Since its premiere in 1966, the television program Star Trek has inspired multiple generations of young people to pursue careers in science and engineering. The iconic science fiction series followed the crew members of the star ship Enterprise as they travel the galaxy on a five-year mission to "explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before." Star Trek provided its viewers with a vision of the future that was both optimistic and exciting, and suggested that scientific thinking and technological know-how are keys to realizing such a bright future. Why learn math and science? Well, how else are you going to fly a star ship and explore the universe?
As I think back on the formative influence that the show had on me as a young person, I realize that it taught me some important lessons that I have brought with me into my adult career as an engineer:
Under-promise and over-deliver
On multiple occasions throughout the series, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott says that a given technical feat can't be done. Then he does it.
Clearly, this strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it bolsters Scott's reputation as a miracle worker. A disadvantage is that his commanding officer, Captain Kirk, routinely expects him to achieve the impossible. Another possible disadvantage, for real-world engineers, is that management might actually believe you when you say that something is impossible, and never give you the chance to prove otherwise. Or, worse, they may give the job to someone who is willing to make less conservative promises. That being said, it is a much better strategy than claiming that a task will be easy, then failing to do it.
The interaction between Kirk and Scott exemplifies the relationship between management and engineering at its best. One role of engineering is to point out the technical difficulties involved in achieving the goals that management has set. The other role of engineering is to solve these technical difficulties so that these goals can be successfully achieved.
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
The original series was remarkable for its time in portraying men and women of all races and nationalities (and even extraterrestrials like Mr. Spock) working side-by-side in harmony. Each of the characters has unique strengths that make the Enterprise crew effective as a team.
Despite the stereotype of engineers as misanthropic individualists working in isolation, engineering is very much a team sport. To be successful as an engineer, you need to be able to work together with a wide variety of people. This means that you need to be able to respect differences, and to recognize the unique contributions that each member brings to the group.
The three main characters in the series (Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy) have very different personalities and ways of approaching problems. Kirk is brave and decisive, Spock is logical and analytical, and McCoy is skeptical and compassionate. They don’t always agree, and neither one of them is always right, but the three of them, working together, are usually able to solve most problems. Similarly, in a successful engineering team, different individuals’ approaches complement one another and balance each other’s extremes.
Don’t fear the unknown
In an early episode of the show, Kirk says: “There’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” Just like the crew of a star ship venturing into uncharted reaches of space, engineers often need to deal with uncertainty.
With any luck, in your engineering career, you will have the opportunity to design something the world has never seen before. This is exciting, but it can also be scary. It’s not always possible to predict every potential failure mode before it happens. You may have to make major design decisions before you have complete data. If you’re doing something that no one else has ever done, there will be no one to show you the way.