Rather than take up needless space with my blah-blah-blah, I’m making this intro short and sweet so that we can move on to today’s special guest blogger, Stargate Atlantis physics consultant Mika McKinnon. Enjoy this fun and incredibly informative Q&A and, once you’re done, be sure to check out the video at the bottom of this entry for a Carl Binder-led tour of Stage 3. Over to Mika…
I tried to group your questions by theme — what can I say, scientists are a bit obsessed with classification!
Section One: What does the physics consultant do?
Smiley_face06 writes: “Joe told us that you’re the show’s “physics consultant,” and while that seems fairly self-explanatory, will you explain what kind of things you do?”
Green writes: “As a physics consultant what all do you look at? Do you only deal with the science of the stories or have you been asked to look at the logic of certain stunts or fights that are on Stargate Atlantis? ”
I work for the Props department. My job is to deal with any of the props that have visible-science components — white boards with equations, notepads that McKay is frantically scribbling on, sheets of paper with scratch work strewn around the floor, that sort of thing.
To me, one of the (many!) things that sets Stargate apart is the attention to detail (like making sure x-rays are right side up and equations are real), and my job is just one of doubtlessly many consultants who get pulled in to make that detail consistent across the show.
Enzo Aquarius writes: “Hello Mika! Have there ever been times where you told our favorite writers to rewrite part of an episode script due to a physics-related error, or are you consulted before anything related to physics are written down overall?”
For the episodes I’m involved with, I get the scripts about a week before filming. I read through them with an eye for the non-obvious science or painful flaws and pass those comments through the Props department to the directors. Sometimes there are minor adjustments to accommodate my comments, sometimes scientific accuracy takes a back seat to practicality and artistic license.
There’s an example of this type of overlooked-science in an upcoming episode. The script did a fantastic job sketching out the real science for a disaster scenario, and I passed back some comments about visually-distinguishable science that wasn’t explicitly mentioned (ie, “A scientist would notice it wasn’t there.”). Specifically, if you cool down air it can hold less water, so the water condenses out and it gets foggier. If a place gets cold, scientist-viewers would think it was odd if it wasn’t also foggy, but fog also has a huge visual impact on mood. My job in reading the scripts is to point out the science to the directors, but it’s directors’ decision on if they want to incorporate it or not. Keep your eyes peeled in these last few shows to see if you can spot the scenes I’m talking about!
Lolli writes: “Are any of the equations we see in the episodes on white boards and such real? or are they gibberish? Who comes up with them? Thank-you for taking the time to answer our many questions!”
Yes, they are real. Sometimes it’s work from current papers on related topics blended together (like in “The Last Man,” the equations are a mix of transversable black hole physics, solar flares, and some Asgaurd variables), while other times it’s laying out foundational equations from a field and then I play with them (like in the upcoming “Brain Storm”).
If you check out the boards in the background of the Control Room, it goes through a whole logical structure from string theory through meteorology giving the context of the exceptions to the standard laws of physics required by the storyline. Later on the problem-solving darts through a whole lot of different fields including astrophysics and computer science using equations from the painfully simple to the ridiculously complex in an effort to find a solution.
Jean writes: “Have you ever been on set to watch an episode being shot?”
Yes. Any time there are actors writing equations, I’m there. This is particularly true when there’s erasing, re-writing, and problem-solving going on. One of the more amusing aspects of my job is coming up with plausible mistakes to correct — after all, we can’t have McKay making errors that a first-year physics student would catch!
ytimynona writes: “The actors (particularly Amanda Tapping and David Hewlett) always sound like they know what they’re talking about when they spout technobabble. Do you go over the concepts with them before shooting those scenes???”
Actually, pretty much everyone who sees what I’m writing wants to know what it means, so the odds are high that not only do I end up going over the concepts with the actors, the director, the assistant director, the lighting guys, the sound crew, the props folks, the extras waiting by the sidelines, but I’ve occasionally walked in to hear the guys who were hanging lights teaching the freshly-arrived special-effects crew what a set of equations means. If we had a few more seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire Stargate gang could pass the Physics GRE with flying colours!
Sachi writes: “Since both their characters play astrophysicists, Amanda Tapping and David Hewlett carry the bulk of the physics technobabble on Stargate. Did you ever help them with their lines and do you feel they did a good job portraying physicists?”
I haven’t met Amanda Tapping, but I’ve helped David a few times with his handwriting for all the symbols used in math. He’s really curious, and likes to learn all about the equations he’s writing instead of blindly copying.
I do like them both as physicists. There are certainly people that bright and the personalities range from the most sociable of creatures to truly eccentric caricatures, so I can imagine Carter and McKay existing in the world. Try people-watching in San Francisco in early December when the American Geophysical Union rolls into town and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
antisocialbutterflie writes: “I know in science that it is how you say it as much as what you’re saying. Do you have to consult during shooting as well as script writing?”
Yes, I’m there during shooting (but I’m not there during script writing). The technobabble is so smooth I’ve never needed to make a comment on it, but sometimes I interrupt to teach Greek handwriting.
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “What do you think of characters like Sam, Rodney and Zelenka as representations of people that work in your field (in terms of both personality, intelligence and attitude toward science, as well as their willingness to join top-secret scientific/military contingents on the other side of the universe fighting off seemingly indestructible life-sucking aliens with laser-guns, with unknown funky flashing gadget computers for assistance and the knowledge that they could die at any given moment)?
Yup, they’re pretty much part of the world of physicists.
Although I’ve met many pleasant, well-adjusted people in physics, there are days I wonder if there’s a certain freedom granted from understanding the fundamental nature of the universe that lets people embrace their own eccentricities. Read a biography on Nikola Tesla and you’ll walk away marveling both at his brilliance and the unapologetic uniqueness. (Sorry, no specific book recommendation, but Spider Robinson does a great job using him as a fictional character…)
As for the last bit, have you ever seen a geek with an unknown funky flashing gadget? All the rest of it — the indestructible, the life-sucking, the alien (but not the laser-guns, those count as funky gadgets) — that would be totally unnoticed in the face of a new toy to explore. It’s not so much that I believe physicists as a whole are remarkably brave so much as abnormally and ridiculously focused to the extent of just not realizing the danger posed by reality. XKCD has a great “http://xkcd.com/242/” one-glance definition of the scientist that sums it up: curiosity is a powerful motivator.
