographic matter, I believe that this theory adequately addresses the basic premise of how a holodeck functions as well as the specific problems pointed out by Mr. Farrand. And, if we are very generous, we can even choose to believe that the writers knew this all along. As Mr. Farrand put it, "The Creator is Always Right."

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Fractal Collective

Fractal - n. "In colloquial usage, it denotes a shape that is recursively constructed or self-similar, that is, a shape that appears similar at all scales of magnification and is therefore often referred to as 'infinitely complex.'" (Wikipedia)
The Borg collective exemplifies this colloquial definition of a fractal - the idea of something that is the same at all levels of magnification. In effect, the Borg are a fractal civilization.

The Borg, on the largest scale, form a collective. In fact, Seven of Nine often referred to the Borg simply as "the Collective." We can mentally picture this - swarms of cubes populated by a vast array of interconnected drones all fulfilling specific roles within the collective. Tasks are carried out for the whole. As much as each drone may perform some particular task, this specialization is part of a larger scale decentralization. There is redundancy built into the very fabric of the collective. Eliminate a drone, damage a portion of a cube, and the collective continues to function and will repair itself. This description of the collective as a whole is also true on smaller levels of magnification.

Although Borg ships have been most frequently observed by themselves, it is clear that within the vast collective there are at times smaller "collectives" of Borg cubes (and spheres) that work and operate together. For example, the fourteen cubes Voyager encounters at the beginning of the episode "Scorpion", or the Borg ships seen surrounding the unicomplex in "Dark Frontier". The very nature of the hive mind suggests that such ships are not operating independently, but function together as whole. Of course, the destruction of an individual cube does not impede the progress of this miniature collective.

Increase the magnification by another factor and we see that each ship is a collective unto itself. Each drone, and each part of the ship for that matter, fills a role in concert with the whole. And yet the collective on board a given ship is further divided into a myriad of sub-collectives. The very name Seven of Nine demonstrates this structure - a small group of nine drones. Each group functions as a unit, forming a collective with all of the other groups. And yet another collective is nested inside each group as each drone carries out a role within this small, immediate collective.

finally, each drone is a collective. All of its nanoprobes work in concert with one another carrying out the collective will of that drone - to the extent that it relates to the will of the larger collective. It stands to reason that even these nanoprobes are divided into sub-collectives devoted to particular tasks, each one in constant communication with those in its group, and each group coordinating with the other groups. The nanoprobes function like a miniature collective of Borg cubes, but instead of swarming through space, they swarm through the biological tissues of individual drones.

When a person is assimilated, he immediately becomes part of the collective. The nanoprobes themselves function as microcosm of the collective as whole. They imprint the very essence of a collective into the persons blood-stream. Once the nanoprobes are in place, the person becomes embedded in each layer, in each iteration of the fractal whole - The Collective.

Intimations of the Pattern - Whether by accident or by design, the fractal nature of the Borg is reflected elsewhere within their civilization. Borg "script" resembles a fractal pattern. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the branching green patterns were generated by code similar to the code for fractal tree and vine simulations. Also, the Transwarp hub, featured in the Voyager episode "Endgame", has a fractal look to it - repeating patterns at smaller and smaller scales. (See the Transwarp Hub over at Ex Astris Scientia's gallery of Borg Ship Classes.)

On the Matter of Unimatricies
- The term Unimatrix has been thrown around as a unit or division within the collective. Each unimatrix is a miniature collective, much as I have described above. We know that the Unicomplex is called Unimatrix 001. Beyond that, I am not certain if the term has been used consistently enough to be precisely defined. Is each Borg ship a Unimatrix, or does a Unimatrix encompass multiple ships? In other words, where does a Unimatrix fit in the layers of collectives? Any thoughts or observations on this would be appreciated.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Thing About Being a Hologram . . .

Starting with The Next Generation, the holodeck became as much a part of the Star Trek universe as the transporter and warp drive. One outgrowth of the holodeck concept was the creation of sentient holograms, most notably Professor Moriarty (TNG: “Elementary, My Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”) and the Doctor (VOY: “Caretaker” et. al.). The concept of a sentient, living hologram is intriguing and is explored throughout the seven seasons of Voyager in particular.

In the process, however, the writers have allowed a persistent logical gaffe into a number of story lines that fail to recognize that holograms aren’t discreet, self-contained things, they are representation of data in a file.

