How important was "Star Trek's" chief science officer Spock to real-world astrophysicists, chemists, and biologists? He was so influential that trained scientists would approach Leonard Nimoy -- even when he wasn't wearing his pointy ears -- and ask for his opinion on their research papers.
"My dad did not have a lot of formal education," said Nimoy's son Adam during a panel on Thursday evening of Comic-Con International in San Diego. It was the elder Nimoy's ability as an actor to humanize the logical Spock that made the character so beloved, his son said.
Leonard Nimoy died earlier this year at the age of 83.
Humanizing ostensibly cold, hard science, and discussing how ideas can cross between science fact and science fiction might sound like heady topics for the biggest pop-culture confab in North America, but the audience lapped up the details, often cheering and laughing.
Nimoy, who is currently working on a documentary about his father and his iconic character called "For the love of Spock," was joined onstage at the San Diego Convention Center by Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab; and Aditya Sood, producer of the upcoming film "The Martian." The panel was moderated by "Mad Men" actor Jay R. Ferguson.
Straughn said it's not surprising that science fact and fiction are closely linked. "Both of these realms, they strive for a better future just barely beyond the reach of what we can do now," said Straughn. "And it takes so much creativity required to make these things reality."
At the center of much of the conversation was the desire to send humans to Mars. Sood showed the trailer for "The Martian," a film adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 novel directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor among many others. "We want people to get a feeling of what it's going to be like to actually go to Mars," he said. The movie features Damon as an astronaut in the near future who is stranded on the Red Planet and must use his wits to survive while waiting for a rescue that may never come.
While agreeing that exploring Mars was important, NASA astrobiologist Hand pointed out that other planets need our attention, too. His research focuses on the "ocean worlds" of the outer solar system, where water might be trapped below the planetary crust.
"For the first time in history of humanity, we have the tools to go out there and see if there is life beyond Earth," said Hand. "We need the public to be engaged in it, schools teaching it."
And as for what the un-scientific Leonard Nimoy would tell scientists who wanted his professional opinion on their research papers? "He would use his stock phrase," recalled Leonard's son Adam. "'You're on the right track.'"
With the resurgence in the US government's interest in sending astronauts to Mars, NASA's scientists are finally saying the same thing.