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How Star Trek Changed My Life: Dr. Philip Kesten

How Star Trek Changed My Life: Dr. Philip Kesten’s semi-regular feature How Star Trek Changed My Life usually focuses on people whose lives have been changed directly by Star Trek, but this month we’re going to take a different approach. Let us introduce you to Dr. Philip Kesten, a professor at Santa Clara University in California, who uses Star Trek as a teaching device. In fact, right now, even as you read this, Dr. Kesten might be standing before his 30 or so students teaching Physics 5, The Science of Star Trek. The course explores the physics and physiology, real and imagined, viewed in Star Trek, with Dr. Kesten leading his class in the study of the physics that drive the science of space travel, time travel and transporters.

“The students in my class are not science majors,” Dr. Kesten explained during a recent telephone conversation. “I do have one physics major. I have a couple of theater majors. I have some students who are studying communications. Really, it spans the spectrum. There’s a religious studies major in the class. So I can’t go into this class, and I don’t go into this class, and start writing complicated equations up on the board. What I’m trying to do is motivate some piece of science from Star Trek, and what I tell the students is that we’re going to peel back the layers bit by bit by bit. It’s a very different approach to one I would take in, say, an introductory physics class, where you start with a basic principle and develop one piece after the other.

“What we’re doing in the Physics of Star Trek is literally peeling back a little piece of science that seems interesting and seeing how deeply we can go into it. I started the term by looking at the solar system and then the galaxy and the universe, because, hey, what is Star Trek really about? It’s going where no man has gone before. So, what’s out there? And once we understand what’s out there we can understand why we want to go there and how we’re going to get there. So that led me to look at, say, the development of warp drive. But if you don’t understand how far away Vulcan is, why would you care about warp drive? So it all has to hang together. It has to hang together the same way a Star Trek story does, and I’m telling them a story, essentially.”

So, do Dr. Kesten’s students think he’s nuts or brilliant?

“You’d have to ask them,” Dr. Kesten replies, laughing. “I think we’re having a good time. Now, I’ve got to be very candid and say that not all of the students were expecting this to be a science class. You say the Physics of Star Trek and I think some of them imagined that all we’d do is watch Star Trek episodes. So I have to work hard, or initially had to, to get everyone to buy into this ride we’re taking. We’re actually doing science, real science. There are equations and math. There’s plenty of it, but it’s woven into a Star Trek thread.”

Dr. Kesten is quick to point out several things that he thinks readers should know about him and his course. First, he’s “watched nearly every episode of every series” and has seen all the features, but doesn’t “know every alien and every ship.” Rather, he’s just an avid fan who also happened to find himself fascinated by the science he saw in Trek episodes and films. Later, deep into his teaching career, Dr. Kesten became inspired by Lawrence Krause’s 1995 book, The Physics of Star Trek. That tome got him thinking about how he might merge Trek and the teaching of physics. Finally, about four years ago, Dr. Kesten set about devising and seeking approval of a course he could teach at Santa Clara University. And when it came to filling a classroom, it helped tremendously that Trek “was made cool again” by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009).

“This fall, right now, is the very first time I’m teaching it as a class,” says Dr. Kesten, who screened First Contact for his students and assigned a five-page term paper on it. “I had to propose this class to the core curriculum committee at the university and it went through a rigorous approval process. So it wasn’t just about me having some good ideas, but the course has to satisfy certain objectives set forth for our core curriculum. The course was approved and this was the first opportunity that I’ve had to teach it since it was approved. And so far, so good. I think I’ll teach it every fall.”

As the conversation comes to an end, Dr. Kesten contemplates the big question that his Physics of Star Trek course compels one to ask: Does Star Trek reflect real science or, at this point, does real science reflect Star Trek? “Wow,” Dr. Kesten replies. “Maybe that’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Look, there’s no doubt that the writers of Star Trek, even going back to the 60’s, they got a lot of the science right. And you know what? It’s science fiction. I don’t take them to task for taking some liberties and stretching things or just making things up. The Heisenberg compensators in the transporter beam? I mean, sorry, we’re just not going to be able to do that. And, frankly, the whole idea of protecting yourself against acceleration – you can make warp drive, but you can’t get around Newton’s Laws. So, OK, they took some liberties, but they got most of the science right. And we’ve seen it go in the other direction as well, where the science has not just followed Star Trek, but actually in some case came out of it. Either way, it’s great.”

Be sure to let us know if Star Trek has changed your life and you could be the subject of next month's story!