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Tonight: Trek Nation on Science Channel

Set your DRVs for "Trek Nation" tonight (November 30, 2011) at 8pm ET/PT on the Science Channel.

If you're going to watch one documentary about Star Trek, it should be Trekkies. But if you're going to watch two, the second should be Trek Nation, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. Trek Nation puts Star Trek in context, chronicling the journey of Eugene Wesley "Rod" Roddenberry (Gene's son) to understand his father, and the show(s) Gene created.

As a documentary film, Trek Nation is a curious blend of well-executed interviews and explanation of the Star Trek phenomenon, mixed with slightly weird monologues and interviews by Rod Roddenberry, who admits he lived most of his life with only the vaguest notion that Star Trek was important. As TV, it's wonderful -- it's truly well-made, and it manages not to talk down to the viewer (which is exceedingly rare, especially with a topic that could easily be dismissed solely as wacky fan culture). As a longtime Trek fan, I saw lots of new footage here (including footage of the legendary first Trek convention which apparently has never been seen before), and lots of significant interviews with members of the Trek universe. If you like Star Trek and you have cable, this is a no-brainer.

Trek Nation has actually been in production for a long time; the principal photography appears to have been done mostly from 2003-2006, with some new material added in later (including an excellent interview with J.J. Abrams). Because much of it was done so long ago, it's often confusing -- why are we just seeing a premiere now? See, for example, Wil Wheaton's blog post from 2004 in which he discusses his interview. It's a good interview, and it's a good piece of TV, but the film nor the related PR never explains the elephant in the room: why release it so many years after it was shot? Fortunately, Airlock Alpha fills in more of that story, though only hints at the actual reasons it has taken so long for the film to come out. But that aside, let's talk about what's in the film: lots and lots of interviews about Star Trek, revelations about Gene Roddenberry, and lots of monologue by Rod Roddenberry.

Interviews About Star Trek

Trek Nation frequently shows Rod Roddenberry interviewing major figures in the science fiction or Star Trek world -- he sits down with George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, as well as his own mother, Majel Barrett (she voiced the computer on the Enterprise, and played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi), and a surprisingly comprehensive roster of Trek writing and acting talent. There are also many interviews apparently conducted by the film's director, Scott Colthorp. Frankly, Colthorp does a better job. Roddenberry repeatedly admits that he's not particularly knowledgeable about Star Trek (his story is basically that of wasted youth, at least in part due to an absent celebrity father), and fails to ask substantive questions. In many of the Rod interviews, you can see the interview subject squirm, as if asking, "Is this guy for real? How can he be asking me this?" In the Colthorp interviews, we actually see a detailed understanding of the show and nuanced questions (most notably about how the writing staff was able to deal with Gene's dictates that in the future, basic elements of the current human condition -- like greed -- should be absent); Colthorp does a set of terrific interviews with Michael Piller and Ron Moore (both TNG writers; Moore later headed BSG), and they're worth the price of admission alone.

The J.J. Abrams interview (conducted by Rod) is the capper on the film -- it comes at the end, and Abrams gives the whole production a level of perspective that's crucial. Abrams admits that he wasn't particularly a Trek fan either (like Rod) but then proceeds to explain how he worked around that, and how he managed to work on a franchise that's so beloved, despite not being a superfan. You also get to see a rather surprising interview clip from Gene Roddenberry during the Abrams interview -- I won't spoil it; it's a great reason to tune in and stick around until the end.

Revelations About Gene Roddenberry

Without spoiling it, let's just say that this film is quite honest about Gene Roddenberry's personal failings. I actually didn't know anything about him as a person before this film, and Trek Nation filled in the blanks for me. Again, this is very valuable stuff -- and to many, should be pretty surprising. Because Roddenberry died long before production began, the examination of his life comes from older interview clips, home movies (!), interviews with colleagues, and his immediate family. It even shows his last public appearance at a convention, with Rod and Barrett wheeling Gene onstage to give brief remarks, in which Gene clearly struggles to be understood after suffering a series of strokes -- it's heartbreaking stuff.

Monologue By Rod Roddenberry

The weird part of this documentary is the through-line provided by Rod Roddenberry, who sits in a planetarium and very frankly discusses his youth (think long-haired late-80's snowboarder dude), his relationship with his father (it wasn't great), his relationship with Trek (virtually nonexistent), and some work he has done in TV (also not particularly notable).

Rod frequently says that he learns things from fans that seem incredibly basic -- notably that the show is important to people, and indeed a pretty significant cultural touchstone. Of course, this makes sense when you consider Rod's position and how he grew up; he genuinely didn't know that Trek was a big deal until his father's funeral. But to a fan, it can be brutally odd -- there's a fair amount of face-palming happening in the audience as you, for example, ask yourself: how could Gene Roddenberry's son not know that Star Wars and Star Trek are considered competing franchises? And further, how could he fail to ask George Lucas anything meaningful, aside from an awkward question about whether Luke Skywalker's journey was a father/son thing. (To his credit, Lucas sizes up Rod with a quick, intense look, then settles into answering the questions he wishes had been asked.)

In Conclusion

This is an interesting, well-made documentary, both for its treatment of Gene Roddenberry and his work, and for its treatment of Rod Roddenberry. While most will tune in specifically for Trek info, there's a human angle here, a father/son narrative that rings true, and an examination of the complicated character of Gene Roddenberry. Tune in tonight at 8pm ET/PT for more.

For lots of info on Trek Nation, check out director Scott Colthorp's YouTube Channel. Here's a sample:

You may also enjoy this early trailer from 2010, apparently before it was picked up by the Science Channel.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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