Terry writes: “Do you give the writers new ideas on things to write about?”</I>
ytimynona writes: “How much input do you have in the “technobabble” that we hear? Do the scripts say “insert technobabble here” or do the writers have a decent grasp of the majority of the physics concepts in the show?”
Montrealer writes: “Are you responsible for any of the techno-babble on Atlantis? The fans need someone to blame/praise.
Jean writes:“Which to you find yourself doing more often as a physics consultant for Stargate: “Dumbing down” the dialogue so that a lay audience can understand the concepts being discussed, or inserting more scientific terms to make the dialogue sound more technical? I guess it has to be a balance of the two, so that any discussion sounds realistic and plausible yet at the same time is understandable to a non-scientific audience.”
Chevron7 writes: “Do any of the writers ever challenge you over things you may have questioned?”
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “I know that on almost every film and television series, particularly on Stargate, the writers see scripting as a continuous process and are constantly updating, editing and changing their stories. My question is, when throughout that process do you start to advise them on the scientific aspects of it? Do the writers begin to ask questions as soon as an idea pops into their heads, or do they wait until, say, a first or second draft to ask you to go over it?”
Smiley_face06 writes: “When in the script process do the producers consult you?”
It’s all the writers! I’m really curious to see what sort of books are hiding on their reference shelf or if they just had fantastic science teachers. I work for Props, so I don’t make any changes to the scripts. Although I can’t accept credit for the technobabble, I’ll bask in the glow of your appreciation if you start mentioning my lovely handwriting on the white boards…
Likewise, the producers are all a bunch of clever punks who know so much science that they don’t need me.
I would love to get the chance to chat science with the writers one day. At the end of Season Four I was getting teased that I’d have to put together a series of introductory lectures on current events in science, but no luck yet. Then again, considering how many questions I get from the cast & crew, it’d probably be the best-attended class I ever taught!
Nika writes: “What is one of the weirdest requests you’ve had from the writer’s team?”
Again, nothing from the writers, but the props department once asked me for several meters of equations. Many times in my life I’ve been asked for equations to solve specific problems, and I’ve frequently been asked for ones on certain topics or involving specific variables, but never before have I been asked for equations by length!
Chevron7 writes: “Do you consult on things on Stargate other than scripts? e.g. Proper lab techniques etc.”
During “The Last Man,” someone asked me if it was realistic to have McKay in his fleece moose-pajamas while scribbling on white boards, to which I could only respond that every house I’ve lived in has had at least one giant white board for the past ten years, I don’t bother getting out of pajamas at all on homework days, and my fleece pajamas have polar bears on them.
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “Do you only consult the writers, or have you ever been involved in aiding directors, actors, VFX, SFX, production designers etc. on, for instance, how something would really explode, what that level of energy would, in reality, do to the human body, how to deliver a particular line, or what a prop or set dressing should actually look like?”
Not officially, but everyone on set is irrepressibly curious. This means that if I’m around, someone is bound to ask me what it would “really” be like. Sometimes it’s the directors, sometimes it’s the sound guys. Mostly, it’s simple curiosity, but occasionally it’s to make sure the science is close enough to be realistic. When I first started, most people I talked to on set were surprised to learn that they were doing a better job on the science than they thought they were.
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “What was the script that gave you the biggest headache – either in terms of how persistent a writer was in including a partcular part, or how complicated a particular physical concept was?
It doesn’t show up on screen, but any episode where the science isn’t behaving properly will leave me with an unshakable urge to search out some sort of silent explanation for what’s going on (folks pointed some of those moments out in the questions in Section Four). A packet of air is undergoing huge pressure changes without changing shape? To keep PV = nRT, the temperature is fluctuating right along with it but our heroes are too tough to cringe when handling barbecued corn so they won’t flinch now. A black hole is more massive than the star it collapsed from? There must have been some dark matter destabilized by the transition that added to the mass. Really. At least, that’s what I think very, very loudly when watching!
antisocialbutterflie writes: “Have you ever had to shoot down an entire script idea because the science is in no way feasible?”
Montrealer writes: “Are there any occasions that you have to remind a writer that Atlantis is a SciFi show instead of a fantasy show?
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “Have there been any scripts (you don’t have to mention any names!) that have come across your desk where the science “fact” has been so totally off the mark that you’ve told the writer to go away and drop the story completely or entirely re-write it? And what were the concepts that they… uh, “got wrong”?”
Nope, I suspect that happens hidden away in the writer’s corral. If something ever did pop up, it would be more my job to find a silent explanation for what was going on to make it plausible and then work that explanation into the equations so motivated and curious geeks can spot the hints explaining how it’s not so far-fetched after all.
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “How much leeway to you tend to “give” the writers with their scripts? Do you draw any “DO NOT CROSS, WILL BE CRUCIFIED BY SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY” lines, and have there been any broadcast episodes that you’ve been completely “against” because of scientific inaccuracies?”
Again, these decisions are made way before scripts get to me, but in my opinion the science community as a whole embraces science fiction. The complaints I hear are never over the big exceptions like teleportation or faster-than-light travel; it’s more an irritation at unscientific details that are unnecessary to the plot.
BatesianMimic writes: “Have you found that the scripts that cross your desk need quite a lot of work before they resemble something that could remotely resemble actuality. Also, would you call your job creative science interpreting, or something else?”
I consider this a science outreach job. When I’m on-set, I’m doing outreach by answering questions and providing a real-life example of a friendly, articulate scientist (I hope!). By providing real equations in the shows, I’m doing outreach by ensuring curious viewers have a starting-point to explore unusual applications of known science. To me, science fiction is an amazing outreach tool for science education, acting as an inspiration and providing the freedom to explore science beyond textbooks.
