In honor of the Star Trek: Discovery premier, let's look at our chances of meeting anything like the Star Trek aliens in real life.
The Klingon Work and the Trill host Jadzia Dax belong to alien species that look quite human. [Photo by CBS]
Since we've never actually found aliens, we've had to rely on our imaginations to portray fictional aliens on television shows and movies. While there have been truly creative and poignant portrayals of non-humanoid aliens, many more fictional alien species have been quite similar to humans. In Star Trek, for example, you have the Vulcans, Romulans, Bajorans, Betazoids, Klingons, and even one half of the symbiotic Trill species.
There have been non-humanoid aliens in the show, such as the furry tribbles, the crystalline Entity, and the nucleogenic cloud beings. However, there are significantly more humanoid, carbon-based aliens than not. Is it possible that aliens in real life would look like us as well, albeit with spots like the humanoid Trill, nose ridges like the Bajorans, or forehead ridges like the Klingon?
The individual next to Sonequa Martin-Green's character on Star Trek: Discovery is Lieutenant Saru of the new species called Kelpiens.
In real life, there's a theory called “panspermia” that Star Trek showrunners used to explain why different alien species looked alike. According to the theory of panspermia, life on Earth originated from extremely tough microbes brought here by asteroids or comets. So far, there's no evidence that directly lends credence to this exact claim. However, astronomers have found that the building blocks of life as we know it can exist unprotected on asteroids and comets. Also, tiny organisms like tardigrades can survive in the vacuum of space.
Thus, taking narrative cues from the panspermia theory, the Star Trek writers made it so that an ancient humanoid species purposefully “sowed their seeds”, as it were, around the Milky Way. From these seeds sprung life forms that took on the general form of their ancient galactic ancestors. Thus, different species from different worlds in different quadrants of the galaxy look alike. Essentially, Star Trek aliens are distant relatives.
If panspermia is a possibility in real life, is it also possible that the aliens we might encounter in the future look like us? Astronomer and astrobiologist Daniel Apai contends that no, real-life aliens probably won't look like us. If that's the case, then what would real-life aliens look like?
The organisms that may possibly live on Mars are methanogens. [Photo by Frank Dazzo and Mel Yokoyama]
One word: microbes.
Earlier this year, scientists found that life on Mars may be microscopic. Now, scientists suggest that the most common form of life across the galaxy is likely not humanoid, but actually microbial. To explain this, Apai says that life on Earth emerged almost immediately after conditions for it developed. However, it took a long time for complex organisms to arise. Simple organisms dominated much of the history of life on Earth. “[I]ntelligence and technical civilization have only been present for about 0.000001 percent of Earth’s past,” says Apai.
However, this theory is based on the assumption that carbon is the essential ingredient in life. Even Star Trek aliens are largely carbon-based life forms. Then again, this may be a human-centric way of looking at things that won't even be close to humans. It's entirely possible that silicone-based, or any-other-element-based life forms exist somewhere out in the universe.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!