Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trek Interviews: Andre Bormanis

Hi everyone! This is what we hope will be the first in a series of interviews with people who were involved with the production of Star Trek. To start off with, we have an interview with Andre Bormanis, the science consultant for the final season of TNG and the remainder of the television franchise. Our questions are in bold-face, while Andre's answers are in regular type.

See, kids, this is what a science degree can get you!

Q: What sort of education did you obtain, and what were your career goals at the outset?

A: I earned a BS in physics, from the University of Arizona, and an MA in science, technology, and public policy from the George Washington University in Washington, DC.  I had a NASA fellowship at GWU and expected to continue doing policy work for the NASA planetary science program, either at NASA or one of the various “think tanks” that specialize in that sort of thing.

Q: Given your education, were there some areas of the sciences that you were more confident advising on than others?

A: Certainly astronomy, physics and space science.  Biology and medicine were more challenging, and I often called on experts in those fields when I needed help.

Q: I know you wrote (or co-wrote) a paper on deep space exploration. What are the greatest challenges to interstellar exploration and colonization? Why do you think these efforts are important?

A: The greatest challenge is energy.  Even getting a spacecraft that weighs just a few grams to the next nearest star in a reasonable amount of time (less than a century or so) would take more energy than the entire world produces in a year.  Obviously some major breakthroughs in propulsion are going to be needed before we can think about going to the stars.  But it’s important because the long-term survival of the human race depends on it.  Earth won’t be a habitable planet forever.

Q: How did you get involved with Star Trek?

A: In the early 1990’s, I was trying to arrange a meeting to pitch stories to Star Trek: TNG, which I’m a huge fan of, when I found out the show was looking for a new science advisor – I didn’t even know they had one!  They wanted someone with writing experience as well as a science background, and I seemed to fit the bill.

Q: Which Trek series were you involved with?

A: The final season of TNG, seasons 2 through 7 of DS9, and all of Voyager and Enterprise – I had some involvement with every series but the original.

Q: How important did the writers and producers consider scientific accuracy (or plausibility) when crafting their stories?

A: There was a clear recognition among the writers and producers that much of the success of Star Trek rests on the believability of the science and technology we created for the show.  From the beginning, Gene Roddenberry always insisted that every gadget and space phenomenon be rooted in real science.  We could extrapolate of course, push the boundaries, but were discouraged from breaking them.  We never wanted to veer into fantasy.

Q: What was your average day or week like during the run of the show/shows? How much did you actually do on a given episode or season?

A: It varied with the episode, and the series.  Voyager, for example, did more stories that involved space anomalies or science puzzles.  DS9 was more oriented toward character conflict and political intrigue.  Every day I would get script pages, or story summaries, and I would read them and provide any technical language or explanatory information that was needed.  Sometimes I would talk to writers on the phone if they wanted to know more about some science element in their story – like a comet, for example, that played a key role in an episode of DS9.

Q: What was the coolest and/or most interesting scientific idea you consulted on for Trek?

A: Symbiogenesis comes to mind.  We did a very interesting episode of Voyager (“Tuvix”) that played off the notion that in the distant past, small organisms became symbiotically attached to more sophisticated organisms, eventually merging with them.  I wasn’t familiar with the concept before we came up with that story, and it was fascinating to learn about.

Q: Have you ever suggested a scientific idea to the writers that led to an episode? 

A: I came up with the idea of Voyager investigating a binary pulsar for the episode “Scientific Method,” written by Lisa Klink.  I pitched the notion of finding a habitable (“Class-M”) rogue planet – a planet that isn’t orbiting a star, just floating through the galaxy on its own – which we worked into an episode of Enterprise (called, not surprisingly, “Rogue Planet”).

Q: What was it like writing/suggesting your own stories?

A: Wonderful!  I’d always hoped to get involved in writing in some form, ever since I was a kid.  I never imaged I’d ever get to write for Star Trek.  Seeing your ideas and words come to life with the actors and special effects is incredibly rewarding.

Q: Was there ever a show that really irked you by getting something wrong scientifically speaking?

A: Sometimes we stretched the boundaries a little beyond my personal comfort level.  In an episode of DS9 ("Body Parts"), the writers wanted to transport a baby growing in the womb of one character, Keiko O’Reilly, into another, Kira Nerys.  The actress who played Kira was pregnant, and this was a clever way of working her real-life pregnancy into the show.  I didn’t think such a thing was scientifically credible, and a pathologist I consulted with agreed.  He thought it would be incredibly unlikely to work, even with transporter technology.  The whole “fetal placental complex” would have to be transported, and the new hosts’ immune system and blood would have to be modified to accommodate the fetus, or vice versa.  We worked that information into the episode as best we could and hoped we wouldn’t get too much grief from obstetricians.