Assorted questioners asked: “Which writer or producer is the most or least science-competent?”
I’ve never really kept track, but I think I’ll start. Maybe I’ll award “Congratulations! You pass scifi science 101!” certificates at the end of the season…
Section Two: How did you get the job & do you work for other shows?
Thornyrose writes: “How did you land a job as consultant on Atlantis?”
NOLA-Lib writes: “And, how did you get your job?”
ytimynona writes: “How did you get the job as physics consultant???”
In Season 3, Stargate asked the physics department at UBC for a string theorist, and no one was responding. When I heard about it, I didn’t apply as I was a lowly geophysicist (scientists are weird in their hierarchy — I do practical things so I’m lower down than the purely theoretical) but I insisted that Steven Conboy, a string theorist at Green College, call in. He worked for a season, then left town. He forgot to tell Stargate where he went so they came looking for him at Green College. By this time I’d talked to Steven enough to realize that Stargate really needed just a physicist and not specifically a string theorist, so I jumped at the chance as soon as I heard. I’ve been working for them ever since, and I make sure they always know how to contact me.
Henry writes: “How did you get this awesome job? The Physics Department here at UBC sometimes mention jobs like yours when explaining “what you can do with a Physics degree” but they never tell us how to do it!”
Mine! It’s all mine!
When Steven moved out of Green College, my room mate inherited his armchair, and I inherited his job. I guess that means the recommended technique for getting this job is to be at the other end of the phone when Stargate comes calling for me if I’m out of town…
Cat4444 writes: “How do you become a physics consultant for a TV show, anyway? Did you put up your hand and say, “Hey, guys, over here! Your physics are flawed, and I can fix them for you!” Did the producers come to you looking perplexed and asking if something they wanted to do was feasible? Or did they make you take the ignominious step of having to fill out an application form, do the interview bit, then wait to hear whether you’d gotten the job?”
I stepped in when the previous consultant moved on. I called in, and was at work the next morning. I know poor Andrash was inundated with phone calls but I don’t know how or why he picked me. After my first day I guess Evil Kenny liked my work because they kept calling me back.
Terry writes: “What led you to become a consultant on a tv show?”
As for why I took the job, what fan would possibly resist? I love scifi, and I think it’s a wonderful tool for getting people to think critically about science. If the folks putting Stargate together want help getting more accurate science into their show or hiding easter eggs for the science-geeks in their audience, I’m all for helping any way I can.
Astrumporta writes: “Were you brought on board because of your physics knowledge or was that a skill that came to use later?”
Forget that whole story about Steven; what really happened is that Joe decided that McKay should have a super-long scarf a la “http://www.doctorwhoscarf.com/” Dr. Who, but patterned in binary like that one in “http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEwinter06/PATTbinary.html“, so they brought me on as an extremely geeky knitter with a habit of accidentally memorizing ASCII binary code. It was only after Baba-lou was buried in an avalanche of weird food resulting from a catastrophic collapse of leftovers from Joe’s videos and I managed to rescue him using only the power of physics, 46 pool cues, and some gaffers tape, that they decided to use my physics skills for the greater good of Stargate. After my very first day as a physics consultant I was nearly fired on account of unrealistically neat handwriting, but after a severe scolding I managed to throw away years of conditioning and learned to scribble messily enough to impersonate the scrawl of a genius.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
Terry writes: “Do you consult for other productions?”
Henry writes: “Do you work on other sci-fi shows too?”
Not yet, but with all the scifi in Vancouver I can hope! 😉 At the moment I need to mostly be a student, but once I finish my thesis maybe the executive producers will smile down on me for more gigs.
Sachi writes: “How long have you been a physics consultant for Stargate and do you also act as a consultant for any other TV series or movies?”
Cat4444 writes: “Have you been the physics consultant with SGA since the beginnning, or did you come on board later?”
Later. I’ve been doing occasional episodes in Seasons 4 and 5. In season 3, it was string theorist Steven Conboy, and I don’t know who was doing it before that.
Cat4444 writes: “Did you consult on any of the SG-1 episodes also?”
Cat4444 writes: “Did you have to stomp on any colleagues to get the job as physics consultant?”
Nope. To the contrary, I originally passed up applying for the job in favour of a friend, and when I eventually got it some of my friends on the more mathematical end of the physics-spectrum helped make sure I was sufficiently up to speed on my string theory to qualify.
I haven’t ever witnessed stomping in physics (or in science at all). Most experiments these days are far too large for any one person to do, and the entire process of research is building on each other’s results, so the culture is pretty collaborative. Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe people just like to play nice in front of me, but the cooperative vibe (instead of competitive) is one of the aspects of both science and Stargate that draw me to them.
Section Three: Who are you?
Van fan writes: “What is your background in science?”
Bailey writes: “For Mika, do you have a formal education in physics or is it mostly a fascinating hobby for you?”
ytimynona writes: “What is your degree in???”
I had an amazing high school physics teacher, and my first formal introduction to astronomy was in 2000 at the Summer Science program in Ojai where they had me submitting asteroid orbital determinations to the Harvard-Smithsonian Small Bodies Institute.
I have an undergraduate degree from University of California at Santa Barbara in physics with a strong emphasis on astrophysics. I was part of a large research lab investigating the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation is the static of the early Universe, and from observations of it we can look at the beginning of the Universe and figure out what shape it is and how it’s going to end. Charles Seife’s “http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780142004463,00.html” Alpha and Omega is a good popsci book on the topic. (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, although great on some topics, goofed up enough small stuff in the cosmology section to keep me cringing.)
I am currently working on a graduate degree in geophysics at the University of British Columbia. I started off my research looking at volcanoes on Mars, but now I’m researching landslide runout (if you know a landslide is going to happen and it’s too big to stop it, landslide runout is figuring out where’s it going to go, how far, how fast, and how deep so you can try to not build there). It’s a bit of a switch to go from the end of the Universe to volcanoes on Mars to landslides on Earth, but they are all disasters on different scales.
