To Live Long and Prosper, Replace Handshake With 'Star Trek' Vulcan Salute, U.K. Scientist Suggests

Could the Vulcan salute replace the handshake as a way of minimizing the transmission of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for the ongoing pandemic? At least one scientist working on epidemiological matters in the United Kingdom thinks it's not such a bad idea.

"We've all become familiar in recent months with personal protective equipment," Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, told Britain's Times newspaper. "As restrictions are relaxed, we're going to need to learn about personal protective behavior."

Speaking with The Times, West talked about the need for new interpersonal behaviors during and after any transition from shelter-in-place orders. Suggestions included cultivating the habit of keeping hands below your shoulders (to prevent touching your face) and carrying hand sanitizer.

As a replacement for handshakes, West suggested, mostly in jest, adopting a completely different gesture, such as the traditional Hindu greeting namaste; a bow, as used in Japan; or—most excitingly, for all wannabe Starfleet officers out there—the Vulcan salute.

The advice quickly caught on in Star Trek circles, appearing on fan sites like TrekMovie.com.

"None of this is serious, but the serious point of course is that we will almost certainly not be going back to business as usual in terms of interpersonal behavior," West told Newsweek. "Risk of catching a deadly virus is something that we will have to factor into everyday lives, just as we do road safety, bacterial infection risk, and health and safety at home, in public and in the workplace."

West is a member of the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, originally formed to address the H1N1 virus's outbreak and one of several groups of experts advising government officials as part of the U.K.'s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

He emphasized to Newsweek that he was "obviously" not speaking for the group. "It was a bit of fun," West said. "The group has more important things to do than decide on forms of greeting."

Still, thanks to its meaning—"live long and prosper" (sometimes abbreviated to LLAP)—the Vulcan salute is a fairly apt suggestion for people wishing good health during a pandemic.

Used for both greetings and farewells by the logical and reserved extraterrestrial Vulcans, the salute was devised by Spock actor Leonard Nimoy, who based the gesture—which splits the middle and index fingers from the ring and pinky fingers to form a double-walled "V" shape—on a blessing he recalled seeing used as a child during an Orthodox synagogue service in Boston.

The Vulcan greeting first appeared in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Amok Time," which originally aired in September 1967. In the episode, Spock is suffering from pon farr, when Vulcan men are overcome with the urge to mate and their usual veneer of calm is replaced with aggressiveness. Seeking a remedy for his arousal, the Enterprise crew visit Spock's home world and explore Vulcan culture for the first time.

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Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) uses the Vulcan salute in the "Star Trek: The Original Series" episode "Amok Time." CBS Television Distribution

"What I like about it is certainly the sentiment 'live long and prosper,' which is as concise a way of capturing the ultimate goal of civilization as anything I have ever seen," West told Newsweek.

"There is another aspect to it as well, which is why Star Trek has been so popular: Every episode in the first two series was a morality tale, often told with good humor and a touch of pantomime," West continued. "Spock beautifully embodied that, and the Vulcan salute—not the Vulcan death grip, with which it should not be confused—distilled this into a single gesture."

West isn't the only epidemiological policy adviser to suggest the Vulcan greeting as a replacement for the virus-spreading handshake. In March, a physician proposed the Star Trek salute as a way to avoid hand-to-hand contact during a closed-door meeting of the House of Representatives' Democratic caucus.

But while the sentiment behind the Vulcan salute fits well with a post-lockdown world where new health considerations might reshape common courtesies, there's one major obstacle: It's tricky to perform without practice. Famously, William Shatner—who played Spock's captain, James T. Kirk—couldn't pull off the necessary finger split. Even Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, struggled with the gesture. However, former President Barack Obama has demonstrated his ability to pull it off.

"I don't expect it to catch on. I think it's too hard," West told The Scottish Sun. "It would be quite fun if it caught on and life could imitate art."