INTERVIEW WITH AN ALIEN

Although Tim Russ plays an alien on Star Trek Voyager, his interest in astronomy is no act.

Astronomy: When did you become interested in astronomy?

Russ: I've had a casual interest in science, the natural sciences of astronomy and space exploration since high school and college which goes back about 25 years. As far as the hands-on experience with astronomy, my actual practice started about 10 years ago, in terms of being able to afford the equipment.

Astronomy: Do you own a telescope and go out observing?

Russ: I have five of them, actually.

Astronomy: What kind of scopes do you have?

Russ: I have a 5-inch ETX Maksutov, a TeleVue Bizzaro 85mm refractor, a 10-inch Dobsonian, and an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. I also have a little ETX 92 I may be selling. This is over several years, buying, and trading, and selling. Some of this stuff I've traded, some of this stuff I've bought, so they've come and gone. Right now, each one has a specific function, so they all will serve some purpose at some point.

Astronomy: Do you do observing as well as astrophotography?

Russ: I have done a little bit of astrophotography, but most of the stuff is casual observing. If I'm going to do photography, it's probably going to be CCD imaging down the line. Once the technology has improved and streamlined which I believe is pending I may try that. It just depends. I kind of like the basic eyeball through the eyepiece sort of viewing. There's something about it that's very appealing, as opposed to having to set up and get everything perfectly aligned and spending the whole night just shooting pictures.

The easiest way to do astrophotography would be to have a motor drive telescope you can piggyback a camera on. Piggyback a camera, put a 100 or 200mm lens on it and just shoot. You don't need much of a polar alignment at all. You shoot something like Cygnus, the Veil Nebula, or the North America Nebula and you can shoot a 10-, 12-, 13-minute exposure or less with high speed film and get a nice image of those two nebulas very simply and very easily. I've done that once and it was very easy and I've had pretty good results.

Apart from that, I just take it out and look, man. I don't want to schlep a lot of stuff out there and spend most of the night having to fuss over it. Down the line, I know they have CCD stuff coming out that's all in one system with a built-in screen. I think that would make more sense than doing through-the-lens film photography.

Astronomy: What do you enjoy looking at, and do you have a favorite object?

Russ: I do like the large globular clusters; they're usually pretty spectacular.

Astronomy: Like M13, M15 . . .

Russ: . . . and M92, I think it is. A few others are really spectacular, the summer objects primarily. Some of the nebulae are kind of interesting and a couple of the galaxies are also very interesting. But the clusters are really quite nice globulars and some open clusters.

Astronomy: Do you look much at the planets and the moon, too?

Russ: All the time. I can just go out on my balcony or go outdoors in the city and look at those things, so it makes it so much easier to do it in city lights. I've spent a lot of time looking at those. As a matter of fact, I prefer to use my 85mm. It has a binocular viewer on it and with that thing, the viewing is spectacular.

Astronomy: Do you do most of your observing in the L.A. Metro area?

Russ: No, most of the viewing is done just outside of L.A., in the valley off Templin highway. It's about a 40 minute drive to relatively dark skies. You can see the Milky Way visually, so that's at least dark enough to see most of the objects that I'm looking for. That I can do on a week night without having to stay overnight somewhere.

Astronomy: Do you ever observe with other members of the Voyager cast or show them your telescopes?

Russ: Sometimes I'll bring my telescopes to the set and we've looked at stuff while we're working, usually the moon and planets. And that's it. I think one other crew member on the Voyager cast has a telescope and we've gone out on occasion as well, but not as far as the cast, no.

Astronomy: So in terms of astronomical interest, yours is probably significantly greater than other people's on the staff?

Russ: Yeah, in terms of hands-on hobby astronomy, I'm the only one of the crew. I think Roxanne Dawson (B'Elanna) was given a telescope as a present. She asked me how to set it up, how to use it a couple of times, but she's the only one I know of that has one. She puts it in the backyard and looks at the moon occasionally. I'm the one who has a lot of equipment and will take the trouble to go out on a winter night and set up and view. There's not very many people that do that that want to do that let's put it that way.

Astronomy: Especially in winter . . .

Russ: When it gets that cold, it's just not, it's just not, (laugh) it's just not practical. Therefore, I choose which of my telescopes to use for that purpose. The Dobsonian, which is to me still, with all the widgets and gadgets out there, I think still one of the best telescopes to use for that kind of thing. And the reason I use that scope when it's cold as hell, is that I can go out, put the base down, put the tube in, put the eye-piece in and start rockin' and rollin'. Even before the mirror is cooled down I can look at things. When it's time to go I just put it in the car and hit the road. The Dobs are still designed to look straight up and down at zenith, with relative ease. And that makes a big difference.

Astronomy: Do you use the Dob for your deep-sky observing?

Russ: For the deep-sky stuff, I start with the Dob or the Schmidt 8-inch. And I'll sometimes use the TeleVue Bizzaro 85mm short tube. Some of the open clusters and other things through the binocular viewers are unbelievably spectacular through that telescope. Being a refractor, being as crisp and clear and sharp as that thing is, you can see quite a bit through that little telescope. I'm very impressed with it.

