Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek, Susan Jenkins M.D. & Robert Jenkins, M.D.

Harper Collins, 1998, 189 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-019154-6

All things considered, it is pretty ironic that the movies and dramatic television series most closely associated with science are, in fact, those which will make the most errors. For each CONTACT which takes care is trying to be as accurate as possible, there’s a LOST IN SPACE to throw all of physics outside the windows in a hurry. STAR TREK, for all its qualities, has never stuck too closely to accepted rules of science. Instances of TREK scientific ludicrousness (“Invert the beam’s polarity!”, “Spock has no more brain!”, “We’re devolving!”) are too well-recorded to argue.

Despite everything, Trek occasionally gets it right, or -more significantly- allows for an imaginative springboard to today’s knowledge. Renowned physicist Lawrence M. Krauss has made a name -not to mention a mint- for himself with The Physics of Star Trek and its sequel (Beyond Star Trek) and we could only expect other similar books.

These books have arrived, en masse, in book-stores: The Science of the X-Files, The Metaphysics of Star Trek, The Science of Star Wars… Not to be left out, The Physics of Star Trek‘s publisher Harper Collins now comes forward with Life Signs: The Biology of Star Trek.

Fortunately, this book is written by competent personnel: Unlike the doubtful The Science of the X-Files, written by even-more doubtful fantasy writer Jeanne Cavelos, Life Signs is the product of a collaboration between husband-and-wife Robert Jenkins, M.D., geneticist and Susan Jenkins, M.D., psychiatrist. Impressive credits; are they any good at vulgarization?

All Science of… books are (should be) exercises in scientific popularization rather than simple collections of random nitpicks. Ideally, they should use the SF series/movies as excuses to present more substantial content. Here, The Jenkinses use Star Trek as a reason to explore current research on exobiology, genetics, longevity, cloning, mating rituals, evolution, life in space and other biological considerations.

A large part of the success of books life Life Signs resides on the way the authors are able to sustain the readers’ attention while still communicating meaningful information. Fortunately, the Jenkinses are able to vulgarize the material in an entertaining and fascinating way… not to mention staying respectful of the show. “How alien can you get?” is a serviceable example of how to structure a broad topic (xenobiology) in an accessible fashion. It helps that the book is often wryly funny.

In many ways, this book was more informative for your reviewer than was The Physics of Star Trek, mostly due to a weaker knowledge of biology to begin with. This being said, the books have a few significant shortcomings which make it a doubtful buy. First and foremost, at 189 pages, the hardcover edition is certainly not worth thirty-two Canadian dollars! While a desire to keep a complex subject at a manageable length is understandable, Life Signs doesn’t offer a very good return on investment. The cruel lack of an index is a potentially fatal flaw in a scientific reference book. Some of the gimmicks are annoying; for a book on biology, Life Signs often errs in “series summary” territory (see pages 87-92) There is a thing as being too cute.

On the other hand, if you can manage to acquire Life Signs at reduced rates or in paperback, it makes both a great gift and a fun introduction/refresher to the complex subject of biology. Though their familiarity with specific characters and episodes suggest that the Jenkinses are fans, they’re not blind fans and their rational perspective on Treknology is harsh but fair. (The last chapter is about “Where no one will ever go”, and brings some much-needed sanity to a few of Trek’s most ludicrous assertions.)

Light-hearted but substantial, Life Signs not only answers long-standing questions, but suggests new unanswered questions… such as why the heck is Picard still bald in an era of advanced medicine?

Is that a set-up for a sequel? Make it so!

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