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Finding your place in the galaxy with the help of Star Trek

LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge in <em>Star Trek: The Next Generation.</em>
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

One experience that I hope never fades from my memory is the day I found myself on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

OK, it wasn't the "real" TV set — it was even better!

At the turn of the century, Las Vegas had an attraction called the Star Trek Experience that sadly didn't make enough money to survive. It had actors dressed up like Klingons and other aliens.

There were Starfleet officers doing their jobs, and you felt like you were in an actual episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The premise of the ride was that Klingons went back in time to abduct Captain Jean-Luc Picard's ancestor. My sister raised her hand and said loudly: "It's me!" and then promptly pushed a button on one of the consoles. It beeped! The actor playing a space lieutenant looked at her with frustration and said, "Don't do that!" Later that day my dad snapped this picture:

I honestly don't remember a time when I didn't love Star Trek. I do remember when I started to realize that this show, and my father who introduced me to it, built the foundation for my sense of social justice as an astrophysicist of color. The show helped me, and my father, find a place within our culture.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

When I was a tween I lived in a small rural town where I stuck out like a piñata in a park. TV was my escape! It was my first friend. This was before streaming and YouTube, so you had to race home to be in front of that TV to watch multiple Simpsons reruns or the latest episode of In Living Color, the sketch show that I thought I could relate to more than SNL.

What I really related to — the show that I anticipated each week and bawled when it ended — was Star Trek: The Next Generation. This was a sequel to the original series that aired in the '60s, a show that Martin Luther King Jr. loved!

The Next Generation had the young LeVar Burton as the chief engineer Geordi La Forge. He was famous as the lead in the TV cultural phenomena Roots and would later make everyone smile with Reading Rainbow. This new version of Star Trek also had the Shakespearean-trained actor Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard, which was the antithesis of the original Captain James T. Kirk. This new crew was more interested in science and tackled issues related to race more head-on! The technical jargon I heard coming from Geordi and others on the ship fueled my love for science.

The phrase "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" comes from Star Trek. In this future there is no money on Earth; humanity is part of a federation of planets where all members, human and alien, work together to explore the galaxy. There are wars, but the Federation's Prime directive is to not interfere with other cultures, to not assert their culture on anyone else.

The future I saw on the screen was so full of possibilities for me, and it was only in my adulthood, as an astrophysicist with over a decade of equity work, that I realized the impact this show had on me. There were lessons about true inclusion hidden in sci-fi that this show and my father imparted on me.

The Trekkie and the Advocate

When you love Star Trek, you are called a Trekkie. My father was a Trekkie, and he knew I would love the show! My sister, dad and I would watch together during our summer visits and talk about what characters we loved, what technology we wished was real, but also what the stories were trying to say.

My dad would point out the morals in each episode. He didn't think we were too young to understand heartbreaking topics like slavery, torture or generational persecution. It was important to him for us to see all kinds of people working together, to see people of color in positions of power. My father first taught me how to respect and value diversity while finding a place within your own culture. When my sister and I would visit him each summer he would take us to pow wows, to the Pride events near his neighborhood and to the picket line when his union went on strike.

I don't even remember when my father first introduced the concept of race to me — it was just always there. I knew I was Chinese from my mother and Mexican from him. I also knew I didn't speak any language other than English but that everyone would assume I did, that the foreignness would be projected onto me. Like me, he felt out of place. He grew up in East Los Angeles, where he was Mexican American but didn't speak Spanish.

My father and I have a favorite episode, "Darmok." In the Star Trek world, there are universal translators. Technology that is available to almost everyone in the galaxy that would translate between people so that everyone could communicate and cooperate. But what happens when the way we compose language is not the same in all cultures?

In this episode, the Tamarians seem to not be able to communicate with those on the Enterprise. It turns out that they speak in metaphor and unless you know how they are referencing events in their history, communication becomes almost impossible. The ending always makes me cry: The Tamarian captain gives his life so that his people can communicate with the Federation. It stuck with me, the importance of understanding one another, how language is so deeply connected to culture.

Decades later, I would work to make sure that science wouldn't feel like an unintelligible language, but a community where anyone could join. At Short Wave, NPR's science podcast where I now work, we make sure to show our audience scientists who sound, look and whose paths into their field are different.

"The Least Dangerous Game" from <em>Star Trek: Lower Decks.</em>
/ Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
"The Least Dangerous Game" from Star Trek: Lower Decks.

A New Life

There has been a resurgence of Star Trek. There are two live-action series that started in the past few years that haven't broken the successful formula, diverse casts and narratives that tackle hard topics in our society. Even Captain Picard is back with a new series where old friends come back to say hi. There's a successful cartoon series, Lower Decks, that's a love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation and all the other spin-offs around the same time. I love that feeling of accomplishment when I get all the obscure references.

Now, I'm sharing the Star Trek universe with my daughter and partner, seeing them experience these stories for the first time. Trekkies make a community, and that community now spans generations.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
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