Astronomy: Do you also keep up with the latest developments in the science of astronomy?

Russ: I like to keep track of what's going on, absolutely. I'm a member of the Planetary Society. I read their catalog and fliers and stuff. Plus, a friend of mine who's an astrophysicist is always calling me about what is going on as well.

Astronomy: Is there anything you're particularly interested like planetary exploration, black holes, cosmology . . .?

Russ: Anything and everything. The entire gamut from asteroids to black holes. I'm interested in all that stuff. Any programming I can watch on it, any stuff I can read on it, anything like that. My greatest interest is keeping track of the daily, weekly, or monthly astronomical events and actually witnessing them, whether a collision on Jupiter or a supernova or something like that. I definitely want to be a part of the current events that are occurring in the sky. That's the most exciting.

Astronomy: As a member of the Voyager crew, are you also interested in science fiction?

Russ: Yeah, I've always liked science fiction, ever since I was a kid.

Astronomy: Are there any particular books or authors or movies that you've particularly enjoyed besides Star Trek?

Russ: I've read a lot of Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, and Greg Bear. And also Stephen King and a few other people. As far as feature films and things, there's been a few that I've thought were really good. The original Alien, for example. I can't think of anything offhand that I've seen recently that I thought was exceptionally well done. I enjoy the films done with a certain degree of subtlety on the science fiction subject. Those done with the Hollywood flair I don't like as much. They tend to take away from the story somewhat.

Astronomy: Did you like 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Russ: Oh yeah! It still is a great masterpiece. I enjoyed that one and I actually liked the sequel, to some degree. The Langoliers by Steven King is also one of my favorites. Fascinating. All that stuff is fascinating.

Astronomy: Your interest in astronomy long predated your involvement in Star Trek. Does it have any special irony to you that you now portray a space traveler and even a non-human?

Russ: No, I view it merely as a coincidence. It literally could have been any series. It could have been Baywatch, for crying out loud. It just happened to be Star Trek. It was just one in a serious of many auditions that I went on.

Astronomy: When you think of science fiction programs such as Star Trek and its various incarnations, and certainly Voyager, what responsibility do you think those shows have in portraying science accurately?

Russ: Voyager's main objective is to tell a story that's the business. They have a couple of technical consultants. They'll ask, "Here's what we want to do, what are the basic theories that we can loosely base this story line on?" On occasion they'll contradict themselves. The science is all very, very loosely based on physics, but it's not a priority.

Astronomy: You don't think it necessarily should be, that the main thing is to tell an entertaining story?

Russ: Yeah, in this case, it is not a science fact show, it's a science fiction show. Even though a lot of the technology we discuss is actually being applied in some area of science, we can only project what our technology will be 400 years from now; we don't know. So any race of beings, like human beings, who can fly across the far corner of the galaxy and run into an alien race of people every week and wheel and deal with them and go on their merry way, you're suspending belief considerably just to tell that much of a story.

If we only encountered one alien race in 10 years, the chances of communicating would be nil and doing anything else with them would be nil. Even if they looked like us, it would still be nil. You're suspending everything.

What we've done on Star Trek is reduce the galaxy to the planet Earth. It's no different from taking a voyage to Madagascar or to Indonesia as an American. You land the boat on the shore and get off and start talking. They've seen planes and they've seen cars. They have cars there, they may not be the same brand as your car, but it's a car. You can still drive it. They know what a bicycle is and they know what a television is. The television may look different, it may not work the same, but it's a TV. They know it, we know it. We may not be able to exactly speak the same language, but we can basically get from point A to point B. That's more or less how Star Trek is set up.

And that's the sort of microcosm, if you will, that we display in the show, in the galaxy, is shrinking this whole thing down to being a world traveler on our own planet. Where everybody you run into is basically like you and there's an understanding and knowledge of common technologies and so therefore you can sit down at their computers or sit down at their machines, or whatever they may be, and they're pretty similar to ours. That's what we have.

Astronomy: That leads to my next question. Do you think it's even possible that science fiction writers and producers even conceive of what extraterrestrial life might be like?

Russ: You know it's like they did in Contact when they tried to portray this alien race, presumably that the main character encountered. The alien race became the image that she wanted to see. I think that's probably the most accurate way of looking at a technological race that was that advanced. It's entirely up to speculation and imagination as to what these creatures look like.

It's hard to tell a story when you cannot communicate. We've had some really gnarly CGI (Computer Generated Imaging) creatures bouncing around and being really horrible. They were not something we were talking to. We've had this happen a couple of times. But generally, what we deal with is more of a cultural, political, difference in these creatures more so than a physical difference. The physical difference is only there to indicate that they are somebody else; an alien race.

On a more scientific level, alien life can be anything from a bacteria to a gas to a whatever. I don't think aliens are just going to appear as an advanced technological race overnight. If we are to understand the development of solar systems similar to the way ours is developed, then we're talking about bacteriologically-based life forms that grow and evolve into creatures that are able to construct and build tools and technology. Theoretically, if the dinosaurs were able to survive past their extinction point, would they have developed into creatures like ourselves with large brains and the capacity to develop technologies? Would we look like dinosaurs? Would we be able to speak? Who knows if that would have happened or not?

