To mark the sad passing of Leonard Nimoy today, I publish a short essay I wrote 20 years ago as a PhD student:
When I was seven years old, a popular playtime game was play-acting Star Trek and it will come as no surprise to many of my current friends that I always played the part of Mr Spock. A taller than average frame, large eyebrows and a seventies bowl-cut made me the obvious choice. But perhaps it was more than physical coincidence that made me suitable for the role. And not just coincidence that I am now a qualified scientist in real life, currently in the final year of a PhD. Perhaps Mr Spock was really my childhood hero. And if he was — should he have been?
It is certainly not unlikely that Star Trek had a big influence on me as a child — a recent study in the States has shown that more scientists were influenced by fictional scientists, science fiction adventures on TV and in stories, than teachers or real life scientists.
But are fictional scientists anything like the real thing? Is Spock really a representation of the universal scientist? I think he is. Who else in the entire history of fact and fiction so personifies the ideals of science?
Granted, Spock is now somewhat of a cliche, but he is a good one. Good representations of scientists in fiction are few and far between, especially where it counts most: on the television. Pre-television scientists were mostly of the mad (Dr Zarkov) or obsessed (Dr Frankenstein) mould. Either that or they were absent minded professors and Einstein clones. Star Trek, when it first came out, brought a new kind of fictional scientist: sane, clear-headed, logical. The lab-coat exchanged for a uniform, the test-tubes swapped for a computer, and the potential vulcan professor is now first officer on a starship. The scientist is now an adventurer and a hero.
Even post-Trek, few television and movie scientists have surpassed the science officer of the USS Enterprise. He was never self-destructive (Jeff Goldblum in the Fly) nor was he just a computer (an android has replaced him in the Next Generation Star Trek) and he was certainly never zany (Jeff Goldblum, again, as the chaotician in Jurassic Park). I’ll admit, however, that Spock could never be described as “ordinary” (Laura Dern and Sam Waterson in Jurassic Park).
What makes Spock special is that he isn’t a caricature of how people see scientists but a caricature of what all scientist wish to be. He is methodical, open-minded, knowledgable, unemotional, and logical to the point of absurdity. All the things a good scientist should be, and more: fit, strong, musical (he plays the Vulcan Harp), strategic (he’s an excellent chess player), loyal and non-discriminative (male chauvinist scientists take note). Unfortunately, the television series makes explicitly clear the less-than-welcome side effects of such an attitude to life which often afflicts real-life scientists: Spock is humourless and boring (“Emotions are alien to me; I’m a scientist”) and he only has sex once every seven years!
Perhaps people shouldn’t aspire to be like Spock, but scientists must encourage their Vulcan-esque scientific half. As a research student I am now re-learning how to play the role of vulcan science officer as I try hard to be methodical, impartial and logical in my work. But at the same time I make sure that every evening I leave my pointed ears in the lab (unfortunately I have to keep my eyebrows) and cultivate my human half at home.
Spock (asexually) personifies science. But how long will it be before we see another such scientific role-model? Will there ever be another Mr Spock? And how many children won’t ever become scientists because they were never encouraged to boldly go where no-one has gone before.