TIFF Brought An Astronaut, A Scientist, And An Inventor Together For Their Second Trek Talk

“This fall, we will have been in space continually for 16 years. That’s a key step to living the dream of Star Trek. You have to imagine that you can do something before you go do it,” says Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen.

Hansen landed at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week, along with the ROM’s Marianne Mader and physician/inventor Sonny Kohli, to talk about the intersection of art and science in Star Trek. The trio of scientists—all big fans of the series, from the original all the way through to Voyager—explained how the show has influenced them in their careers and how it continues to inspire new generations to think positively about the future.


“I think I was the only kid with a turban in my part of Calgary,” said Kohli. “So I looked like a Vulcan, I looked like an alien, and I was sometimes treated like an alien. It resonated with me, because it was like, wow, there is this aspirational universe where we can all fit in and I can just be like everyone else. That was inspirational to me.”

The show’s iconic tricorder also inspired Kohli and his team to try to recreate that kind of zero interface medical device to use in his practice. As part of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition, CloudDX (Kohli’s company) has created their own tricorder, using Star Trek as a design and a communication tool. “The bridge between engineering and medicine—because I don’t speak their language and they don’t speak mine—Star Trek was the language we spoke in, the design language,” said Kohli. “The art shaped our journey as engineers and physicians. We paid homage to Star Trek in many ways with the design decisions we made. The tricorder we co-invented has three pieces to it and that was deliberate. It influenced us in so many ways.”


The series also influenced Hansen’s decision to go into space. The astronaut places great importance on the way The Next Generation allowed him to imagine what it would be like to boldly lead the way to where no one has gone before. “You hear those words and you’re like ‘Yes, let’s do that!’” exclaimed Hansen. “When I was watching TNG, I was going through a time in my life where I had goals and ambitions that I wasn’t prepared for. It became very clear to me that I was going to have to learn leadership, to stand up in front of a group, and to be in charge—and I was not comfortable with those things. I was a pretty shy and reserved. I’ve always identified with Picard because for me, he was a great leader with true leadership skills. That was helpful for me to see someone embodying those.”


For Marianne Mader, it was the way Star Trek illustrated the scientific method on screen that inspired her. “When I think of science literacy and a show like Star Trek, it’s promoting and enabling curiosity, in terms of teaching the process of how to think, learning the scientific process, and thinking critically… Making sure that the facts are accurate when you’re presenting a scientific world, it is critical that that information is accurate. Star Trek has that responsibility, and that quality, and respect for maintaining the accuracy of the science that they do present.”

The intersection of science and art in the series continues to play a role in the work all three speakers do today “I look at our Tricorder as a work of art, says Kohli. “It took people with creative minds to bridge that gap of science and art. We’re finally in a place now where we no longer need to dichotomize.”

“If I could take you to space and look back on the planet, you would find it more interesting than Star Trek,” Hansen added, explaining how the scientific community needs to use art to make their work more accessible to the public. “As a scientist you have to present your ideas. I think science fact could be as interesting as science fiction. We just need to keep working on how we portray it to people.”

TIFF’s ‘50 Years of Star Trek’ program runs until December 30. Check out the full lineup here. Watch TIFF’s Trek Talk on Bridging Science and The Arts below.