Science fiction fans around the world mourned the February 27 passing of Leonard Nimoy, who made Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock a cultural icon. Nimoy played Spock on television from 1965-1969 and in eight films, earning three Emmy nominations for his portrayal of the starship Enterprise’s science officer. Spock’s struggle to reconcile his hybrid heritage—Vulcan logic and homo sapien emotions—allowed fans to plumb their own humanity. Nimoy suffered similar struggles, attempting to define his artistry in various media while permanently linked to Spock’s popularity. Ultimately Nimoy embraced the character and, when he made his final voyage at the age of 83, he’d left an indelible mark in the annals of popular science fiction.
I don’t consider myself a Trekkie, but I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (take-out and Trek, dubbed “Chinese/Picard night”, was a family treat). In college I took a class entitled “Philosophy and Star Trek”. The professor, clad in a red captain’s uniform, introduced us to fundamentals of philosophy and theoretical physics with Trek episodes to illustrate each concept. I discovered that Spock and company’s greatest explorations were not of the cosmos, but of the mind and spirit. Trek used its fantastical premise as a stage for deeply human themes. This is, I believe, the core principle of all good science fiction.
On February 25, two days before Nimoy’s death, the earth-bound science community also lost an influential figure: ichthyologist Eugenie Clark. In the 1940’s and 50’s, when academic communities were often unfriendly to women, Clark swam with sharks. Her groundbreaking workhelped dispel fearful misconceptions about these “monsters” and earned her the nickname “Shark Lady”. She also pioneered SCUBA as a tool of marine science. In 1955, she founded the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, and contributed to champion research and education for the rest of her life. She stated that “those of us who love the sea wish everyone would be aware of the need to protect the sea”.
As a kid, I found a biography on Clark at the local library and read it so many times, I still remember specific illustrations and anecdotes. Clark rivaled any fictional heroine I’d encountered: smart and fearless, opening new worlds through her adventures. Her story fueled my lifelong interest in marine biology and environmental conservation. More importantly, in a world of princesses and pop stars, Clark provided me a real-life role model of girls breaking barriers and pursuing science.
Saying goodbye to these two remarkable people in the same week was a blow. But both left enduring legacies that will influence generations of science and science fiction to come.