What better way to celebrate Star Trek Day (or at least the day AFTER Star Trek day) than to spend part of the evening with one of the cast members of Voyager under the stars discussing astronomy? Unfortunately, nature didn’t quite cooperate on the “under the stars” part, as the remnants of Pacific hurricane were passing overhead, and it was very overcast. Only one star, Vega, was poking through the high-level clouds.
Maybe I should back up a few parsecs and tell you all how I got from there to here—“here” being Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, a few miles away from the Pacific Ocean. My friend and fellow Trekker, KAT CAMPBELL is a docent at the park and is in charge of booking their “campfire” programming in their amphitheater area. September 9th was their annual astronomy program where visitors can learn about the stars and planets and look through a giant telescope in a nice setting without all the city lights.
This year, the free program featured TIM RUSS speaking for 90 minutes beginning at 7:30pm. Now, Tim wasn’t invited because he used to play Tuvok on Voyager (and most recently on STAR TREK: PICARD). Nope, before Tim ever donned the pointed ears, he was a fervent astronomy enthusiast and is still a prominent member of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. He’s spent several thousand dollars on telescopic equipment, and a couple of years ago, he was one of six “citizen astronomers” to help NASA detect what are known as Trojan asteroids. Pretty cool, huh?
I actually went stargazing with Tim once before, at a gathering of the USS Angeles chapter of Starfleet International about 20 years ago. He brought along his daughter Madison to that event (a wee bairn at the time; she’s now a grown-up singer and actress in Hollywood). Tim knows his stuff…I mean seriously knows his stuff! If NEIL deGRASSE TYSON ever needs an understudy, just call Tim Russ!!!
What was one of the most fun aspects of the evening was taking my son Jayden along and NOT telling him who would be there. Jayden and I have been watching Star Trek together since he was five—he’ll be thirteen in just ten more days!—and we’re currently in season two of Voyager. (In fact, the season premiere of LOWER DECKS kinda spoiled the rest of the series for him…D’OH!) So he knows who Tuvok is.
Jayden also has the following photo on his wall…
It’s from a magazine shoot we did with LEVAR BURTON about a decade ago when Levar was rebooting Reading Rainbow and the editor to include some Trekkies in uniform. Jayden was only three at the time, and as he got older and learned who Geordi La Forge was, Jayden felt increasingly frustrated that he had never met a Star Trek actor when he was old enough to really appreciate it.
So this was gonna be a fun surprise for my not-so-little boy…
The drive out to Malibu took about at hour or so, and although we got there with plenty of time to spare, we had no idea where the amphitheater was! This was a little embarrassing, as we’d actually been there previously to visit the area where the television show M*A*S*H used to film…
But the M*A*S*H area is nowhere near the amphitheater, and we wandered around aimlessly as we lost sunlight, running into another clueles fan who noticed my leather Picard jacket and decided there was probably safety in numbers….even if none of us had any idea where we were going!
Eventually, we found a sign, and a three-minute jaunt up a wooded path finally led us to the amphitheater, where Tim had just begun speaking about 30 seconds before we arrived. We found some seats next to another USS Angeles member and started listening. I was wondering how long it would take for Jayden to recognize who was giving the presentation!
I didn’t want to talk too loud, as it was a fairly small area with about 80 people in attendance. Tim was standing on a “stage” in front of a projection from his MacBook laptop. I don’t have a photo of the presentation, as it was way too dark by that point to get a decent picture. But I did find a daytime image of the amphitheater online…
Finally, after a few minutes, I leaned over to Jayden and whispered, “So, do you recognize the person who’s talking?” Keeping in mind that the Voyager episodes that we’re currently watching first aired 25 years ago(!!!) and Tim is now 67 years old, I wasn’t surprised to hear a bit of uncertainty in my son’s answer: “Was he on Voyager?”
