Star Trek’s Cheap-Looking Aliens May Be More Plausible Than You Think

"There is nothing new under the sun," someone once said, probably George Carlin. Which is why we all want to visit another solar system so badly. But things might well be exactly the same there.

See, I'm about two-thirds of the way through this book I got for Christmas: The Canon, by Natalie Angier. It is, per the subtitle, "a whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science," and if you, like me, have long fancied yourself an appreciator of the hard, lab-coated disciplines but don't actually know what an ion is and, except for getting halfway through The Elegant Universe, haven't actually studied any of them since taking Physics for Poets your junior year-well, then, the book is worth your time.

The chapter I was most excited for when I asked for the book was the one on chemistry-first, because of the ions thing. And second, because every single other piece of literature I've read purporting to make chemistry accessible to dummies, including Chemistry for Dummies, has left me utterly baffled. I'm not sure why chemistry, of all sciences, has been so tough for me (although Angier testifies to the pervasiveness of the perplexity perpetuated by that particular permutation-usually with phrases like that), but it has. Thanks to this book, though, now I finally know a little bit more about what I'm made of (and what everything else is made of, too). And I'm happier. I guess my therapist was right.

But: Less book-plugging, more Star Trek. OK, so, the aliens on every incarnation of the series have long been derided as looking pretty silly, except for the Klingons, whom we refrain from mocking not because we're scared but because we probably saw an episode of Reading Rainbow where Geordi asked Michael Dorn to explain just how long it took to get all that makeup on, and just how uncomfortable it was. Hail, Kahless.

A lot of the other aliens (hi, Bajorans!) are considerably less impressive, and certainly not up to Mos Eisley cantina speed, because television budgets are smaller than movie budgets and if you don't want to pay for (1) a load of makeup and (2) a load of makeup people working long hours, it makes solid financial sense to slap a nose ridge on three actors and call it good. Yes, the audience thinks it's cheesy, but they don't care, because on the whole, the aliens are just there to serve as metaphorical humans in whatever parable is being played out, and everyone is just busy hoping it's a sexy mind-control episode, anyway.

If there are any real-life aliens out there, though, what if it's more than a metaphor? What if they really do look a lot like us?

That's not a very exciting thought, but entirely plausible if I'm reading Angier's book correctly. Check it out-

In the aforementioned chemistry chapter, she explains why the element carbon is the optimal choice as the basic building block of life:

"The strength of the carbon bond helps explain why it is the basis of life: we need molecular stability now, and we really needed it when life was new and the world was a considerably harsher place than it is today. At the same time, the carbon bond under ordinary conditions can bend, spring, and curl, hence the capacity of carbon molecules to array themselves as rings, cages, and coils. Carbon is as good as Goldilocks for building the spiraling, switchbacking molecule called DNA, and so the sugar spine of the double helix, and the individual chemical letters of which its code is composed, are carbonated through and through."

Star Trek’s Cheap-Looking Aliens May Be More Plausible Than You Think

And near the close of the next chapter, which covers evolutionary biology, she discusses the ability of entirely separate species, in entirely separate places, to evolve independently of one another and come out looking almost the same-simply because they're subjected to very similar conditions and there are only so many ways to adapt. American cacti and the euphorbias of Africa have different genetic codes, for example, but pass for each other well enough to fool the layperson. If you're growing up in a desert, it just makes sense to develop a round, water-holding body, spines, and thick, waxy skin.

You can see where I'm going with this. Nature is nothing if not minimal-it uses the least energy possible to do whatever it has to do. If carbon was the most convenient and obvious material for life on Earth, oughtn't it to be in many, many other places throughout-if not all of-the universe?

And if bodies more or less like ours are the end result (insofar as we know, so far) of the evolutionary process working on that carbon-based life here, wouldn't that be the case all those other places, too?

So that's my awesome hypothesis for the week. Many of you surely know a lot more about chemistry and biology than I do (you probably love ions), and so I happily put it to you to hash it out and tell me if I'm crazy or not.

And it would not surprise me at all if you told me that someone else, or lots of someones, has already thought of all this. Like George Carlin said, there's nothing new under the sun. And maybe not under any other suns either, dammit.

Commenter Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog.