Science Trek Redux: STAR Trek (January 1996)

I know this is Science Officer Dave’s territory, but what is there a Second Officer doesn’t do?  This (hopefully) continuing column will explore the SCIENCE half of the science fiction we call Star Trek, not only on its own, but also as it relates to the FICTION half.  I’m not Isaac Asimov, but I’ve read his books.

Literally, half of Star Trek is “Star.”  These big blops of mostly hydrogen not only play an important role in the function of the universe, but also in the universe of Star Trek.  I mean, heck, if it weren’t for all the stars out there, where would everybody live?

We humans, with our strange little ways, like to stick name tags on everything we see, including stars.  Most stars have several names, ranging from the scientific (alpha Orionis–the brightest star in the constellation Orion) to the general (Betelgeuse, Mirzam) to the pet (Martial Star).  These four names refer to the same ball of gas.  Multiple names also come about because different cultures name the stars with their own words.  Also, many of the common names are translated from Arabic, so different translators render names differently (Wesen v. Wezen, Algorab v. Algores).

With names like these, who needs to make them up?  While in many cases the names of stars in Star Trek do come from the depths of someone’s imagination, many times they use real names of real stars.

Remember the proto-Vulcanoid people on Mintaka III, from the TNG episode “Who Watches the Watchers”?  Mintaka is an actual star; it’s also known as delta Orionis–the fourth brightest star in the constellation Orion.  Similarly, the Acamarians–Gatherers and all–from the TNG episode “The Vengeance Factor” could come from a planet orbiting the star Acamar (aka theta Eridani).  Do you suppose the Sheliak from “The Ensigns of Command” (another TNG episode) could have come from beta Lyrae, commonly called Sheliak?  (For those fans of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Arrakis–mu Draconis–is also a star).

Having multiple names can make things interesting.  The star alpha Carinae was mentioned in two Classic Trek episodes (“The Ultimate Computer” and “Wolf in the Fold”), while the star Canopus was used in two others (“Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “Arena”).  As you might guess, these are two names for the same object.  It would make a nice little nit-pick if Kirk had called alpha Carinae a G-type star, and Canopus a M-type star.  But not necessarily.

This isn’t necessarily an error, since many stars share the same name.  Sometimes, even stars in the same constellation have the same common name (both epsilon and zeta Aquilae claim Deneb among their common names).  And writing of Deneb, there are at least six stars with that name.  This means the Deneb V, where Harry Mudd illegally sold all the rights to a Vulcan fuel synthesizer in the Classic Trek episode “I, Mudd,” does not necessarily orbit the same star Deneb as Deneb IV, where the Bandi people “built” the Farpoint station in the TNG episode “Encounter at Farpoint.”

Of course, there are times when a chosen star might not be as hospitable to life as Trek makes it seem.  Take the oft-mentioned Rigel, for instance.  This popular star, taking part in at least eight Classic and Next Gen Trek episodes, is a supergiant star, and as best current astronomy can tell, probably incapable of supporting life.  Of course, as noted above, the references might not have all been to the same Rigel.  (Still, the Classic Trek references do indicate a star, 650 lightyears away, the second brightest one in Orion).  But again, while on the surface this might appear to be a big OOPS, not necessarily.  A to-be insistent point in this column is the fact that Star Trek takes place several hundred years in the future.

Stay tune next month, as we take a look at the new book The Physics of Star Trek.  ‘Til then. . . .