Outside of school, I’ve worked a lot of jobs in science education and outreach, from developing programs at the local planetarium to interning with the American Institute of Physics in Washington, DC.
Henry writes: “Did you know this was what you wanted to do while you were in school?”
Well, since I’m still in school…
I’ve been a hardcore scifi fan and science-enthusiast from a very young age, and downright obsessed with space since elementary school. I’ve taken every scifi related course at every opportunity I’ve had, and even designed and taught classes on the science of scifi. I didn’t plan on getting a dream job, but I’m certainly happy it happened!
Nika writes: “Consulting on Atlantis seems like a fabulous job to have! But it must not take up all your time. Do you teach anywhere else or consult on other projects?”
Thornyrose writes: “How big a part of your daily life is working on Stargate? Do you maintain another full or part time career?”
I get called in on an episode-by-episode basis, and for any episode I’m called I usually spend a day or two in advance helping prepare props, and a few half-days on set. My daily life is that of a graduate student (I’m writing my thesis right now; with a bit of luck in less than 100 days I’ll officially be a Master of Disaster!), so I take classes, do research, attend conferences, and teach undergraduates when I’m not working on Stargate.
Chevron7 writes: “Are you interested in writing science fiction at all?”
There are days where I wonder if my thesis counts as scifi, but I really hope my committee doesn’t have the same doubts! Beyond that, I have no literary aspirations.
Trish writes: “As a physics person, what do you like to do for fun? I’ve seen some of your colleagues at Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando on the Tower of Terror making things *float* during the ride. It’s very cool to see. And yes, I’m serious! Whole groups of them come to Disney and perform experiments throughout the park.”
Yeeeaaaah, I’ve done that! There’s a whole group over at the webcomic xkcd that has “http://xkcd.com/chesscoaster/” photos of science geeks playing chess on roller coasters</a>, and I’ve been tempted to submit my own photo. I admit I do a lot of stupid physics tricks like balancing salt shakers on spilled salt crystals (the cubic crystals make it easier than balancing on sugar) at restaurants or shattering racket balls with liquid nitrogen.
In contrast to my academic love of disasters, my hobbies almost all focus on creation — arts and crafts of all varieties. I was amused to discover I wasn’t the only one knitting and crocheting on-set, but as it’s a quiet, portable hobby, there’s quite a circle of yarn-tanglers hiding among the crew.
And just in case my advisor is reading, “Landslides! I eat landslides, sleep landslides, and model them in my dreams. There is no fun without mass movements in isolated regions!”
Section Four: Tell us about the science! And scientists!
Many of your questions asked me about my views on science, science fiction, and how they fit together. So before I answer the questions, a quick intro:
Science is in a process of continual revision. We’re pretty sure about some things (like the Law of Gravity — I’m willing to bet that if I drop my computer it’s going to fall), but if new evidence to the contrary shows up we’re willing to revise them. This is what I love about science: we’ve got good scientific explanations for the sun coming up each morning, and I have direct observation of it rising most days (I live in Vancouver; some days, we never see the sun), but if it were to not come up tomorrow scientists would collectively shrug and go, “Whoops, guess we need a new model!”
I think that scifi is the “What if…” of science. It’s a way to explore what would happen if this law here were tweaked, if this worked that way instead, if faster-than-light travel were possible, if Earth had no moon, what would the consequences be? To me, good scifi is any time the differences are laid out very clearly in the beginning and the story evolves consistently within those different rules; no laying them aside when it’s awkward or adding in a new exception at the last minute to resolve things.
Gate Geek writes: “How difficult is it to keep in mind ‘artistic liscense’ when it comes to going against what we know about the workings of the universe in a science fiction show?”
When it comes to scifi, I’m happy with any clearly-articulated exceptions to the normal workings of the universe as long as the story then continues inside those rules. I only get grumpy when it seems like the manner in which the scifi universe works is changing every third scene. Stargate is very good about consistently playing by the rules they laid out — once something is explained as an exception to normal real-world science, it will always function in the exact same way.
Montrealer writes: “Did the previous SG-1 episodes and earlier Atlantis episodes have any Physics issues that could be politely called inept today? Is that why your position on Atlantis was created?”
I don’t know why the science consultant was created, nor if there was one prior to season 3 of Atlantis. Overall, Stargate is really good at being consistent.
To me, it’s fine if the science evolves to resolve previously-unanswered questions that were the basis of a “what if…” for a work of scifi. Hal Clement’s “http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/MP-34096/Mission-Of-Gravity.htm” Mission of Gravity, with the Whirligig World essay at the end exploring orbital dynamics, is a a beautiful example of this — Clement guessed wrong in the science to explain a particular set of observations, but because he was so clear and consistent with his physics within the explanation, it’s still really good scifi.
Green writes: “How much of what science is covered in an episode is true and how much is, though based in science, nearly improbable or unconceivable at this time? ”
Jean writes: “What percentage of the show’s physics is actually grounded in real science (if any)?”
Sachi writes: “What aspect of the science in the Stargate universe do you think is closest to reality, ie. wormholes, phase-shifting, hyperspace generators, and which is the furthest?”
I can’t give exact percentages for real science vs the exceptions for Stargate. Some of the improbable or inconceivable or currently-technically-unbuildable stuff required by the story includes:
– We can create large, stable transversable wormholes with the Stargates.
– Faster-than-light travel is possible through hyperspace.
– Limited telepathy is possible through an evolved form of insect-hive-mind
– Energy weapons are possible
– Shields are possible
– Artificial gravity
Real science shows up any time there isn’t an explicit exception — the orbital dynamics (planetary drift requiring updating of the Stargate network, types of orbits, etc) and stellar evolution (for the most part) are better explained than I’ve seen in most introductory astronomy classes. Although I haven’t read it cover-to-cover yet, it looks like Michio Kaku’s “http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780385520690.html” Physics of the Impossible is a really good science of scifi read in that it splits the sciences up by levels of improbability. The author is a string theorist so he knows his physics and is a bit more flexible on what’s possible than the anti-string-theorist people.
