Heart of Science: Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

, Senior energy analyst | March 2, 2015, 5:32 pm EDT
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As the eulogistic outpourings of the last few days show, Leonard Nimoy’s death has touched many people in this country and beyond, including those of us with a science bent and a strong affinity for a certain Vulcan. His most famous character says a lot about how to move forward on some issues of monumental importance.

As the New York Times, President Obama, and others have eloquently pointed out, Mr. Nimoy’s many interests, talents, and accomplishments helped him reach a range of audiences far outside the field of science. Many of his late-stage tweets were about art, and friends, and other blessings; his second-to-last was one of his poems.

But his role as Mr. Spock, the rational, guarded First Officer/Science Officer on board Star Trek’s starship Enterprise, has meant for decades that he has held a special place in the minds and hearts of science-oriented types…

…Including me. I first encountered Spock in early Star Trek reruns, and still have a six-inch version of him from the Trek convention I attended as a fifth-grader. I followed him through the early Star Trek movies, enduring (incredulously) the pain of his death, and celebrating (admittedly still somewhat incredulously) his subsequent rebirth. And I even accepted the time-bending younger-Spock/elder-Spock interactions of the latest Star Trek movie franchise.

As a future engineer (and an extroverted one at that), I might have clicked more with Scotty, the Enterprise’s ebullient Chief Engineer, than with the stony-faced Mr. Spock. But it was Spock that spoke to me.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts salutes Leonard Nimoy (and Mr. Nimoy's native Boston) from the International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Terry Virts salutes Leonard Nimoy (and Mr. Nimoy’s native Boston) from the International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

And he spoke to plenty of techies of various persuasions, who found in him and his real-life counterpart encouragement to ask how things are, why they are that way, and how they might be different.

NASA, for example, found in Spock a symbol ripe for the adoption. The original Star Trek series appeared in the thick of the moon shot race, echoing (and, many fans would argue, propelling) a can-do spirit of exploration and discovery that, for the first time, took us off-planet. And children brought up on tales of otherworldly breakthroughs were ripe for bringing that same spirit to later missions.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden called Mr. Nimoy:

“…an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts, and other space explorers. 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.”

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

Just as Mr. Nimoy wasn’t just about Star Trek, the Enterprise’s explorations weren’t just about science. Like all good science fiction, the show put the pressing issues of our society in a different context, allowing us to view our own world more objectively.

NASA scientists pay tribute to Mr. Spock during a 1967 launch (Credit: via Trekcore.com)

NASA scientists pay tribute to Mr. Spock during a 1967 launch Credit: via Trekcore.com

But Star Trek had science at its core, the same way the Enterprise’s warp drive had dilithium crystals at its center. Exploring strange new worlds, new life, new civilizations. Going boldly. Fueled all the while by science.

Yes, we get (most of us, most of the time) that Star Trek is fiction (or at least hasn’t yet happened). But in our 21st-century existence, in so many ways we find ourselves similarly in uncharted territory—through boldness or as a result of less noble drivers.

Some of our explorations—our tremendous advances in healing technologies and unparalleled communications abilities, for example—have taken us in positive directions. In other ways, we’ve steered Starship Earth into dangerous quadrants, with our explorations gaining us unparalleled abilities to wreak havoc not on new civilizations, but on our own.

Star Trek crew, including Leonard Nimoy (center), help dedicate the space shuttle Enterprise (Credit: NASA)

Star Trek crew and friends, including Leonard Nimoy (center), help dedicate the space shuttle Enterprise in 1976. Photo: NASA

Which brings us back to Mr. Spock. Cold hard logic isn’t all we need to navigate back to safer territory. Spock knew that, even if he wouldn’t always admit it.

But at a time when people in some mighty important positions still don’t get the science behind issues of monumental importance like climate change, when facts get twisted and manipulated to serve anti-science agendas, a strong commitment to science, to data, to an understanding of cause and effect, of hypothesis and reassessment, is essential. Anything less, Mr. Spock would say, is illogical.

As on the bridge of the Enterprise, there’s still plenty of room for debate at that point—about what we need to do, how it needs to happen, how we move forward and prosper as a society. How to, if you will, weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few.

The beginning of wisdom

That is the heart of science: not making our decisions for us, not telling us what to do, but providing us with fodder for making the best possible decisions. Even when we don’t—and can’t—have all the facts right now.

“Logic,” a wise Vulcan once said, “is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

And science, as Mr. Nimoy and his alter-ego so gracefully showed us, is the beginning of so much, a crucial stepping stone to better places.

So we give thanks for one life, and as we do, let us wish for long life and prosperity, not just for us, but for the science we crave, and so dearly need. And not just the science, but the ability to recognize the realities we face, as revealed by science, and the need to respond, to take us to a future as bright and fascinating as the one Mr. Nimoy showed us through his work.



Posted in: Science Communication

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