I am not talking about a debate over what holograms are when they appear on the holodeck (the tractor-beam-manipulated-matter vs. photons-and-force-fields debate). I am talking about what they are at a fundamental level. They are computer files. Yes, they are highly sophisticated computer files, but they are still computer files. Before citing examples of where this fact has been ignored or sidestepped, let’s first examine this basic premise and its implications.

Holograms As Computer Files

“Projections” (VOY) - The Doctor spends the better part of this episode locked in an internal debate over the nature of his own existence. In his delusion, he is supposed to be a human being. At the end of the episode, to confirm that he is a hologram, he tries to pass his arm into the corridor. His forearm disappears as it breaks the plane of the doorway—his holo-emitters cannot reach beyond that point. While his arm disappears, it isn’t amputated. He simply pulls it back into sickbay all in one piece.

This makes perfect sense. Somewhere in the EMH file is a subroutine for the Doctor’s arm. Just because the holo-emmiters cannot display his arm doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an arm or that it doesn’t exist anymore. The relationship between a hologram and a system of holo-emitters (like a holodeck or Voyager’s sickbay) is similar to the relationship between an html document and your monitor.

If you grab the window you are reading this page in and drag it partway off of the screen, you know that you can pull it back onto the screen. Your browser and this page will be in tact.

What you see on the screen is only a visual representation of a file. Moving that representation outside the area your monitor can display in doesn’t effect the original file. In a sense the page is always “there” even when it’s off the screen. You can’t see it, but the computer, in it’s own virtual world “knows” where each portion of that page is.

Similarly, the Doctor is a file in the computer’s memory like an html document. His program interacts with some kind of software just as an html document interacts with a web browser and operating system. Finally that software tells the hardware, the holo-emitters, to display a representation of that file just as a web browser and operating system tells your monitor to display a representation of a particular file.

“The Swarm” (VOY) – In this episode, the Doctor’s file, the actual essence of what he is, was in danger. He had accumulated too many extraneous data from years of use, and the only obvious solution was to reset him to his original programming. The Doctor we know and love, with all his memories and experiences would have truly “died,” been lost forever.

It should be noted that there may have been a back-up with at least some of his memories and experiences available as indicated in the episode “Living Witness” (see below). In any event this episode demonstrates that in a worst-case scenario, the Doctor’s program can be reset to its original configuration.

“Living Witness” (VOY) – This story is set 700 years in Voyager's future where a copy of the Doctor is reactivated on a planet that Voyager had encountered during its trip back to the Alpha Quadrant. Let me repeat that. A copy of the Doctor is reactivated. This episode demonstrates that Voyager saves backup copies of the EMH in some kind of protected archive (which starships have been known to have at least since the TNG episode “Contagion”).

We don’t know how often these backups are made, but to be useful we have to assume they are made fairly often. So even though this backup was lost (in the sense that the piece of hardware that contained it was stolen), it is unthinkable that they didn’t start making new backups right away. These backups should be available througout the series.

Holograms Treated as Real, Irreplaceable Things

While Moriarty and the Doctor have every right to want to be treated like real people in terms of their personal rights, the writer have lapsed into treating them like real people in terms of the form of their existence. Following are sampling of episodes that reflect this problem:

“Ship In a Bottle” (TNG) – This episode featured the return of the nefarious Moriarty and his efforts to leave the holodeck for the real world. This episode makes a great point of saying that if a holodeck character were to walk off the holodeck they would cease to exist. Not that they would just disappear until the computer displayed them again, but they would actually, fundamentally cease to exist!

Picard even makes a great show of tossing a holographic book through the open doors of the holodeck. It disappears in flash of light. But it is unthinkable that the file, the data, the information that describes that book is completely erased from computer memory. (I would argue that if the doors were at that moment closed and the arch disappeared, we might even see the book laying where it would have landed had the holo-emitters been active in that part of the holodeck.)

Similarly, when there is an effort to beam a chair off the holodeck (albeit a simulated effort to do so) the characters act as if the chair is now lost forever—and thank goodness it wasn’t the Countess! Does it really make sense that they could never again conjure up that particular chair from the computer’s databanks just because a representation of that chair disappeared? But no one in the episode seems to view it this way.