Thornyrose writes: “Also, how much time do you spend researching or studying something to decide on its plausibility, or how to suggest how to tweak it to fit the story’s need?”
As much time as it takes! For the most part the science falls within what I’m already comfortable and familiar with, so my research is reading journal articles to see if there’s something I can adapt. It generally works out to roughly half my time in research and half my time physically working with the props and being on site.
Thornyrose writes: “Besides physics, what related disciplines are you called upon to evaluate in the job?”
I once had a professor tell me that a squirrel was just applied biophysics. Physics is the art of solving problems, so biophysics is learning enough biology to figure out what solutions are possible, and astrophysics is learning enough astronomy to frame the problem. My colleagues frequently tease that the only thing left to do once you complete a physics degree is to add a prefix so you can do something useful (in my case, previously “astro-” and currently “geo-“).
I’ve used a lot of astrophysics, some meteorology, some string theory, a bit of cosmology, a tiny smidgen of computer science, and a whole lot of bits and pieces that fall under “science” for lack of any better category.
Although it isn’t strictly required for the job, I do have to call upon pretty much the entire realm of science when I show up on set. I swear that when the crew hears I’m coming, they all run home to research obscure new discoveries or dust off old unanswered questions and quiz me with them! It’s a great deal of fun, and means that between takes I can end up discussing anything from the aerodynamics of dragonflies to the ramifications of discovering perchlorates on Mars.
Bailey writes: “Do you like dealing with and thinking of ideas that have no current basis in reality but that might someday come true?”
Yes! The “What if…” aspect of scifi is why I love the genre.
NOLA-Lib writes: “As a geologist, myself and a bunch of other geo-scientists watched “the Core” and made fun of the obvious mistakes or fanciful “science”. I wanted to tell you that I have found very little (geologically speaking) to be able to make fun of Atlantis.”
For the fans who are unfamiliar with it, “The Core” is a Hollywood Disaster Movie about humans mucking up the core of the Earth and a team of brave scientists going down to fix it.
At the moment I’m actually a geophysist, and I have giggled about “The Core.” They did have a geoscience consultant that they seemed to listen to at least some of the time. The general outline is good and most of the exceptions are either pretty tongue-in-cheek (unubtanium! love it) or artistic exaggerations; the only bit that drives me nuts is when the details were screwed up. Saying Hawaii is at a plate boundary was so unnecessary that it drove me completely crazy! Why, oh why, didn’t they say they’d popped out of a hot spot? Grrr… Still, I suspect the audience comes out with a better understanding of basic geology than most students of geology 101 — the “crust is tiny, mantle is big, core has two parts” demonstration is more memorable than most lectures.
It’s the attention to detail that really makes Stargate stand out for me. I can’t imagine the people I’ve met making silly mistakes like the plate-boundary/hot-spot one.
Zoniduck writes: “Is there any bit of bad science that made it into a finished episode which you find irritating enough to rant about it?”
Terry writes: “Do the scientific inaccuracies ever drive you crazy?”
In my view, Stargate is good scifi that plays within its own rules without cheating, so nope, the scientific inaccuracies don’t drive me crazy. In general with scifi, the only time it bothers me is when there’s unnecessary inaccuracy (like saying Hawaii is at a plate boundary in “The Core”) or when a show cheats by changing the rules at the very end to resolve a story.
Chevron7 writes: “I like the website “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics”. What’s the most glaring scientific error you’ve ever seen in a movie?”
A lot of science errors I’ll excuse as the exceptions necessary for a story, or artistic license to keep things interesting, so the only ones that are really jarring for me are the totally unnecessary small stuff. The Core’s Hawaiian plate boundary obviously drives me nuts, but it’s also things like sticking a volcano in Los Angeles. The plate boundary type is all wrong for volcanos and there are no hot spots nearby. They could have easily used Seattle and at least been in the right geologic context! Hmph. Of course, when it just gets overwhelmingly error-filled, a movie can cross the invisible threshold (like Disney’s “Black Hole”) and leave me to speechless.
Mike writes: “So, Q1 – given that we know a stable wormhole requires a huge amount of power to maintain, and that running high power usage functions (like the Atlantis shield) even drain a ZPM module, how is the power integrity of very long distance wormholes maintained (say between Pegasus and the Milky Way)?”
The lore says that the dialing device of the outgoing gate provides the power, so I think that power management systems are also hardcoded into the dialing devices. As Earth uses a computer that ignores a significant number of the possible gate control & monitoring signals, Earth might not have the most efficient of solutions. Although McKay (or in one instance, the Wraith) can sometimes manage to reprogram some functions of a dialing device, no one messes with the power management without a really good reason.
Mike writes: “Q2 – in the same vein, how come no one outside SGC ever noticed the power drain taken by the Cheyenne Mountain Stargate when operating?”
There’s nothing to explain this in the explicit lore that I know, but my silent explanation is this:
The SGC has some hefty generators on-site, and NORAD does help camouflage the operation. There is a dedicated power grid room on level 25 which controls the power usage for SGC (particularly the Stargate since Earth lacks a DHD). There have been some pretty sparky moments when gate activity is fluctuating.
Of course, I like to think the good folks at Stargate Command are considerate enough of their neighbours (and desiring enough of not contributing to rolling brownouts that would attract attention) to have normal gate operations timed for off-peak hours.
Green writes: “What are your feelings on time travel?”
Mike writes: “Q3 – How are timeline paradigms avoided where someone goes back in time to “correct” the timeline, which must then in itself mean that the original change to the timeline must happen again, because the timeline has been corrected so the original opportunity to change it must occur again…”
I actually have a pretty long answer to this and I saved this set of questions for last with the intention of finally writing up what I’ve been arguing in classes for a while, but I’ve already gone over time in writing (that thesis, it beckons!) so I’m passing for now. Maybe in the post-thesis world Joe, will get a spontaneous extra-post from me just about time travel!
