In Brief
  • A recent talk at the Museum of Mathematics dove into the mathematics behind one of the most beloved science-fiction television shows of all time.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the most at risk crew members of the Enterprise aren't wearing red.

Cannon Fodder

Star Trek is a futurist’s dream. The series, in its various iterations, has been a veritable fountain of inspiration for many of the technological innovations of the past few decades. The vision of creator Gene Roddenberry has served as a jumping off point for a lot of tech that has been developed or is currently in development. We have seen things like functioning medical tricorders, and the potential for warp ships that can travel faster than light.

Now, as more and more science-fiction becomes reality, there’s also plenty of intrigue in the mathematical realities proposed by the show. At least one of those realities flies in the face of established pop culture law. The much-parodied concept of “redshirts” has come about as an updated term for what was previously called “cannon fodder,” referring to minor characters introduced only to be quickly and unceremoniously killed.

This trope allows for the stakes of a dangerous mission to be clear but not at the expense of losing beloved main characters. This idea also implies that those wearing red are more likely to die than characters sporting other hues. This was a topic of discussion at the Museum of Mathematics earlier this month. Mathematician James Grime gave a talk on the various mathematical points of the series, including the question of redshirts.

Star Trek, CBS
Image Credit: Star Trek, CBS

Do the Math

Personnel aboard the USS Enterprise wear specific colors to denote their role on the ship. Redshirts are largely a part of security and engineering, goldshirts are worn by command, and blueshirts by science and medical (this is at least true of the original series (OS)). Over the course of the OS, a total of 25 redshirts met their end, compared to ten goldshirts and eight blueshirts. But, while these raw numbers, and the redshirt reputation, seem to suggest that redshirts are most likely to meet their end, if you dig a little deeper, the numbers actually reveal a different story.

By looking at the figures proportionally, Grime determined that those in command are even more likely to die than redshirts. Taking numbers from the Star Trek Fleet Technical Manual, Grimes was able to calculate the probability of dying as a part of your role (and therefore the color you wear). If you want to have the best chances of surviving in the Star Trek universe, you might want to be a scientist or doctor, as only six percent of blueshirts died. Redshirts came in second place with ten percent, making goldshirted commanders the most likely to die at eighteen percent.

Grime discussed other mathematical questions like the reproduction rates of Vulcans and tribbles, logical paradoxes, and finding the probability of life outside of Earth using mathematics.

The talk, cleverly entitled “Star Trek: The Math of Khan,” will be available to view online in the near future.