Picard, Data, Barclay, Moriarty and later the newly sentient Countess all talk about the danger that if these characters walk off the holodeck they might be lost. There is particular concern over no harm coming to the Countess by not letting her walk off the holodeck prematurely. But can’t she pass her arm in and out of the holodeck like the Doctor in “Projections”? And if she can do it with her arm, why not her whole body?

There was certainly enough drama in Moriarity’s quest for freedom and his threatening control over the Enterprise for the purpose of telling a good story. There was really no need to act as if the Countess couldn’t try walking off the holodeck (or beaming off the holodeck for that matter) and just seeing what would happen. Worst case scenario: they reactivate the program where it left off – there is no reason for anything to be lost because she isn’t a thing, she’s a file. A trial and error approach shouldn’t have any risks associated with it.

“Message in a Bottle” (VOY) – The Doctor is sent through an alien network to the experimental Starfleet ship the Prometheus. While the episode focuses on his efforts to outsmart a group of Romulans who have taken over the ship (with the help of a reluctant EMH Mark II) there is a sub plot regarding Harry’s efforts to create a replacement EMH in the Doc’s absence. The whole notion that the Doctor was sent and actually gone and irreplaceable is just a variation on the inconsistencies we saw in “Ship in a Bottle.”

This isn’t like sending a person through a transporter beam, this is like sending an email with an attachment—there should still be a copy of the original left behind. In other words, because the Doctor is a program, it should be possible to send a copy of him through the network without losing the original. And we know from "Living Witness" that there are backup copies of the Doctor's program anyways. This episode ignores that.

“Virtuoso” (VOY) – The Doctor decides to abandon Voyager for a singing career. Janeway objects, in part because it will leave the ship without his services. Admittedly the plot wouldn’t allow the Doctor to leave the ship and have an exact duplicate take his place. That duplicate would have the same desire for stardom as the original. But even if they lost their friend the Doctor as they knew him, couldn’t they reboot a copy of his program to its original settings or load in an earlier back-up of his program with at least some of his memories after they left Quomar behind?

Suggesting that kind of resolution might seem demeaning to the sentient status we have watched the “real” Doctor attain to over the five and a half seasons leading up to this, but the technology would allow for this as indicated by “The Swarm” and “Living Witness.” However, such a solution, however unpleasant to the Doctor’s friends, is never even proposed in “Virtuoso.”

“Life Line” (VOY) – In terms of the Doctor’s program, this is “Message in a Bottle, Part II.” The Doctor is transferred to Jupiter Station to treat his creator, Doctor Zimmerman, with an emphasis on transferred. Not copied, but transferred, disappearing from Voyager’s sickbay as if there were no way to copy his file or retrieve it from the archives.

“Critical Care” (VOY) – The Doctor is kidnapped by a thief and conman named Gar. The mobile emitter, as a physical object, can be stolen, but what about the Doctor’s program? Why would this thief “cut and paste” the file instead of “copying and pasting” the file? If he had simply duplicated the Doctor it may have taken the crew longer to realize the EMH had been pirated and the real mobile emitter stolen.

Even allowing for poor planning on Gar's part, why would he not only “cut and paste” the Doctor but also delete his fully functional back-up file(s)? He wouldn't have, it would only make Voyager that much more intent on tracking him down. So there should be something more than an old training file left in protected memory, there should be a fully functional backup. But in an effort to make the Doctor’s kidnapping “real” the writers ignore what he really is and act as if he is simply gone.

“Author, Author” (VOY) – This episode deals with a holo-novel written by the Doctor. An unscrupulous publisher steals his work claiming that he can do whatever he wants with it because the Doctor, as a hologram, is not legally a real person and therefore has no legal rights.

The closing scene portrays a situation alluded to in “Life Line.” According to that episode, the EMH Mark I’s were reassigned to menial physical labor. Now we get to see them. The closing scene, which is admittedly an impressive bit of VFX, shows a whole cavern full of EMH Mark I’s toiling away in a mine. They have acquired a copy of the Doctor’s novel and there is an implied civil rights movement afoot.

As much as I like the scene from a technical standpoint and because of what it suggests for the future of holographic rights, it reflects the basic premise that these holograms are things, not files. The scene suggests that if there were 100 star ships with an EMH Mark I, there are now exactly 100 EMH Mark I’s that have been transferred to other kinds of assignments. But the EMH on any ship is just a copy of a piece of software, not a thing that can be physically transferred.

