communicating science and technology

Writing for Science - The Star Trek Method

Writing for science is not easy. I’m not saying it’s not fun – or even important and significant, because it is – but it’s not easy.

Explaining the method to the madness is a daunting task for many people, mostly because it’s hard to be conversational when you’re talking about complicated issues like focused photonics, for example, or electrochlorinators, or X-Ray rovers, or experimental nanomaterials. You want to be factual, but you want those facts to make enough sense where people would actually want to share your story. How do you make the complicated simple?

Good question.

I like to use something I call the Star Trek method. The Star Trek method is when you talk about a complicated concept and then sum it up in a simple, easy to digest way. If you’re a fan of the show, you know they did this all the time. Sometimes they would use it to solve a problem, ex machina. For example, there’s an episode in the Next Generation (TNG) called “Cause and Effect”, where the intrepid crew is caught in a time loop (as they are wont to do). The whole ship keeps repeating the same events over and over without knowing it. Dr. Crusher figures this out, and Data and Geordi work out how it’s happening and what they need to do to stop it.

Geordi says they noticed a “dechion field modulation in Data’s positronic subprocessors” which Geordi explains would be used to “send an information from one loop to the next.” The first part, the techno-babble, was then explained with his second sentence, thereby helping us, the audience, to know why the first part was important. Also to help us follow along with the story (unless you’re an expert on dechion field modulation, which I would have my doubts about).

In case you’re wondering, Geordi put the modulation in Data’s neural net in one of the time loops so they could get out of the time bubble and all’s well, but you see my point. Things only make sense when they are relatable, and the writers of Star Trek had a good way of making those things – which were often as imaginary as they were complicated – relatable to both the plot and the audience.

Going on the same theme, in Star Trek they also use technobabble to effectively confuse people. In the TNG episode “Rascals”, Commander Riker spouts off nonsensical gibberish to confuse a group of aliens called the Ferengi (who had recently kidnapped him and were holding him hostage), knowing they wouldn’t understand any of his nonsense.

Riker says: “Okay, Morta. The Enterprise computer system is controlled by three primary main processor cores, cross-linked with redundant melacortz-ramistat 14-kiloquad interface modules. The core element is based on an FTL nanoprocessor with 25 bilateral kelilactirals. With twenty of those being slaved into the primary Heisenfram terminals. Now, you know what a bilateral kelilactiral is?" And the Ferengi says: "Of course I do, human. I am not stupid!" And Riker says (rather smugly, since he knows he’s spouting off nonsense): "No. Of course not.”

If you’re not explaining yourself when you’re speaking about your research and development or your science and technology, then you might as well be telling a Ferengi all about bilateral kelilactrials in your Heisenfram terminals.

See what I mean?

Now, most of what they said in the show was scientific-sounding gibberish, but to many people – especially audiences who aren’t rooted in the science or technology communities – a lot of actual science is indistinguishable from Trek technobabble.

There’s a lot that the science and technology communities say which sound a lot like 14-kiloquad interface modules or whatever. If our complicated concepts aren’t explained, then the mission of communicating its relevance or existence is therefore futile. You have to be able to decipher the science for external audiences so they understand what it is, why it’s cool, and why that science matters.

When it comes to new, effective science and technology communication, I think digital media has opened up new audiences and new opportunities for communication unlike ever before. And people actually want to know about this! They want to get stories in their news feed about Wolverine-like healing powers, and railguns on ships, and HALO-like exosuits for firefighters and so much more.

We don’t have to fight and jump and scream to make people interested, they already are! Our job is to take the tech and have it make enough sense to keep people itching for more. Frankly, I think that’s the most fun about this whole thing, don’t you?

The world is shaped, irrevocably, by the technological advancements of each generation. We are watching the world take a new and exciting shape. Artificial intelligence is becoming a stronger and more viable reality. Space is the final frontier, and it’s one we’re saddling up to cross as a human race. Medicine is leading the way for Luke Skywalker limbs for amputees. This is the start of a new kind of society we’d only dreamt about in science fiction novels. It’s actually happening right now. And it stands to reason that this burgeoning future is something that many, many people care about.

It’s our job as communicators – to show the world why every invention, why every breakthrough, why every revelation matters.

How do you write for science?