When I was 19 or 20, I realized with some alarm that my knowledge and skill set was very specialized and very limited. I knew a lot about acting, filmmaking, and just about every other practical aspect of the entertainment industry, but I was beginning to feel like I didn't have anything to fall back on, if the acting thing didn't work out for me. I had always enjoyed reading and learning about things, so I started spending a lot of time in book stores and libraries, doing my very best to expand my world. Much of my reading stayed focused on the arts, though, as I read magnificent books like Goldman's Adventures in the Screentrade and countless collections from W.S. Burroughs and other beat-era writers.
As I entered my early twenties, I made a commitment to expand into something else, and I chose science. I had always loved science, and being on Star Trek made me science adjacent for all of my teens, but I quickly found out that most science books were way over my head, or written in a style that wasn't engaging enough to make it worth the effort. After a few frustrating months, someone (I think it was my brother) suggested that I read A Brief History of Time. I picked it up, read it in just a couple of days, and realized that my life could be divided into before I read it, and after I read it. On my next trip to the bookstore, I went straight to the science section, and looked for something – anything – to continue my education.
My eyes fell on a book with an interesting cover, and a provocative title: Hyperspace: A scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension. It was written by a guy called Michio Kaku. I pulled it off the shelf, and after just a few pages, I was hooked.
There's a story in Hyperspace, right at the beginning, that I'm going to paraphrase. It's the story that grabbed my attention, captured my imagination, and fundamentally altered the way I thought about the nature of existence. I already had "before and after" with A Brief History of Time, and when I got to the end of this story, I had "before and after I read about the fish scientists." The story goes something like this:
In San Francisco, there's this botanical garden, and near the entrance there is a pond that's filled with koi fish. Dr. Kaku describes standing there, looking at the fish one day, and wondering what it would be like if the fish had a society as complex and advanced as our own, but the whole thing was confined to the pond, and they had no idea that there was a whole other world just beyond the surface of the water. In the fish world, there were fish scientists, and if a human were to pluck one of them from the pond, show it our world, and return it to the pond, it would go back to the other fish scientists and say, "Guys! You're never going to believe this. I was just doing my thing, and suddenly, this mysterious force pulled me from our world and showed me another, where the creatures don't need gills to breathe, and walk on two legs!"
The other scientists would look at it, and ask it how it got to this new world, but it wouldn't be able to explain it. They'd want the scientist to recreate it, but it wouldn't be able to. The fish scientist would know, however, that the other world was there, and that there was something just as complex as life in the pond on the other side of some mysterious barrier that they couldn't seem to penetrate.
I'm sure I've mangled the story, but that's essentially what I remember from it. I thought, "Well, shit, if there could be a world like that in the pond, maybe we are in something else's pond!" I didn't know if it was possible, I didn't know if it was just science fiction, but I didn't care. It was this incredible possibility, and my world opened up again. I felt like I'd been granted membership in a secret society. I devoured the book, and I began to think about the nature of existence in ways that I'd never even considered before. When I finally read Flatland a few years later, I was blown away that Abbot had written essentially the same story a hundred years earlier, in 1884, and I was thrilled that I could actually understand it.
I got a chance to interview Dr. Kaku one of the times I hosted The Screen Savers. I nervously told him how much his work meant to me, and he said that Star Trek was similarly important to him. That was pretty cool.
next time: a fantastic voyage