Field of Science

The Geology of Star Trek: I. Minerals, Crystals and Alien Life Forms

But a geological oddity to say the least. Pure silicon!
A few trace elements, look, we didn't you call here so you could collect rocks!“ 
Geologists get no respect, even if vital for entire civilizations, from the episode “The Devil in the Dark”.
According to Vulcan philosophy one should respond with grief only if a life was lost in vain. The loss of Mister Spock - more precisely of actor Leonard Nimoy – last week was followed by worldwide reactions, remembering him both in his role as a real person. I think Nimoy would have liked it, as it obviously shows that he left a lasting impression on our pop-culture.

So here is my geological-geeky tribute to his impersonation of the 1th science(including geology) - officer on board of the USS Enterprise and the geology of the Star Trek universe.
Geologists seem to be a quite common race in the Star Trek universe. According to "Star Trek - Enterprise" (and alluded in the movie "Star Trek: First Contact")  one of the first contacts of humans with an alien species occurred when the crew of a geological exploration mission crash-landed on earth and was forced to work in a coal mine in Pennsylvania.
This seems logical. Mining activities for raw materials and fuel are also widespread in the Star Trek universe. As every space-civilization would soon or later exhaust the resources of its own planet, there is an urgent need for specialists of extraplanetary geology.
Subterranean mining facility on Janus VI, essential for providing thousands of worlds with metals and other precious resources.
In many episodes of the original Star Trek series the crew of the Enterprise visits mining-colonies on foreign planets or searches for valuable minerals and crystals, there is even a geological tricorder available and how I did love to be able to access the mineralogical database in it. 
By convention the names of terrestrial minerals (a crystalline combination of one or various elements) end with the suffix "-ite", the denominations of elements with the suffix "- ium", "-um", "-on", "-gen" or "-ine". Unfortunately it seems that this nomenclature is not always applied with the necessary scientific accuracy by the Enterprise crew, but as those are (to us) unknown materials, it may be excused. 
Unknown elements, forming also unknown minerals, are not a scientific impossibility. The heaviest elements human science knows posses an atomic weight of 118. These elements are unstable and radioactive. However it may be possible that still unknown elements with an atomic weight, higher than 184, are stable and exist somewhere out there. 
Could these unknown elements form also minerals? Without facts it is vain to speculate. In meteorites we have found almost 300 different minerals, based on known elements, however formed under extraterrestrial conditions and therefore not found in earth´s environments. Iron-, magnesium-, calcium-silicates prevail, but also iron- and nickel-alloys, maybe forming also earth´s inner core but unknown on it´s surface.
More than 125 minerals are mentioned in the original Star Trek episodes, movies, animation series and the recent TV-reboots, however of these only 23 are actually real terrestrial minerals and only one mineral - olivine - has actually been found in extraterrestrial rocks. Curiously quartz, one of the most common minerals on earth, is almost never mentioned but specimens are used as props for dilithium crystals. In the Star Trek universe lithium or dilithium (spelling used in later episodes) is the only material that can be used in matter-antimatter reactors, standard equipment on board of federation spaceships. As its (supposedly) cubic crystal structure can filtrate antimatter it therefore can be used to control the energy output from the reactor. As some real minerals can filtrate or distort certain wavelengths of visibile light, it may be not a so far-fetched physical property after all.
Dilithium crystals are frequently referred in the original Star Trek series, also as gemstones, however they play a vital role in the episode "Elaan of Troyius". Here Mr. Spock and Scotty must repair the damaged energy converter of the USS Enterprise, a very delicate operation as they must rely on crude dilithium crystals, also the Klingons are attacking...
Gemstones like sapphires, diamonds, emeralds or rubies, all these crystalline forms have a great appeal to humans, but are just carbon, aluminium or silicon-oxide varieties ... quite illogical (from the episode “Cat´s Paw”).
Common salt plays an important role in the episode "The Man Trap" (it was also the first episode of Star Trek ever broadcasted, as the other episodes were rejected at first. In the original pilot episode, "The Cage", however there features also a geologist and a geological report). A remote outpost is infiltrated by a shapeshifting creature. Only using some halite (the mineralogical term for salt) as bait, the creature, in desperate need to feed on this mineral, will reveal it´s true form.
Collecting (literally) rocks in the Star Trek universe...

Sulfur, saltpeter and carbon (in two crystalline modifications, as coal and as diamond)  saved Captain Kirk´s life in the episode "Arena". Kirk is forced into a battle against the almost indistructible Gorn, a reptilian life form with armored skin. Only by using the naturally occurring outcrops of the mentioned elements and minerals on a desolate planetoid, Kirk is able to build a primitive gun. Using the sulfur, saltpeter and coal to make gunpowder and the pointy diamond-crystals as high-impact projectiles, he finally puts down his adversary for good (unfortunately the supposed "diamonds" have the wrong crystal shape).
However sometimes minerals can also cost a life. During negotiations for the mining rights of the rare but essential (and also non-existing) mineral topaline, a red-shirt is killed in the episode “Fridays Child” on the surface of Capella IV, just 32 seconds after beaming down…
He´s dead Jim, just 32 seconds after arriving on the surface of Capella IV …
It´s curious to note that hand lens or geological hammers are of no use in the 23th century. In the episode "Obsession" Spock analyzes a rock composed of the mineral tritanium with the already mentioned tricorder. Tritanium is 21.4 times as hard as diamond (curiously Kirk in the episode "Arena" states that diamonds are the hardest substance known in the Star Trek universe!?), therefore useful for the construction of indistructible spaceship hulls (which begs the question what phenomenon could erode and smooth the boulders found on the surface of Argus X). The rock can be sampled only by phasering off a piece, since it is too hard to cut with normal tools.
Shoot to sample...
However even the most sophisticated technology can´t replace geological intuition - It is not logical, but is often true. On Gamma Trianguli VI (episode “The Apple”) Spock immediately notes the lush vegetation, deducing correctly that also soil-nutrients and therefore geology plays a role in supporting this peculiar paradise-like world. With his sharp geological eye Spock identifies also hornblende and quartz in a rock (according to petrological composition may an igneous rock?), easily erodible (and explosive!) and so may the source of the rich soil.

But maybe the most fascinating incarnation of geology in the Star Trek universe is the encounter with silicon-based life forms (to be continued...)


FOURESTIER, J. de (2005): The Mineralogy of Star Trek. Axis, Vol.1(3): 1 - 24
PICKOVER, C.A.(1999): The Science Of Aliens. Basic Books: 240
SHOSTAK, B. (2012): Life in the Universe. Addison-Wesley Publisher: 544
SCHULZ-MAKUCH, D. & IRWIN, L.N. (2006): The prospect of alien life in exotic forms on other worlds. Naturwissenschaften. Vol.93: 155-172

1 comment:

  1. Discussing two of my favourite things :D
    I always knew there was a lot about geology in Star Trek, but the depth of this knowledge is brilliant. This blog post was an excellent read!


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