Terry also writes: “Have you ever met a scientist as arrogant as McKay is portrayed?”
Yes, many. Anyone who goes through physics has a bit of ego. For the most part it’s a really collaborative, supportive field but there are the odd mavericks who think they’re smarter than the rest of us. Sometimes they are smarter, sometimes they aren’t. However, the number of really brilliant scientists I’ve met who go out of their way to teach, mentor, and support new scientists far out-numbers the arrogant ones.
Narelle from Aus writes: “Have you ever read a script that had a plausible application in real world and thought “Hey, I could get rich off this?” If so, which episode and what was it? And do you need a business partner?”
I think my only option here is to remain suspiciously silent…
Narelle from Aus writes: “What research do you need to do to stay up to date with scientific theories?”
That’s a really hard question to answer. Technically, I don’t do any research with the express intention of keeping up-to-date, but my daily life involves a lot of interaction with new science.
My family has a culture of reading most kindly described as “compulsive literacy,” so I find myself reading assorted scholarly publications, plus the usual spread of popsci books for fun.
Most of my social interactions at the moment involve talking with academics about what they’re researching. This means that casual dinner conversation often covers new theories in the pre-requisites for the rise of culture, neat factoids gleaned from someone’s literature review, or someone complaining about a glitch when applying new laser measurement techniques to unstable rock slopes. If you’re ever in Vancouver looking for a geeky night out, try stopping by Green College at UBC for dinner and immerse yourself in all the graduate students; you’ll see what I mean.
On top of that there’s my own day-to-day research on landslides, fluid dynamics, and numerical modeling, and letters from old classmates telling me about their current research, and suddenly I’ve probably spent half my day learning about all sorts of new things without actually meaning to do so.
antisocialbutterflie writes: “How do you stay abreast of the new physics discoveries? Do you have favorite journals to read?”
I don’t think I’ve missed reading a copy of “Physics Today” in years (it’s like “People Magazine” for scientists!) and I love the “http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/” Earth Observatory Natural Hazards site.
Gate Geek writes: “Do you keep up with the latest findings in science? And have you ever been so taken with one of those finding that you wanted to work it into a show in some aspect? Or just had to share with anyone in earshot?”
I keep up with a lot of recent findings in many different fields, but certainly not all discoveries in all fields! I haven’t had the chance to bombard the writers with neat science to integrate into their work, but I certainly encounter all sorts of cool science that has me bubbling over to everyone around me. Luckily, the people around me are not only used to that, but look forward to it. It’s amazing how often a stray tidbit of information from one field can spill over to usefulness in something seemingly totally unrelated!
Cat4444 writes: “In the first SG-1 episode, Apophis came through the Gate at the SGC with some of his Jaffa, grabbed a Sergeant, then he and the Jaffa turned around and walked back through the Gate without it ever having shut down. In later episodes it was established that Gate travel is one-way only, so . . . how did Apophis do that?” [snipped, see the original comment for the full question]
It’s from before my time so I’m not responsible for the science of this one, but in my mind I see it as special gate. I think the gates were built to be one-way to prevent accidents and that Apophis disabled those safeties.
NOLA-Lib writes: “I don’t have much physics experience but do you consult with other scientists when the show delves into different sciences?”
Yes, but in a very generalist sort of way since I can’t tell them any details about an un-aired show. A typical conversation ends with “I can’t actually tell you what I’m doing yet, but I promise it’s neat, I promise you’ll retroactively brag about having helped, and I promise it is in no way illegal or immoral!”
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “How often do you come up against scientific queries or discrepancies that you don’t know how to solve, and have had to go to other specialists to get an answer? Who else do you tend consult, and who do you go to most often?”
As a physicist, I wouldn’t say that I don’t know how to solve something so much as it’s sometimes faster to ask around for specialized references… (McKay isn’t the only one with Physics Ego!) Mostly I end up doing science-gossip with former classmates who are used to playing with problems without needing an explanation or context for why I’m looking at a particular situation. My most-frequently-pestered (for Stargate and for my thesis) list are Chris McKenny, who is doing low-temperature physics & Chris Coakley in computer science at UC Santa Barbara, and Ryan Carroll over at CERN.
Van fan writes: “Have you ever been contacted by someone high up in the food chain of science and physics, NASA or the US National Science Foundation or Canadian equivalent, who pointed out some mistakes, big or small?”
Several of my old classmates have scattered around the globe and some of them are in the big organizations (CERN, NASA, Los Alamos Lab, etc) and take glee in noticing the details I’ve included. Although they haven’t noticed anything so far to poke fun at me for goofing up, I’m sure they’d take equal glee in that. I also have a few mentors tucked away in NASA and JPL who know what I’m up to these days, and get a kick out of watching episodes I’ve worked on.
I’m actually not sure if someone wanting to point out a mistake would know who to contact. My name isn’t in the credits or mentioned in commentaries (that I know of). Although, of course, there aren’t actually mistakes in the science so much as explanations that didn’t make it on air.
Green writes: “If Rodney McKay and John Sheppard were dropped from a sky scrapper at the same starting height, northerly wind of 2mph, considering the collection of each individual’s fanbase, which character would be caught by the mass of fans waiting below first?”
Fully-clothed or topless Sheppard? I’m confident that this detail would substantially impact the results.
Green writes: “What currently new science theory have you paid the most attention to or are you most excited about to this date?”
I really enjoy working with disasters because the science is fairly straight-forward (it doesn’t take a machine the size of a small country to study them) and the impact of figuring things out has a significant and directly beneficial impact on society.
Inside physics, I like working with fluid dynamics because to me, the math is really elegant. Of course, I might be influenced by how incredibly charismatic every fluid dynamics professor I’ve encountered is — the latest one could best be described as a genius Hugh Grant with a wicked sense of humor.
As for the biggest unsolved-problem pet project I like to daydream about: planetary dynamics. We have theories on how planets form, but the more exoplanets we discover, the more apparent it is that current theory just doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of possibilities. Also, the math for orbital dynamics is beautiful and can really elegantly explain complicated observations like the cracking on Europa’s icy crust.