But today, a mere fifteen years later, the idea of a fetal transplant is under serious study.  It could become a reality in just a few years.  My bigger concern when I was the Trek science consultant was making sure the show kept ahead of where real science is taking us.

Q: Do you consider yourself a fan of the franchise? How much have you watched?

A: I’m a huge fan.  I’ve seen every episode of every series at least once.  If I come across an episode of any of the shows on television, I almost always watch it.

Q: What sorts of concerns go into making up a fictional physical/biological element or mechanism?

Making sure the idea is rooted in something in the real world, something we know about today, that can be used as a springboard for something that doesn’t exist (or we just don’t know about yet) but could exist.  Fictional science should never contradict well-established real science.  It also has to have a consistent, understandable internal logic of its own.  “Tuvix,” the Voyager episode that dealt with symbiogenesis, is a good example of that.

Most of all it has to be something that people who aren’t scientists can understand and find interesting.  It is very hard, on a dramatic television series, to stop the action and explain a scientific concept to the audience.

Q: Which came first – warp drive or Alcubierre drive? Did Trek alter anything to accommodate these sorts of new theories/discoveries?

A: The Starship Enterprise appeared on TV many years before Alcubierre came up with his theory about how warp drive might work.  But even before the Original Series, scientists played around with the idea of how to create a faster-than-light engine.  The biggest obstacle, of course, is the Special Theory of Relativity, which shows very convincingly that no material object can travel faster than light.  What’s clever about Alcubierre’s idea is that, within its own bubble of spacetime, a starship never travels faster than light, or very fast at all – it’s the space around the ship that’s moving faster than light, not the ship itself.  And we know space can do this – it happened just after the Big Bang during a period of spacetime expansion called Inflation.

Q: Which Trek gadget may come out sooner than we think, and which ones are honestly scientifically impossible.  For example: transporters, warp drive, holodecks, tricorders--doable?  How soon?

A: Crude versions of tricorders already exist.  I suspect something similar to a holodeck will become a reality in the next ten or twenty years, although I don’t think it will work quite the way we portrayed it on Trek.  Warp drive, I think, is very unlikely, and transporters are almost certainly impossible.  But I hope I’m wrong!

Q: One thing has always bugged me about terrestrially-based time travel stories – doesn’t the Earth change position over time, thus making it impossible for a time machine to be in the “same place?” Why doesn’t H.G. Wells die of suffocation in empty space, as opposed to being right there in London c. 20,000 AD?

A: Good point!  Presumably, in those stories, the machine is somehow tethered to a specific geographical location despite the fact that the location moves through space as well as time.

Q: If you were in charge of the Trek franchise, what direction would you take it in (presumably, but not necessarily, on television)?

A: I would go back to the roots of the Original Series, the original (unaired) pilot starring Geoffrey Hunter (most of that pilot was later incorporated into the two-part Original Series episode “The Menagerie”).  I always thought it would be fun to see the adventures of Captain Pike and his crew.  I like the sense of pioneering the final frontier that was so integral to that episode, and the look and feel of it.

Q: What are your current projects?

A: I just finished working on a Disney series, an animated show based on the new Tron film that came out last year.  I’m shopping around a pilot I wrote recently.  It’s SF, but based in the present day.  No spaceships or transporters.

Q: Could you comment on some Trek science moments that stick out for us:

TNG: "Where No One Has Gone Before/Remember Me." The whole space/time/thought equivalence notion was pretty far out. It sounds like something that Roddenberry himself suggested. How much input do you have in "leashing" a way out idea?

A: I didn’t work on that particular episode, but whenever a writer approached me with an idea that struck me as far out, I’d try to find a way to approach it that sounded plausible, if not technically realistic.  There was an episode of TNG, "Inheritance," where the Enterprise had to raise the temperature of the core of an M-class planet.  In reality, this would be monstrously difficult. The amount of heat that would need to be transferred is insane.  But I thought about the fact that in a fission power reactor, a relatively small number of neutrons injected into the nuclear pile can raise its temperature by a thousand degrees or more in a very short time.  So I though that, by analogy, the fictional nadion particles in the Enterprise phaser beams could raise the core temperature of the planet by triggering a similar sort of chain reaction – a fictional nuclear reaction, of course, but the idea has a plausible ring to it.