Imagine if a new word processor came out and no one liked it because it wasn’t user-friendly. Can you imagine the software company saying, “Okay, let’s resell it as photo-editing software”? Of course not. They might sell an upgrade that replaces the existing version and fixes the bugs, but they wouldn’t re-release it as something else. And if they did, it would be at that point truly be something else. It wouldn’t be the original in any sense of the word, even if some of the basic operating code or interface carried over.

The Challenge the Writers Faced

In order to create dramatic tension and help us view certain holographic characters as "real people", the writers have treated them as destructible and irreplaceable. Star Trek has told plenty of “reset-button” stories, but to create characters that literally have a reset button seems to lack dramatic appeal. If a character dies and can simply be reloaded from protected computer archives, then you can’t put them in real jeopardy, at least not as easily as you can a flesh in blood being. To create that kind of danger, the hologram's program and all backup files would have to be threatened at the same time. That could happen, but it would require a much more elaborate problem than your average alien threat of the week.

I have cited some specific occasions when the Doctor left the ship (or was going to leave the ship) for what was presented as a permanent (or possibly permanent) absence. The truth is, there have been numerous occasions when the Doctor used his mobile emitter to leave the ship on short term away missions of one kind or another. The implication has always been that when he’s using his mobile emitter, he cannot be activated in sickbay. But the evidence we have considered at the outset suggests he could be. And why not? Why leave your ship without a doctor for any amount of time?

Each time the Doctor leaves, a duplicate of his current program could be left behind in sickbay. When he returns you wouldn’t have to have two Doctors. The two could be merged back into a single hologram that shares the memories of both. This would have been a intriguing concept to explore, something unique to an artificial intelligence like the Doctor. He could be split apart and reintigrated, eventually having a lifetime of parallel memories. This seems like a great source of potential stories or at least of an interesting sub-plot or two. Unfortunately, this kind of idea was never pursued.

Simply put, while the writer’s choice to treat Moriarty and the Doctor as things is understandable from the standpoint of dramatic story telling, it is very difficult to reconcile logically with what we know of the technology.

But then again, who ever said humans were logical?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Utopia Planitia Online

If you visited the Google website earlier this week you may have seen their logo was modified as a tribute to Perceval Lowell and his studies of Mars, and the launch of Google Mars with its interactive map of the red planet.

See the List of Planitia on Mars

If you follow the above link, and search through the list of plains (or planitia) on the left, you can find Utopia toward the end of the list and find it on the map. Utopia Planitia is, of course, the site of Starfleet's Ship Yards and the birthplace of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

More precisely this is the location over which the ship yards are in a geosynchronous orbit as explained in the ST:TNG Technical Manual and confirmed by visual evidence from the Voyager episode "Relativity". (This makes me wonder if Earth Station McKinley is in geosynchronous orbit above Mt. McKinley.)

The idea of the Utopia Planitia Ship Yards was introduced during The Next Generation. It was mentioned (and barely shown through a window) in the episode "Booby Trap". Geordi used the Enterprise's design specifications from its original construction as a reference. This holodeck program, which also included a re-creation of Dr. Leah Brahms, was briefly seen again in the episode "Galaxy's Child" when the real Dr. Brahms stumbled across the program and her doppelganger, much to Geordi's chagrin.

In the seventh season episode "Eye of the Beholder" it is learned that a brutal murder was committed on the Enterprise during its construction at Utopia Planitia, but again, we never really got to see what the Ship Yards were actually like.

But finally we got to see Utopia Planitia during Voyager's fifth season, and now we can see its name-sake on Google Mars.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Wide Beam Phasers Revisited

In the earlier post “Nothing New Under the Sun . . .” I wrote about the progressive revelation I had regarding how far back the use of the wide angle phaser setting goes. Recently I came across some additional information on a Star Trek forum. [Unfortunately the thread, and evidently the entire forum, are no longer there anymore.]

To summarize the discussion: There are at least two other places the wide beam phaser setting was mentioned or used that I had overlooked. One was in the Next Generation episode “Power Play.” Troi, Data, and O’Brien were “possessed” by alien life forms and had taken hostages in 10-Forward. One rescue option that was discussed was to storm 10-Forward with wide beam phaser fire—stun everybody, sort it out later. Secondly, on Deep Space Nine wide beam phasers were used to sweep rooms for hidden changelings. (There is a third reference on this forum to another use or mention of it in an episode of TOS, however in the post there was some uncertainty as to which episode this was in and, unlike the other two examples, I have no recollection of the situation described.)

