The many possibilities for life often stretch beyond our imaginations. Just when we think we have a basic understanding of how it all works, biology throws a platypus into the mix. From bizarre animal bodies to bacteria surviving under the most inhospitable conditions, life simply pushes against the impossible. However, even with seemingly endless variety, biology has laid down a few unbreakable rules. This is because higher branches of science are based on more fundamental disciplines. At the very core, we have mathematics, the purest of the sciences.
All of existence can be represented by numbers and equations which convey an absolute truth. When we apply these equations to how objects move and interact, we get physics (applied mathematics). The principles of applied physics can then be used to describe higher order interactions, such as those in chemistry, and so on. The entire body of science can be organized into layers of inquiry and interpretation which strive to verify their foundations using math. This is where the higher order sciences generate emergent properties based on and beyond math. At first it seems that a biological law based on a mathematical principle should be unbreakable, but the mechanisms of biology may bypass this.
The biological law broken in this episode is the limitation on cell size. Kirk and crew find a gigantic space amoeba while responding to a distress signal sent by the USS Intrepid. The amoeba already devoured the ship, as well as a planetary system with a billion people. The space amoeba is deadly, insurmountable, and it should not exist! Cells of any kind are small because it would be impossible for them to obtain enough nutrients to sustain a larger size. Many complex metabolic processes keep a cell alive and functioning, and these require a constant supply of resources. Cells absorb everything they need through their cell membrane. The smaller the cell, the shorter the distance a critical nutrient would need to travel before it reaches the target internal structure. Expanding the size of the cell would increase its internal volume significantly more than its surface area, producing a cell with less area to absorb nutrients and longer distances for those nutrients to travel. Mathematics has deemed such an organism impossible, but suppose we travelled through space and found one.
Starfleet officers have encountered giant cells before, so it’s possible that the writers of Star Trek are not familiar with cell size limitations. For the sake of philosophy, let’s be generous and assume these more absurd aliens represent possible life forms we may encounter if we explored space in the far future. We are presented with a thing that should not exist and yet it does. This does not mean the laws of math and physics are broken, we could simply re-examine what we assumed of biology. A cell this size needs massive amounts of energy to travel through its protoplasm at speeds efficient enough to maintain its metabolism. Our cells would not be able to achieve such a feat, but this cell must use an entirely different mechanism. Spock discovers that the space cell emits dark energy potent enough to affect the Enterprise ship and crew. The creature was also powerful enough to devour a Starfleet vessel and the entire Gamma 7A system. It has demonstrated an extreme energy absorption capability. The amoeba would also have an efficient mechanism to distribute and use this energy.
This lifeform evolved in space, struggling against evolutionary pressures we have never faced, but also finding sources of energy and nourishment we could not fathom. To put life in a limited box based on what we can observe on Earth would blind us to the vast possibilities of the universe. The biologist turns to the laws of mathematics to declare that all cells must be of a certain size, but the mechanisms of biology can make the impossible possible, without ever breaking a rule.