Q: TNG: "Yesterday’s Enterprise" vs. "Parallels." These two episode present radically different versions of time travel – the first being a "closed time-like loop" and the latter being a "quantum sum-over-histories." Are both of these ideas compatible? Which seems more plausible?

A: Both ideas are purely conjectural.  I don’t know if one necessarily excludes the other.  The quantum “sum-over-histories” idea is primarily a computational technique.  I’m not sure anyone can say for sure that it supports the idea of multiple universes.

Q: TNG: "Genesis." The "Intron virus" that resulted in "backward evolution" was interesting, to be sure. Is there really such a thing as an intron? If so, how was it changed for the story? If not, what sorts of concerns go into making up a fictional biological mechanism?

A: Yes.  Introns are part of the so-called “junk” DNA that appears to serve no current function in terms of coding proteins, but some of which could be remnants of DNA that played a role in the organisms our species evolved from.  The idea that you could make an organism regress into an earlier species by activating introns is (at least for now) fiction.  But there is something interesting, and scientifically credible, in exploring the idea that our evolutionary history is lurking in the nooks and crannies of our DNA.

Q: DS9: "Armageddon Game." The harvester biological weapons were a fun story device. How much real world weapons tech information goes into something like this? What about the epidemiology of the sickness itself?

A: The idea of using a genetically engineered pathogen as a weapon has been around for decades.  The basic notion is to manipulate an existing virus or strain of bacteria to make it either more deadly or more contagious – or both.  This was the working idea behind the harvesters.  Presumably during the war, the harvesters were aerosolized, that is, put into a form that could be released into the air and quickly spread by casual contact.  In liquid form, ingestion or direct contact with the skin would be required for infection, which is why the drop that fell on O’Brien’s skin infected him, but not Bashir.

Q: DS9: "Life Support." As a philosopher, this is one of the most interesting shows for me (Matthew) – what are you positing as the nature of consciousness? Is it biologically reductive? Can it be perfectly synthesized artificially, and in this episode, it just wasn’t done well enough? Or is there some sort of soul that cannot be captured technologically?

A: I think this was one of our best episodes, precisely because it raises the kinds of questions you’re asking. We’ve established that Vulcans have “living spirits” that can survive death, and of course the Klingons believe in an afterlife.  In this episode, we went with the idea that 24th century technology is not sophisticated enough to completely reproduce all of the subtleties of the bioelectric circuitry that presumably gives rise to consciousness.  Until scientists develop a working model of consciousness, though, it’s impossible to say whether artificial circuits would be a viable “seat” of consciousness.  We may get the answer to that question in the next few decades.  It’s one of the biggest questions in science, and a lot of people are working on it.

Q: DS9: "Playing God." the proto-universe idea seems to suggest the adoption of a "multiversal foam" brane-theory idea. True?

A: Very true.  That idea was beginning to gain currency in the world of physics around that time, and it seemed like a cool idea for an episode.  Star Trek of course has explored the idea of parallel universes in a number of ways.

Q: VOY: "The Omega Directive." The idea of a molecule so potent that it could kick-start the big bang... a "molecule" in a singularity? How much does modern cosmological theory come into play when crafting a story idea like this?

A: I lobbied for calling it a particle, not a molecule, but for some reason, the writers liked the sound of molecule better.  I was overruled!  The omega molecule was basically a metaphor for Seven of Nine’s search for perfection.  Its cosmological dimensions were not really integral to the story, so we didn’t focus on that aspect of it.

Q: VOY: "Emanations." A stable transuranic element being created as a secretion of a biological entity’s decomposition? Really? Not that it wasn’t a good episode :-)

A: Definitely a far out idea, but when you consider that oysters can produce pearls, maybe not really crazy.  Physicists have speculated that there is an “island of stability” in some distant territory of the periodic table, elements that are stable despite having 130 or more protons in their nuclei.  Who’s to say an alien organism couldn’t have some kind of exotic metabolism that creates stable transuranics through some kind of “cold fusion” process?

Q: VOY: "Demon." As the person who came up with the story idea, this one is very interesting. What sorts of concerns go into creating exotic exobiology like the "silver blood" creatures?