Chevron7 writes: “Apart from your job, how does your Physics knowledge help you in day to day life? e.g. Do you always win at billiards?”
Did you know that the largest annual convention of physicists has actually been banned from returning to Vegas? Like most of my colleagues, physics has probably helped save me from making inexcusably bad bets.
I am ridiculously poorly coordinated, so physics hasn’t helped much with sports. I do appreciate the lovely interaction of mass and radius when swinging poi, and the glory of understanding torque has saved my pride when I would have otherwise resorted to finding muscular assistance.
Trish writes: “I’ve actually never taken a course on physics! I bought a highschool set on it (thru saxon) and couldn’t believe how much math was involved. I’m more of the artistic type of person and I also studied psychology in college. I would love to know more about physics and was wondering if there is a good physics book out there for dummies that you would recommend. I want to be able to help my children with their physics homework. They are NOT getting out of learning this subject.”
I think that discussing scifi is a great way to foster an interest in science. What was real? What wasn’t? Of the parts that are neither clearly real or fake, how could you justify them? If we lived in a universe where the exceptions presented were real, what would the other consequences be? Where are there holes in the story from failing to stick faithfully to the rules that were laid out? Did they miss a prime opportunity to explore one of the exceptions? Scifi is marvelous for inspiring idle research projects that accidentally teach a whole lot of science.
My favourite science book for general audiences for the past two years is John Clagues and Bob Turner’s “http://www.bcminerals.ca/files/educational_resources/000235.php” Vancouver, City on the Edge. It’s an introduction to the geologic setting of the lower mainland, a few interesting field trips, and a nice explanation of a wide variety of geohazards. Plus, the images are really clear and nice.
There’s some really good educational entertainment out there from the scientist-songwriters. The ones I’m most familiar with are in astrophysics, “http://www.mchawking.com/mp3s/” M.C. Hawking and “http://www.astrocappella.com/songs.shtml” AstroCapella. “http://theymightbegiants.com/” They Might Be Giants and “http://www.jonathancoulton.com/primer/listen/” Jonathan Coulton deserve honourable mentions if I’m giving out geek rock recommendations.
For more advanced physics, Richard Feynman has a continuing reputation as an excellent physicist and educator for good reason (plus his “http://vidyaonline.org/arvindgupta/surelyjoking.pdf” autobiographies counter the geeks-are-dull stereotypes), so checking out the Feynman Lectures on Physics is highly worthwhile (any university he visited should have videos of him presenting that you can watch).
And for the truly hardcore, my favourite physics textbook author is “http://academic.reed.edu/physics/faculty/griffiths.html” David Griffith — his electromagnetism book comes with an intermission!
Tango writes: “Who’s responsible for “A Matter of Time” having so much brilliantly accurate technobabble yet still making the oh-so-common mistake of thinking that the gravity of a black hole is in any way different to the gravity of the star that formed it? (For the non-physicists reading, a black hole is only different because you can get closer to it without actually crashing into it, at the same distance, it’s exactly the same as anything else with that mass.) It’s one of my favourite episodes for clever, realistic science, but that one detail always bugs me.”
…yeah, it’s always the details that stand out, isn’t it? I’m willing to accept big exceptions from the normal laws of physics (time travel! hyperdrive!) but then you play consistently within that for good scifi. When I hit things like this, I pretend that maybe the shock wave of collapse destabilized the orbits of enough smaller masses to change the density distribution, and this has a cascading effect on destabilizing more small masses, and more, and more, until the whole system is thrown out of equilibrium. Improbable, but not impossible!
But see! This is why they should let me read the scripts earlier.
Astrumporta writes: “Have you read The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene? It’s a cool book about string theory etc.”
Yes. I was down in Santa Barbara, and there are a whole bunch of friendly and remarkably articulate string theorists at the Kavlar Institute of Theoretical Physics who liked to chat with all the new physicists-in-training. I didn’t get to meet Brian when he was in town, but some of the physicists interviewed for the movie-version were kind enough to hold a Q&A for the undergrads.
Astrumporta writes: “As an engineer who has spent several days converting some data from one XML format to a different XML format, I would have to say the engineering aspects of Stargate are (even) less realistic than the science. Have you ever reminded the writers that you can’t build a huge space ship in 2 years, or connect a laptop to an alien computer in 2 minutes?”
I accept that for the purposes of a story, pretty much any show (scifi or otherwise) is going to require the special exception of “incredibly nice hardware interoperability.” In a related “Gee, real life just ain’t that easy,” I wish I could format my thesis in whatever McKay uses for data-entry because his screens always look much more readable than what I end up with in LaTeX.
Subarbanite writes: “What do other physicists think of your working on the show? Is it like when musicians write screenplays (and other musicians think they’ve sold out)? Or are people jealous? Do you get other physicists admiring your work? What volume of fan mail do you get?”
Many scientists (especially physicists) are total scifi geeks. I once worked in an astrophysics lab where I swear every woman there except me was writing a romance-scifi-space novel (and that lab was more than half women). So it’s not so much “sold out” as it is “Queen of Geeks.” See Henry’s query on how to get this job, or Gate Geek’s comment for the general sort of response I get.
Shirt ‘n Tie writes: “What did you think of the latest CERN particle-accelerator experiment?”
Pretty! Shiny! Glee!
Okay, not a very scientific answer, but since one of my friends is working on his phd at CERN, I appreciate the “http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/08/the_large_hadron_collider.html photos and hope he gets his thesis! I’ll be excited to see the results.“>pretty
For anyone who hasn’t been hanging around giddy physicists recently, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) over at CERN is in the “http://lhc-first-beam.web.cern.ch/lhc-first-beam/Welcome.html” final stages of pre-operations testing. There’s a “http://www.vimeo.com/1431471?pg=embed&sec=1431471” rap by some CERN students or “http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1066” comic if you need a quick intro to the project. I, uh, did stay up late at night watching the webcast during the first runs of a full circulation of a beam.
