As yet another incarnation of the Star Trek franchise takes to the airwaves this week, devoted fans will be thrilled to set off on another continuing mission to seek out new life and new civilizations.
But why do so many of those aliens always look humanoid? The reality is, when we do contact civilizations from other worlds, chances are, they will look nothing like us.
It is much easier and cheaper for Hollywood producers to simply alter the forehead and skin colour of an actor, then place them in a creative costume to make them look alien, than it is to create something completely new from scratch.
The original Star Trek series tried a few times with creatures such as the Horta, which were silicon-based life that could move through rock like fish swim through water. The creature looked like a piece of hot lava and skittered around the floor like a lumpy vacuum cleaner.
So most intelligent alien creatures in Stark Trek, whether they be Vulcan, Romulan, Klingon, Cardassian, Ferengi or Borg, look like us, with one head, two arms and two legs. And they all speak English!
You might also notice that whenever the crew beams down to the surface of a alien planet, the weather is always really nice. The sky may be a different colour, but the temperature is always warm, winds are calm and no one wears as much as a sweater.
This is not what the universe is like.
Planets we have explored in our solar system, as well as those found orbiting other stars, are all very different from Earth. They are either searing hot like Venus, giant balls of poisonous gas like Jupiter, or as we’ve discovered outside our solar system, there are planets so close to their star one side is permanently baked while the other is permanently frozen.
The hunt for an “Earth-like” planet is on, but even when we find one with liquid water and comfortable temperatures, it will still not be exactly like Earth. And that means any life that has evolved there will not be exactly like life on our planet.
Famous paleoanthropologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould said:
“Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree.”
He believed that if we were to rewind the tape of evolution on Earth and run it again from the beginning, we would end up with something different from the life we have today. That’s…