Skipping over a few other inconsistencies in this particular scene of Star Trek IV (such as Scotty's amazingly efficient use of an obsolete computer system with which he'd likely have no prior familiarity), a question has come to mind about the exchange that takes place just past the end of that clip.

NICHOLS: Transparent aluminum?
SCOTT: That's the ticket, laddie.
NICHOLS: It would take years just to figure out the dynamics of this matrix.
McCOY: Yes, but you'd be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
SCOTT: So, is it worth something to you? Or should I just punch up 'clear'.
NICHOLS: No! No! (a female employee comes into the office) ...Not now Madeline! ...What exactly did you have in mind?
McCOY: Well, a moment alone, please. ...Do you realise of course, if we give him the formula, we're altering the future.
SCOTT: Why? How do we know he didn't invent the thing!

Let's presume that Scotty did, as he demonstrated, have such intimate knowledge of the chemical properties and manufacturing processes involved in creating transparent aluminum that he could whip together the essentials on a Macintosh Plus in under twenty seconds. Wouldn't an individual with such knowledge also be fairly familiar with the history of its development - or at least familiar enough to recognize the name of its inventor when he met him?

For comparison: Most high school graduates these days probably don't know the first thing about how to manufacture a polio vaccine. But I'm fairly certain that most people (let alone most pharmaceutical researchers), when put into the proper context as Scotty has been here, would realize who they've been introduced to when a man says "Hi, I'm Jonas Salk".

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    I don't think it's terribly unreasonable to not remember who invents a thing in order to understand how it works and how to make it. It is possible to know a thing without knowing its history. Plus he was getting along in age. His memory could have been getting fuzzy.
    – erdiede
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 7:20
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    @erdiede Scotty's memory still seemed pretty sharp in Relics
    – Xantec
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 16:12
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    After all, who even remembers who invented the Internet? Yet we're using it right now.
    – BBlake
    Commented Nov 6, 2011 at 4:05
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    It's not that much of a stretch that he could use such an old computer system. It's pretty common today for people that work in technology to much about with very old systems as a hobby, and there are people who work on projects to restore the oldest systems. Scotty was one of the top engineers - it's reasonable to assume he'd have an interest in the history of the field and might have mucked about with ancient tech when younger.
    – Tony Meyer
    Commented Nov 10, 2011 at 21:08
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    @TonyMeyer I would agree with that, if it weren't for the whole "Hello, Computer?" interaction he had with the mouse.
    – Iszi
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 0:19

6 Answers 6


In the novelization Scotty specifically said that Nichols did invent transparent aluminum, which makes more sense.

"Scotty," McCoy said, "if we give him the formula, we'll be altering the future!"

"How d'ye know he didn't invent the process?" Scott said.


"Dr. McCoy, do ye no' understand? He did invent it! Have ye ne'er heard his name?"

"I'm a doctor not a historian," McCoy growled. He had gone into this masquerade willingly, but now he found himself possessed with the need to make as few changes to the past as he could. The intensity of Jim Kirk's argument for their actions warred with another, alien impluse.

"'Tisna necessary to be a historian to know o' Marcus Nichols! Why, 'twould be as if I never heard o' ... er ..."



"Yalow? Arneghe?"

"Nay, well, ne'er mind, the point is Nichols did invent transparent aluminum! And that was the only the beginnin' o' his achievements. 'Tis all right we gi' the formula to him - perhaps 'tis essential!"

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    This is obviously backfilling, as the books were released after the movies. Commented May 3, 2012 at 3:15
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    Boot-strap paradox... Commented May 3, 2012 at 6:54
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    "Mr Sulu, go to Ret(con) Alert"
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 12:53
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    Wow, Scotty's accent seems a bit over the top in the novelization. :p
    – RobertF
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:23
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    There's another possibility (with no basis in canon). Scott didn't know Nichols as the inventor of transparent aluminum before he met him. As soon as they met and Scotty decided to give him the formula, history changed and Scotty's memory changed along with it -- and then Scotty recognized him from history. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 3:04

I don't necessarily disagree with your premise, but I think the 300 years and the staggering level of scientific discovery in those years might make this more believable. For all we know in the 23rd century, the formula for transparent aluminum is something you learn in grade school, after kindergarten teaches you atomic structure and the periodic table.

For example, I could pretty accurately describe a capacitor to Benjamin Franklin. I have no idea who invented one, nor would I be able to build it using 18th century tech, but I could probably draw him a sketch on parchment using a quill.