“Yep,” I said, “That’s Tim Russ; he played Tuvok. Pretty cool, huh?” Jayden smiled. He was paying close attention to Tim, who was showing an image of the Andromeda Galaxy and mentioning that, in about four and a half billion years, Andromeda will collide with our Milky Way Galaxy and essentially absorb it. Tim explained that this wouldn’t be like two boulders smashing into each other because there is so much empty space between stars. “Essentially,” he said, “if Earth were even still around in 4.5 billion years, which it probably won’t be, you’d look up into the sky and see about ten times more stars than you do now.”
Tim showed a whole slew of photos and short videos captured from his telescope: nebulae, other galaxies, and the Trojan asteroid “Lucy” that he helped track for NASA. He answered a ton of questions, including a whole bunch of amazing queries from dozens of kids in the audience, most if not all of them probably unaware that he’d played an alien on a sci-fi TV show that aired a decade and a half before they were even born! But their questions were pretty insightful—things like, “What’s inside of a black hole?” and “Are there more than three dimensions?”
Tim’s answers were very interesting, too. Even though we don’t know what’s inside of a black hole because not even light can escape, we do know that black holes are at the center of most galaxies and are probably one of the main reasons that galaxies exist. He discussed how PR. STEPHEN HAWKING (someone asked about him) actually had to concede to another astrophysicist that matter didn’t actually “disappear” into a black hole because matter cannot be destroyed, only converted. The most recent theory is that black holes, underneath their event horizons, have a layer of highly condensed matter surrounding them like “peach fuzz.”
As for the question about more dimensions, current theories project as many as eleven different dimensions beyond the four we already know: length, width, height, and time. When the child explained that they were actually talking about parallel dimensions as in alternate universes, Tim said that there might be more of those, too. In fact, in the most recent theoretical models, a physicist from Princeton suggests that our universe didn’t begin with a Big Bang but may actually have been created when two other universes collided.
(I wasn’t kidding about my Neil deGrasse-Tyson comment!)
My own question was about the collision of galaxies: “If the universe of space-time is constantly expanding, then how is it that our galaxy and Andromeda are on a collision course? Shouldn’t they be moving away from each other?” Tim answered that, on a grand scale, the universe is expanding and objects and galaxies further away from us—at the edges of what we see—are indeed moving apart. But in local galactic clusters, the movements are more random and can be both toward and away from each other.
The most amusing moment came when Tim was discussing the difference between dark matter and dark energy (two totally unrelated things). An adult toward the back raised his hand and asked if dark energy was essentially like the Force? Jayden leaned over to me and whispered, “Wrong franchise!” I love that kid.
Speaking of franchises, Tim also mentioned that, for the first time ever, warp speed—or more specifically speeds faster than light—have been shown to be theoretically possible. Previously, the speed of light was considered to be an absolute maximum limit in the physical universe. But apparently, there might be a way around it after all involving matter and anti-matter. The only problem is controlling the huge explosion. I suggested dilithium crystals.
Tim spoke for about 90 minutes, and sadly, as I said, it was too overcast to do any decent stargazing. “The astronomer’s curse,” Tim said. But he thanked everyone for coming and suggested that any aspiring stargazers in the audience (pointing to the kids and their parents) could get a fairly decent start-up telescope for as little as a couple of hundred dollars, with a GPS app that can locate and track objects in the sky even as the Earth rotates.
After he was finished, a number of people went up to chat with Tim, including Jayden and me. No one was asking for a photo, and I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt. So we waited patiently. But as things dragged on and equipment was being put away, I realized that the only way we were going to get a decent picture in what was otherwise complete blackness was to use the glow of the projection screen to light our faces. I silently prayed for all these other people to finish up with Tim so we could ask for a photo before someone pulled the plug on the projector.
Finally, after what felt like 4.5 billion years(!), I was able to ask, “Tim, could my son and I get a picture with you?” He said sure, and I lined him and Jayden facing the glow of the still-on projection screen. And now Jayden finally has a photo for his wall of him with a Star Trek actor taken while Jayden was old enough to appreciate the moment…
Jayden also took a shot of me with Tim, but that’s not nearly as important, since after 56 years, I’ve collected quite a good number of photos and memories with the casts of the various series. But for Jayden, this was a very special evening, and he thanked me for taking him and for making it such a fun surprise.