Namiko writes: “I think someone asked you this before (or a variation of it), but do you wait for the writers to consult you on a script, or do you sometimes brief them with the Coolest New Thing in Science? For instance, I know that gate travel and wormholes and even puddlejumpers are awesome technological advances, but I’m kind of surprised that Rodney hasn’t mentioned the Large Hadron Collider at all, even if to brush it off as too “primitive” and therefore not worth his time. I mean, I’m giddy with anticipation at what we could learn from the LHC, and I’m the most amateur of armchair scientists.”
I’ve never caught McKay reading through a copy of “Science,” so maybe he’s just so caught up in the Pegasus Galaxy that he really just doesn’t keep up on latest advances over here in the Milky Way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he only heard about it when they start getting results & it shows up in briefings.
Gate Geek writes: First off, Wow, I admire your job. Lots. I’m an amateur astronomer,work in a planetarium and do as much public outreach in astronomy as possible. It was a comment in a science fiction show many many years ago about plasma physics that got me interested in astronomy and science.”
Thank you, I love my job.
You aren’t the only one inspired by scifi. There are now countless science-of-scifi books, blogs, and articles that point out all the flaws in the science, but very few embrace scifi as inspiration to study science. I know it was the countless episodes of Star Trek in my childhood that first sparked my interest in space, and even now when I start getting grouchy over failed experiments I retreat into scifi to recapture the wonder and endless possibilities.
KK226 writes: “It seems like a lot of people have questions about the scientific integrity of science fiction, my question is coming from the other direction – do you think any important scientific discoveries have come from ideas generated from science fiction? And, do you have any guesses as to ones that could come from Stargate? Is there anything about creative and likely non-physics minded folks imagining an alternative reality that frees it from some of the constraints of the scientic method and, occasionally results in something new, amazing and scientifically valid?”
There’s a special that pops up on Discovery fairly frequently about science that’s been inspired by Star Trek (including flip-phones). I think the glory of the scientific method is that nothing is considered sacred, and all theories are subject to revision no matter how long they’ve been around. As for the influence of scifi on science, I think it’s a really effective method of inspiring people to study science in the first place. This is based on informal feeling rather than hard numbers, but most of the scientists I know can remember some scifi from when they were young starting them on the path of obsessive curiosity.
Gate Geek writes: “Maybe you might not be able to answer this, but I’d be interested in your opinion….how do you think science fiction shows like Stargate can encourage viewers to take a greater interest in science and astronomy?”
I think scifi can inspire curiosity. I think that laying out possibilities can drive people into working to make some part of the vision real, or to explore the boundary between fact and fiction. People seem to remember stories better than facts, so if real science is necessary for the plot of an engaging story, it will probably be a more effective teaching technique than sitting in classrooms listening to dry lectures. When I used to teach my practical science fiction course, the students who started out being a bit scared of science walked away with at least an understanding of how the process worked and how to identify what was real and what wasn’t, while the students who were going to be professional scientists finally felt like they could do something fun and interesting with what they knew instead of being tied to textbooks all the time. It seems like every time I go to the bookstore I see yet another popsci book outlining the science behind another popular scifi series, and although at times the titles make me laugh I am happy to see the trend. If a fan’s curiosity to know everything they possibly can about a show leads them to accidentally learn introductory physics, I’m all for it!
Section Five: What’s it like?
Trish writes: “[D]o you have a *funniest moment* while being a consultant for Stargate?”
It’s too lively to pinpoint one funniest moment, but a surreal one:
I was sitting in a stolen producer’s chair next to Martin Wood with him cracking jokes while the crew bustled around us setting up for the next shot when suddenly above the noise a yell rings out: “Astrophysics! I need Astrophysics over here!”
Zoniduck writes: “So, how jazzed were you to meet Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson?”
I didn’t get any prior notice to get excited in advance, but I was thrilled to discover them on set. The crew takes a great deal of interest in what I do (I probably spend about a quarter of my time on set explaining what all the equations mean in layman’s terms) and I know scientist-viewers will get a kick out of my equations later, but it was a unique experience for me to have immediate feedback from people who instinctively knew what I was scribbling everywhere. They were both incredibly friendly and supportive.
Someone asked (in comment back when that photo was on the blog) about how Bill & Neil felt about the science of Stargate. They both had a complete blast on set, were a bit nervous entering a world outside their science specials, and were very enthusiastic about the story. Yes, we giggled about a few parts of the script, but I think most scientists accept the “what if…” principals that underlie scifi.
Idonotlikegreeneggsandham writes: “[I]s it fun to work on the show?”
YES! Yes, yes, yes, yes, and YES!
Everyone is really friendly and curious, and I feel like I’m using all this stuff that I learned in classrooms for something interesting (okay, my research lets me do something useful, but there’s no way I’m applying quantum mechanics to landslides!), and that, in some small way, I’m helping make the magic happen.
The crew keeps me on my toes with their far-ranging curiosity, so I get a chance to play with all aspects of science. One day, I found myself giving an abbreviated biology lesson to identify the genders of Beckett’s turtles in the morning, and discussing the fashion habits of physicists in the afternoon.
I really appreciate just how much everyone looks out for me — since I am on set so rarely, I don’t always know my way around or where to tuck myself when everyone is bustling about setting up the next shot. The crew are always willing to point me in the right direction, let me peek over their shoulders at monitors, lend me headphones to eavesdrop on the action, or join me in quietly knitting while waiting for the director to call us over. If they’re free, absolutely everyone is willing to teach me a bit about what they do; it has been an amazing experience.
It’s also a blast to actually be in the city of Atlantis. I remember how, omy very first day they took me on a tour of the set. I was feeling overwhelmed by actually seeing the Stargate, and we’d gone into a side room where I perched on the only available non-floor surface while they explained what they needed from me that day. That’s when it dawned on me… I was in John Sheppard’s bed. I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so hard in my life.
Section Six: Questions that Defy Classification
Bailey writes: “Also, was the character Miko (Letters from Pegasus) named after you in some fashion?”