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    Exactly. By Scotty's time transparent aluminum was a mundane object which, being an engineer, Scotty knew how to make (or at least knew the chemical composition of).
    – Xantec
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 15:40
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    draw me a flux capacitor!
    – Jared
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 0:36
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    Just knowing the formula of something doesn't facilitate actually making it. Yes, a lot of things can be made by just throwing a couple ingredients together and stirring. Most slightly more complicated molecules, however, require some fairly specific conditions for them to come out right. While in the long run, its less of a problem, already having the answer. But I thought they manufactured the stuff overnight. Pretty crazy.
    – erdiede
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 1:00
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    @erdiede - they traded the formula for sheets of 6 inch acrylic. Basically Scott and McCoy had no cash, so Nichols traded a few thousand dollars of material for something potentially worth millions. Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 14:00
  • @SteveJackson That makes much more sense
    – erdiede
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 14:45

I made a living programming, but wouldn't recognize Grace Hopper, Dennis Ritchie, or James Gosling (and I did use C and Java, even if I never learned COBOL). How many of us can identify James Watt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or even Isaac Newton from photos? Many famous names are remembered as names, without people remembering what the person looked like.

Some personalities are well remembered for a unique appearance or because they reached a certain level of celebrity in their lifetimes (like Einstein or Mark Twain), but I know, for example, writers that wouldn't recognize pictures of every famous poet in history (other than, perhaps, their own favorites). (This is excluding, of course, people known for their appearance, like Marilyn Monroe or Claudia Schiffer.) In most fields, such as literature or science, only a few of the top names tend to be known by appearance.

And, in some fields, you don't even remember every name. There are likely many materials that will be invented between now and when the Enterprise is launched by the Federation. Perhaps there's transparent steel, transparent wood, and many other new materials -- so many, in fact, that it's hard to remember who invented what.

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    Scotty would have known his name by that time, so it's more a matter of not recognizing James Watt's name than not recognizing his face. Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 8:58
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    +1, I also make a living programming, and I've never heard of (or since forgotten) the names Grace Hopper, Dennis Ritchie, and James Gosling, since they have absolutely no bearing on my day-to-day life. (I had to look up who Ritchie was when he died)
    – Izkata
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 16:25
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    I am occasionally stuck programming in COBOL (don't ask), and I DO know the name of Grace Hopper, but not that way.. I knew her as the origin of the 'Bug in the Computer' currently kept in the Smithsonian. So, yeah.. +1 from me, too.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 16:43
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    @TangoOversway: Your point is that Scotty would have had to recog ize the guy's face. I'm just saying that all he'd have to remember is his name. Whether he'd know the name or not is another matter (but in the novelization, he did). Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 18:37
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    @TangoOversway: I just carefully re-read your answer. Every sentence in the first two paragraphs refers specifically to recognizing faces. You do discuss recognizing names in the third paragraph. Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 21:10
  • The story of the origin of penicillin is well-known, but I don't have a clue as to the name of the guy who discovered it.

  • When I heard that Dennis Ritchie died, I had to look him up, as I'd either forgotten the name or never heard it before, despite using unix-based systems regularly.

Knowing the inventor of something has absolutely no bearing on knowing how something works.

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    Your penicillin example is a good one - in an episode of Sliders, the gang travels to a world devastated by the plague. Once the professor finally realizes it's because antibiotics were never discovered, he finds some moldy bread in a trash can and whips up a very rough batch of penicillin. But he probably didn't know the name of the guy who discovered it either. Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 21:18
  • I'm pretty sure he would know it was Alexander Fleming, I'm more surprised that neither of you apparently did?
    – Matthew
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 18:03
  • @Matthew Seeing it here, the name isn't even familiar
    – Izkata
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 18:07
  • Or, the Quadratic Formula - most adults will have at least used it, many will be able to remember it, and some will be able to provide the derivation/proof. But, far fewer will be able to tell you that it was first devised by Simon Stevin in 1594 Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 16:01

One explanation is as good as another when it comes to stuff like this, so: The guy invented transparent aluminum but he and his factory were destroyed after Kirk and crew left. Loma Prieta earthquake, gas explosions, big fires, too bad! Or he took the secret to his grave when Khan Singh and his merry band started World War III the Eugenics Wars. Or records relating to him and his discovery were lost in the collapse and chaos that followed. Centuries later someone else invented transparent aluminum but no one remembers them because someone else had invented force fields by then.


Well, the thing here is that they really have little idea happened in the past, as wars almost wiped out the human race. If you look at Star Trek: the Next Generation, they barely knew who Zefram Cochrane was. People from the 1980's, good luck!

Remember, just because they gave him the formula makes him the original inventor of it. Once Scotty gave him the formula their minds would have interpreted the chain as it now is, not as it was. Without something to block the change in the timeline, they are subject to the history as it is, not as it was, so Scotty may have been right the first time and then right afterwards as well.

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    Uh, no, historical records still exist. Civilization was never wiped out planet-wide.
    – Izkata
    Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 0:35
  • I've never seen anything in any iteration of Trek that suggests that temporal mechanics ever work this way in that universe. Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 21:19

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