Sure, Spock.

I don't see many movies or much TV, but I did manage to catch Star Trek Into Darkness. (Yes, force me to capitalize the preposition there...) I'm a fan of both old Star Trek and Benedict Cumberbatch, the latter because of his fantastic work in the wonderful PBS Sherlock.

          The film recently triggered a personal epiphany. Cumberbatch will always invoke Sherlock Holmes for me, no matter how many starships he crashes into San Francisco. So there, in the penultimate scene of STID, are Spock and ... Holmes, slugging it out on the roof of some flying garbage truck. We all know that Vulcans are super strong, but readers of Arthur Conan Doyle (and watchers of the Robert Downey Jr. films) know that Holmes is preternaturally strong as well, unbending iron fire pokers abused by the mightiest Edwardian titans. Watson keenly describes Holmes' lethal speed, ferocity and brawn in the uncommon instances in which the detective is reduced to physical action. No wonder he and Zachary Quinto's Spock are so evenly matched!


          The rest of the equation should be flooding into your brain:  the obsession with logic, the disdain of emotion, the musical talent, the disinterest in love. Holmes disables villains with a mere wave of his hunting crop. Spock has his Vulcan nerve pinch. Where Spock depends on mind-meld to pull information from witnesses, Holmes charms them into revealing all they haven't given away by their outward appearance. Leonard Nimoy even gave us a Spock with Holmes' physique (tall and gaunt with an imposing nose), who actually declares in one film that he is a descendant of the detective. In fact, Nimoy played Holmes on stage in London and in a short educational video, both in 1976. "Holmes is very much an alien," he apparently declared at the time, "And I felt I could understand him the same way I understood Spock."

          Do we then credit Nimoy with the invention of the Holmes/Spock equivalence? Certainly Star Trek's original writers did not conceive it:  the pilot episode features a female officer as the emotionless character. Is Spock merely Nimoy's incarnation of Holmes or is there a more powerful pop-cultural archetype at work here, joining the two in our mass media consciousness?

          To bring this all back to computer programming, I have to believe that there is something deeper going on. Yes, Spock is certainly an avatar of Holmes, but while the renown of a double may grow beyond that of its original, the generative force of the real McCoy (ha!) can never be dismissed. Modernity, with its globe-spanning immensity, its intelligence-swamping superfluity of data and its faith-defying, deadly randomness, required Holmes, demanded him, the man who could through science and reasoning alone bring light from darkest mystery. 19th century detective fiction builds up to Holmes and 20th century detective fiction defines itself in contrast to him. Doyle tried to rid himself of his greatest character more than once and each time popular outrage compelled his reinstatement. Nimoy's Spock is as much a creation of our need as his choices, a space-age Holmes for a century with no fewer anxieties.

          What is Holmes/Spock but a stand in for the computer? In an age in which functional mechanical computers were being constructed for the first time, Doyle built a human character who exhibited all the operations and behaviors of a thinking machine. In Holmes he presented the human brain as its own computer so convincingly that it took the six decades until Spock for an alter ego to emerge.

          Doyle's skill in framing this computational consciousness makes the Sherlock Holmes stories marvelous tools for teaching a range of topics.  (Check out "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual" for trigonometry.) His harnessing of mechanical logic to a human will prefigures the very essence of applied computer science, implying that for the sake of our future, we'd all better keep on reading and writing fiction. As William Blake said (among many other cool things), "What is now proved was once only imagined."