Stars and Stardom

Recalling, as I do, the birth and short life of the long-echoing "Star Trek" television series, I was honored to meet the real Lt. Uhura -- Nichelle Nichols -- at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta this week. We exchanged pleasantries with "Live long and prosper" hand salutes.

As the former communications officer aboard the starship Enterprise, Ms. Nichols, still glamorous at 79, moderated a competitive event called "FameLab," which challenged young scientists to communicate scientific concepts in language anyone might understand. The evening's entertainment featured eleven "FameLab" finalists from fields as diverse as astronomy and paleontology. Each had three minutes to expound on a topic with as much clarity, enthusiasm and humor as he or she could muster.

When the panel of three judges left the stage of the Georgia Tech Conference Center to deliberate, Ms. Nichols called up memories of auditioning for her life-changing role. The part of Lt. Uhura not only carried her through three television seasons and six movies, but also led to an affiliation with NASA as a recruiter of women astronauts. In fact, she had long since unwittingly inducted Mae Jemison, who watched "Star Trek" at age nine and followed Lt. Uhura's lead to become first a medical doctor and later a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

During a question-and-answer period, a young astronomer leapt to his feet, star-struck almost to the point of speechlessness by the presence of Ms. Nichols. "I want to thank you," he said. "Your appearance on that TV show led to my decision to study astronomy, and made me what I am today. I never thought I would get to thank you in person!"

For many years, I've credited Carl Sagan and his "Cosmos" series with creating an entire generation of astronomers. While that assessment remains valid, I'm happy to acknowledge the parallel effect of "Star Trek." Even in re-runs of its re-runs, the show spawned legions of "Trekkies" whose ranks include untold numbers of bona fide scientists.