May 172015

I loved Star Trek as a child. I deeply identified with Mr. Spock, and loved science in general. I probably saw re-runs of the original series first when I was in about the third grade, and re-runs were in heavy rotation on TV in the 70’s. Consequently, I understood the deeper issues raised on Star Trek somewhat incompletely.

I recall a paradox that occurred to me when I was watching The Gamesters of Triskelion. I must have been in about the third grade, as I say, when this dawned on me. At that age, time seems to move at a different rate. One year of childhood seems to move more slowly than one year of adulthood. Schooling seems to take forever. Even as a child, it seemed discouraging to me to imagine my future; namely how many more years I’d have to be in school!

What got me thinking was the climactic scene of the episode. Thankfully, the script of the show is online, and I’m copying the relevant passage here. Captain Kirk has just defeated the thralls in the big climactic fight.

ONE [OC]: You have won, Captain Kirk, unfortunately. However, the terms of the wager will be honoured. You are free. Remove your collars.
(They come off easily.)
KIRK: The thralls will be trained?
ONE [OC]: They will be trained. We have said it.
KIRK: I think you’ll find it a much more exciting game than the one you’ve been playing. I’m sorry, Shahna. I didn’t lie. I did what was necessary. Someday, I hope you’ll understand.
SHAHNA: I understand, a little. You will leave us now?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: To go back to the lights in the sky?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: I would like to go to those lights with you. Take me?
KIRK: I can’t.
SHAHNA: Then teach me how, and I will follow you.
KIRK; There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars. Shahna. (he gives her a farewell kiss) Scotty!
SCOTT [OC]: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Beam us up.
(They disappear in a twinkle.)
SHAHNA: Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember.

What really got me was this statement by Kirk: “There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars.” I sympathized with Shahna, as I imagined it would be impossible for an adult to learn enough to build a star ship, if they started learning as an adult. It would be impossible for her to meet Captain Kirk in the future. Sadness!

Since Star Trek is set centuries in the future, it dawned on me that for humans to reach that level of technical sophistication, a great deal more discovery would have to occur. This knowledge would have to be imparted to young people at the university level. Even as a child, I supposed that there must be a finite limit to how much knowledge a human could assimilate in one lifetime. I imagined that one would have to be in school essentially their entire lifetime before they could learn enough to build a Star Ship! Are there scientific discoveries and technical accomplishments that are simply beyond what humans could accomplish, simply because they would exceed a human lifetime of education to break new ground?

In retrospect, I didn’t really consider the notion of ~specialization~ by which only some people would become Star Ship engineers. I didn’t really understand that intellectual breakthroughs, or scientific and technical developments, are profound and difficult at the time they occur, but are much more easily assimilated by the lesser minds that follow. I discovered a great illustration of this latter point just recently. I’ve been reading through older blog entries by Sam Harris, and discovered this beautiful passage by Harris illustrating how profound Newton’s intellectual accomplishment was at the time:

“Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text—scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually—in this email exchange.”

I agree with Harris when he states that “one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement.” Yet many students at the undergraduate level routinely manage to learn and assimilate calculus. I suppose that the scientist, or more likely scientists, of the future who unlocks the secrets of warp drive and dilithium crystals will be as Newton or Einstein in coming centuries, yet successive generations of students will have not have to rival them intellectually to understand the concepts.

Clearly human minds have progressed from hunting on African savannas to building GPS satellites and decoding the human genome. The trick seems to be ~specialization~ which is something I didn’t quite understand when I was in the third grade…

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