Shortly before FiveThirtyEight launched last year, the staff played one of those “get-to-know-you” games where everyone shares a little-known fact about themselves. My contribution: I wore a “Star Trek” pin, every day, from sixth grade through my freshman year of college.
Pretty sure I won the game.
Maybe it isn’t much of a surprise that a staff full of nerds includes a few serious Trekkies. And perhaps it is equally unsurprising that the staff’s chief Trekkie (pretty sure the pin anecdote gives me dibs on that title) was particularly drawn to a character famous for calculating survival odds down to the decimal place. But I still wasn’t expecting to be affected quite so deeply by the news earlier on Friday that Leonard Nimoy, television’s Mr. Spock, had died.
I’m 34, much too young to have seen the original “Star Trek” series in its first television run. I grew up watching “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space 9.” But Spock was the character I dressed up as for Halloween in sixth grade, and with whom I most closely identified. Spock, after all, was both what I was and what I hoped to be: a nerdy, socially awkward outsider who not only got to explore strange new worlds but became fast friends with the dashing, cool-kid captain. (Being able to read minds didn’t sound bad either.)
But Spock was also something that, in retrospect, mattered to me even more deeply: a scientist. Those oh-so-precise odds were a gag, but the ideals that Spock embodied — that logic can point the way to morality, that evidence is the basis for truth, that curiosity matters more than dogma — were powerful influences that resonate even as the show’s hackneyed plots and on-the-cheap special effects have come to feel dated. They’re also among the principles that underpin this website.
“Star Trek’s” reputation for progressivism is often overstated. Female officers wore short skirts, Captain Kirk was a walking sexual harassment lawsuit and the one black cast member was essentially a glorified telephone operator. Even the show’s famed interracial kiss only happened when both characters were possessed by aliens.
But in its belief in the power of science, Star Trek truly was progressive. Unlike the fundamentally anti-technology “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” was driven by a utopian belief in the power of science and technology to eliminate poverty, end war, cure disease and overcome prejudice. Spock, the Enterprise’s tricorder-toting science officer, was the embodiment of that spirit.
Nimoy, of course, wasn’t Spock, as he reminded us in his 1977 autobiography. (He reversed course in a follow-up book nearly two decades later.) But he brought to the role a humanity that was central to the character. The Kirk-Spock relationship is often portrayed as one of heart-vs-head, but, as Charlie Jane Anders wrote on Friday, Nimoy never allowed Spock to be such a one-note character. In Nimoy’s portrayal, Spock is dispassionate but not cold; his reliance on logic is driven by his belief in its power to do good.
In his eulogy for Spock at the end of the “Wrath of Khan,” Kirk says of his friend: “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” That’s a message all of us odds-quoting data nerds can get behind.