Astronomy: The dinosaurs had about 150 million years to produce a highly intelligent creature and they never did.

Russ: Yeah, we've done it in half the time. And who knows how long it will take for us to go beyond this point whether we develop beyond the use of our physical bodies and become all energy, all mind. Who knows how long that would take.

So to speculate on alien life, the aliens on our show are designed to be functional and practical within a story-telling realm. If a story involves an alien race composed of gas or something in a jar and we can tell a decent story that way, then it's possible. But, unless you're doing something that's involving a lot of CGI, a gaseous character is only interesting if it can move around for visual interest because you can't have a bottle on a table and talk to it for an hour.

Astronomy: Star Trek is probably overly optimistic about the number of intelligent civilizations. What are your thoughts on what might be out there?

Russ: You know, given the Drake equation, I think that there is definitely a possibility. Then of course, that's assuming the advanced technologies are going to be parallel, that we're all going to develop the same way or develop the same things. Who knows if that's the case? Just based on sheer numbers and the possibilities of other solar systems now being discovered, who knows just how many places and how many systems possess a planet that is capable of supporting life? And we're assuming, of course, that the intelligent life can form and be based on something other than carbon. Maybe it can be based on copper or something else. Who knows? Given all those factors, yeah, there's definitely a possibility.

Astronomy: You obviously support SETI as a member of the Planetary Society. What do you think of SETI as a way of making contact?

Russ: I think that the saving factor for the continuation of a race of beings depends upon its potential ability to explore other planets and colonize other worlds. That is the only way I think that the human race is going to survive beyond another thousand years. I think that our destiny and our goal is to explore and colonize.

Within a hundred years we have gone from the birth of flight to the exploration of the outer planets of our own solar system, not to mention man leaving his planet and stepping on the surface of another world. In only a hundred years a drop in the bucket in the geologic time we have gone that far with what we have now.

This can advance exponentially in the next hundred years or so, given the use of computers and the additional knowledge from one thing to the next which is how we got here in the first place. Maybe it's possible that somebody eventually stumbles on to unlocking the secrets to warping time and space.

Right now, we may not have the technology. We may not have the tools. The space shuttle was a great concept and idea. We hadn't developed the heat-shield tiles before, but we then we managed to do it.

We knew theoretically how we could go to the moon, but we didn't have a spaceship to do so. We didn't have the boosters, we didn't have the materials that we needed. The metals that we needed to do this did not exist in the 1930s and 40s, but they do now.

So look at the technology needed, for example, to manipulate the magnetic field of Earth. Let's say theoretically that spacecraft can use Earth's or the solar system's magnetic field to travel, or that we'll be able to use matter and anti-matter as a propulsion system. All these things are simply a matter of the evolution of technology. Each subsequent piece of information and knowledge helps us progress beyond a certain point.

So if any beings out there have evolved and survived their own extinction potential and problems, then they could have a thousand, twenty thousand, a million years of evolutionary advance upon us. And if that is the case, I cannot see why it would not be feasible for them to try to explore other star systems. You cannot say that it couldn't be done because they said the same thing about going to the moon at the turn of the century.

Astronomy: That's right and it's just as you said, it didn't take very long from flight until Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, so who's to say 100 years from now what our descendants will be capable of.

Russ: Of course! Da Vinci theorized about flight 400 years ago. It didn't happen then, but he certainly theorized about it. And now at the turn of the century, there was complete speculation about going to any other planet. Flying was completely unheard of and all of a sudden we not only have flight, we have the moon in a hundred years. No, not a hundred, in 60 years!

So you have to consider the possibility not only of space travel, but also the concept of time travel. People theorize about going backwards in time. Making it happen is all down the line, something that is entirely speculative. If somebody had already achieved this, in my opinion, I think the possibility exists that if somebody out there has unlocked the key to doing it, they would probably take the opportunity to do so.

Who knows which star they're going to pick and what they're going to do. There's even that chance, even if you had ten or fifteen races out there in our own galaxy that were bopping around from place to place, what are the chances of them finding us in the middle of nowhere? It's very complicated. I'm intensely curious about that stuff, if only for the sake of being curious about it.

Astronomy: And that's kind of what astronomy is all about. We're just these tiny creatures on this tiny planet, in this whole universe. Astronomy gives a great sense of wonderment and just brings out really profound thoughts and questions. Is that one of the things that really makes astronomy appeal to you?

Russ: Absolutely. When you're out there in the middle of the pitch black sky, you're looking up in a cluster of stars and you're wondering . . . first of all, there is a sense of distance, and a sense of size, and you realize just how really small, what such a small part of this whole picture we are. That's what makes it interesting.

The idea that you're looking at a galaxy and wondering if there's not somebody in that galaxy looking back at you at exactly the same time and wondering the same thoughts. Plus some of these objects are just pure and simply beautiful to look at. So yeah, it's definitely the scope of what you're seeing, the distance at which these things take place, and the possibility of what else is out there.