A: I was definitely trying to think outside the box on that one.  I’ve always been fascinated by the question of whether there might be life out in the universe that is so different from “life as we know it” that we wouldn’t even recognize it as life.  I’m also interested in the idea of terraforming, i.e., modifying a hostile planetary environment into something that humans could thrive in (ala the Genesis device in Star Trek II and III).  I thought it would be fun to flip that idea: instead of modifying the planet to suit humans, the humans were replicated in a form that could survive in the harsh environment of the Demon planet.

Q: VOY: "Death Wish." The representation of the "big bang" was really interesting. It seemed as though it didn’t respect some of the research regarding the absence of light until hundreds of thousands of years in. Also, where was Voyager in relation to the expanding universe, such that they could observe it? Then, they were shrunk to subatomic proportions, and were viewing protons. How was that visualization arrived at?

A: Visualization is the key word – watching a black screen for any length of time wouldn’t be very interesting for the viewers!  Since this was a “Q” episode, we decided to take some liberties.  What he was showing Janeway and company, in my mind, was a sort of “God’s eye” view of the creation of the universe, a view from “beyond” space and time.  The real universe wasn’t transparent to visible light until about 300,000 years after the Big Bang, but since Q is capable of transcending the spacetime continuum, we thought, why not just have fun with that?

Q: VOY: "Threshold." Wow. Where to start. The idea of Warp 10 as an infinite velocity – how does that square with the light speed limit in current physics? Who was behind their portrayal of evolution? How can "evolution" absent an environment being adapted to result in lizard-people?

A: The speed of light limit applies to normal space only, not subspace.  But if you were traveling at infinite velocity, even in subspace, presumably you would be everywhere at the same time!  I resisted the idea of using this term, but I think it raises interesting “philosophical” questions: how “big” is subspace?  Does the idea of distance have the same meaning in subspace as it does in normal space?  Recent experiments with bacteria have shown that evolution can proceed without the pressures of natural selection in a specific environment.  Turning Paris and Janeway into lizards was the choice of the writer.

Q: Star Trek 2009 (i.e. the Abrams movie): Red Matter. Any Comment? How about blowing up your warp drive to escape a black hole? Or using singularities for time travel in the first place?

A: I didn’t work on the Abrams film, and I’ve only seen it once, when it premiered.  I enjoyed it very much, but had trouble understanding the nature of red matter.  It struck me more as a convenient plot device than well-thought-out science fiction.

With warp drive, I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to escape a black hole, since you can expand surrounding space faster than the speed of light, and thereby move past the event horizon.  There are solutions to the equations of General Relativity that seem to suggest that a singularity could function as a time machine, but it’s very speculative.

Q: Did you "invent" the "Heisenberg Compensator?" How, in your mind, does it work? Does it somehow measure both the position and the velocity of particles? On your view, do Trek's transporters work by annihilating the person on one end and then reassembling them out of different matter at the destination? (i.e. "information" transport) Or, does it work by somehow converting the particular matter on the front end to energy and re-converting it at the destination?

A: Mike Okuda, our wonderfully creative graphic designer and expert on Star Trek Tech, came up with the term Heisenberg Compensator.  Whenever someone asks him how it works, he wryly says, “Very well, thank you.”  I have no idea how something like that might work.  We put it in the show simply to acknowledge to our physicist viewers that we understand how the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics would make a transporter system, as we depict it, pretty much impossible without some kind of extraordinary breakthrough in quantum mechanics.

In the Original Series, Captain Kirk explains that the transporter essentially takes you apart, atom by atom, converts those atoms into a beam of energy, then reassembles them when the beam reaches its target.  Since it was established in the Original Series, we had to stick with that explanation.  It seems to me that this literally means tearing a person apart – which would kill you, of course – and then putting you back together, somehow alive.  I can’t imagine that something like that could ever be a practical form of transportation.

The quantum teleportation experiments people are doing today are restricted to information, not matter.  Maybe someday we’ll be able to beam the information in a person’s mind, or even his consciousness, to another location – the next best thing to being there!


  1. Fabulous interview! Makes me want to revist the many great series again. BTW, I really liked Enterprise, where all the technology was still green, or non-existant for the crew. What great struggles, vs. the later series! Thanks! Richard, a fan from the beginning! Live long and prosper, all!

  2. Richard,

    I was struck by Mr. Bormanis' suggestion of a Cage-era show. I agree wholeheartedly that it presents so many interesting story angles. If only people like Manny Coto and Andre Bormanis were in charge of the franchise, instead of JJ and his trained bad-writing monkeys! But I guess, given box office returns, that the rest of the world disagrees with me.