Interestingly the topic was raised with the specific issue I had also wondered about: Why wasn't the wide angle setting used against the Borg? A variety of theories are offered that revolve around the basic ideas that wide beam phasers beams get weaker as they spread out and therefore may not be powerful enough against the Borg and/or the wide angle setting drains the power cells too quickly to be useful in a combat situation.

These theories are reasonable enough, although, as some of the other posts indicate, not necessarily unassailable. Physically speaking it makes sense that the power of a wide angle beam would diminish significantly over a given distance, but Tuvok did threaten to use wide beam dispersal that was set to kill.

The counter-argument offered is that by the time the beam spreads out perhaps it’s not strong enough of a kill setting to use on a Borg (whose body armor may withstand lower kill settings). Well, maybe that’s so. As far as the power consumption theory goes, the counter-argument is you don’t get very many shots against the Borg anyways so, why not drain a couple of phasers if it disables more drones?

Reading the discussion got me thinking about the issue some more myself. A combination of the issues mention might make the setting unusable—the power setting needed to have any impact on a group of drones may overload the phaser or be greater than its total output capacity.

Or let’s assume that Tuvok’s threat implies phasers are fully capable of firing at wide beam dispersal, even at the highest settings. What if the wide beam setting only works for a certain frequency or a small range of frequencies, perhaps the standard phaser frequencies that the Borg long ago adapted to?

The problem with all of these "what if's" is you can "what if" right back at them. Couldn’t someone design a wide angle that overcame these limitations—increased power and therefore increased range, larger power cells, variable frequencies?

Enterprise adds another layer of confusion to the issue with the introduction of the stun grenade to Trek lore. Given two centuries to perfect it, couldn’t such a device be created with a kill setting, perhaps even one powerful enough to use against the Borg?

In the end dramatic considerations must win out for the writers and suspension of disbelief should kick in for us as the audience. The very fact that this technology is mentioned so infrequently during the hundreds of hours of episodes and movies shows that this is simply not a common way the phasers are used. We can assume that a battle with the Borg is just one of many scenarios where it just doesn’t work that way.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

“The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Nog . . . Try to Take Over the World.”

The Deep Space Nine episode “Little Green Men” presents the comical notion that Quark, Nog, Rom, and Odo were actually responsible for the infamous Roswell incident. As it turns out, it wasn’t a weather balloon at all. It was three big-lobed Ferengi and a stowaway changeling.

When Quark realizes he has traveled back in time and is dealing with primitive hu-monshu-mons he can relate too on one level, but disdains on another—he rattles off his plan to take over the galaxy. Sell his ship’s technology to the highest bidder, make contact with Ferenginar, and give the Ferengi a decisive advantage in the history of the Alpha Quadrant. He muses that the Ferengi will have warp drive ‘even before the Vulcans.’ As you would expect, his grandiose plans come to nothing, but the truth is, they may never had a chance, at least not in the way he envisioned them. Even assuming Rom could use his engineering expertise to manufacture twenty-fourth century gadgets with twentieth century technology, the chronology is off as well.

The Roswell incident occurred in 1947. According to the Enterprise episode “Carbon Creek” Vulcans were covertly observing earth in 1957 when Sputnick was launched. It’s difficult to believe that the Vulcans didn’t have warp drive at all in 1947 and, not only developed it, but were also out observing other civilizations in as little as decade.

Quark’s comments indicate that the Vulcans are recognized as among the first, if not the very first of this “generation” of Alpha Quadrant races to achieve warp drive. (I use the term “generation” to distinguish the warp-faring races of the Federation’s general time frame from the earlier, ancient races that had the technology and died out and/or moved on.) If he knew that even in approximate terms—for example the century in which they invented warp drive—wouldn’t he have realized that hu-mons of the nuclear age lived in more or less the same time period?

Well, perhaps not. He may not have had a clear idea of exactly where he was in Earth history, his grasp of Vulcan history may not be the strongest for that matter, not to mention that his thinking was probably clouded by his own avarice. In other words this is a soft inconsistency at best, easily explained as a misconception on Quark’s part. There is no reason to believe he could have beat the Vulcans to the creation of warp drive.

(Of course, other than the Vulcans, there must have been other warp-faring races around as well—although not necessarily Alpha Quadrant natives. Consider the aliens that kidnapped Amelia Earhart as described in the Voyager episode “The 37s”. Which brings up another curiosity: there were extraterrestrial encounters on earth at ten year intervals – the abductions in 1937, the Ferengi in Roswell in 1947, and Vulcans in Carbon Creek in 1957. That must be significant . . .)

It is amusing that Nog expresses concern that Quark is going to alter the timeline. In fact, their presence did not alter the timeline at all. This event was “supposed” to happen, at least in the timeline we live in. It wouldn’t be surprising if somewhere in Nog’s guide to Earth there was a reference to the Roswell incident even before they traveled into the past. (It’s probably cross-referenced with the entry regarding Gabriel Bell/Sisko.)

The end of the episode reminds me of Pinky and the Brain. Quark has Brain’s determination to take over the world, although in some ways Rom is actually the genius who has the technical expertise to pull it all off (in an idiot Pinky sort of way). But just like an episode of Pinky and the Brain, at the end of the day, Quark’s vision of taking over the world is unrealized (he has even lost his new ship), and he’s back in his cage, back in the bar again.

And Nog asks, “So Quark what are we going to do tonight?”

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Sheliak

The Star Trek universe is largely populated with humanoid races - one head, two eyes, two arms, two legs – with relatively minor variations. One of the few non-humanoid, intelligent races we see on the show is the Sheliak in the episode "The Ensigns of Command" (TNG, season three). Their non-humanoid form creates an interesting backdrop for the even larger cultural and linguistic barriers that exist between the Sheliak and the humanoid races of the Federation. At the same time it poses some interesting questions about how they have advanced to become a powerful, space-faring civilization.

First it must be acknowledged that while the Sheliak are non-humanoid, they still have a roughly humanoid silhouette. What we see of the Sheliak is a human sized, upright being with a head-like protuberance at the top and undulating masses where a humanoid's arms would normally be. Still, they have no discernable face, eyes, nose nor any true appendages. Therein lies an interesting problem: How did the Sheliak become a technologically advanced society without any appendages?

In the Star Trek universe we have encountered intelligent non-humanoids without appendages in the past. The Horta is an obvious example. However, while the Horta is intelligent, it clearly is not capable of creating even simple tools let alone complex technology. We might also mention the jellyfish-like creature in the Voyager episode "Think Tank" who was incredibly intelligent, but only able to travel through space with the assistance of other species possessing both intelligence and the ability to create and employ technology.

Intelligence and technology clearly do not go hand in hand by necessity. No matter how knowledgeable a species might be, if they cannot manipulate their environment (if they don’t have opposable thumbs or some alien equivalent) they cannot create the technology to move beyond their own world.

So what of the Sheliak? In many respects they resemble upright cousins of the Horta, yet they have powerful technology at their disposal. How did they create it? How do they operate it? Here are two theories:

Perhaps they really do have appendages, we just never saw them. Throughout Picard's encounter with the Sheliak we never get a clear view of the base of the creature, where a humanoid’s feet would be. Nor do we see any outward sign of how the Sheliak director is able to interface with the systems on his ship, yet clearly he is able to do so. He can activate and deactivate communications, initiate a transporter beam (as when he "hangs up" on Troi and Picard), and when Picard quotes the treaty you can hear the Sheliak's computer accessing the relevant information for him.

All this being said we can speculate that at the creature’s base, obscured by the glowing rods that surround him, are appendages - perhaps arm-like or tentacle-like - that reach down into the floor of the ship, almost like roots of a tree. Perhaps these appendages also have sense organs on them, some sort of eyes, that allow the Sheliak Director to see what he is doing as he manipulates controls and consoles below him.

A second possibility is that the Sheliak have telekinetic abilities and therefore do not need physical appendages. They can simply interface with the ship functions and perform other tasks by thinking about it. Along similar lines they may have organs that allow them to manipulate electro-magnetic fields in precise ways, giving them control of metallic object in their environment. (Imagine a cross between a giant slug and Magneto from X-Men.) This might explain their apparent ability to interact directly with the electronics on their ship.

Whatever the method, the Sheliak must have some way to overcome their seeming lack of limbs, allowing them to become a technologically advanced and evidently an extremely powerful, if reclusive, force to be reckoned with.