Putting the science in science fiction
May 1, 2011Published: May 1, 2011
During my first day at Bridges Studio, I fed the energy of solar flares into traversable wormhole equations and tried to muffle fan-girlish squeals of delight while meeting people I had only known as characters. From that first day, and for the four seasons I consulted for Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, I saw how much the entertainment industry cared about the science it presented. I learned how to help weave science smoothly into popular entertainment.
A consultant is a guest star for the crew, showing up only when episodes demand it. At first, I was the perpetual new kid on set, but a scientist is still a scientist, whether in a laboratory or in a studio. Slowly, I developed guidelines on how to successfully work the interface fostering a strong relationship between science and entertainment.
Wear close-toed shoes
A laboratory is an environment where function dominates over form. Old equipment lurks underfoot, spills ooze off benches, and a moment’s carelessness shatters glass across tiles. Vulnerable feet must be shielded within protective footwear.
On a film set, form dominates over function. In the hallways of spaceship Destiny, I awkwardly leaned over gutters of LED lights to write on the walls. Scooting too close to put the final touches on an equation, I overbalanced, slipped into the gutter and nearly twisted an ankle. Filming intensifies the hazard, when snaking camera cables and wooden crates litter the halls.
Accuracy creates plausibility
Although the science in fiction will rarely line up with recent journal articles, plausible science fiction must be drawn from credible references, as an extension of what might be discovered or could be true if the rules of physics were different. “The accuracy of your science is what grounds the fiction, allowing the reader or viewer to suspend their disbelief,” explains Stargate writer Carl Binder.
A science consultant serves as an illustrator to the authors, adding richness and depth to the world beyond the story. Explicitly, the science will appear in only a few lines of dialog, to capture the essence without bogging down the story. Yet the background contains all the accuracy and detail behind the concept in interweaving equations and persistent variables carried from episode to episode.
It is impossible to over-prepare
A director sees scientific accuracy as an opportunity for authenticity. On my first day, I prepared twice as much material as instructed, and used every equation. Every scripted notebook and white board had variations, and extra equations snuck into unscripted moments.
Now when I walk through the studio gate my bag contains an episodic notebook with at least four times the material the script requires, topical textbooks, the latest particle data book, reference sheets on a variety of physical phenomena, and an all-purpose notebook tracking choices I made in adapting science from every field to this fictional universe.
Be creative with the familiar
The appropriate use of science avoids a harsh disruption, balancing recognizable structures and symbols with complexity and creativity. A viewer’s disbelief is broken if a fictional biologist claims lines of C++ as the solution to a chemical reaction. To maintain plausibility, fictional geniuses must not be stumped by a high-school physics problem, and alien alphabets must be mixed with familiar mathematical notation.
Fiction demands a willingness to apply scientific research in defiance of practicality. The Stargate: Atlantis episode “Brain Storm” required 15 meters of equations, the length dictated by set and the topic dictated by plot. The tangle equations seamlessly tied together string theory, parallel universes, thermodynamics, and the consequences of a steady temperature imbalance on atmospheric science. The science was recognizable, the application fictional, the combination plausible and aesthetically intriguing.
Creating clear, useful lab notebooks to record data and procedures is a skill drilled into young scientists. Likewise, my episode files are filled with photographs of on-set science.
In the Stargate: Universe episode “Pathogen,” trapped far from home, the character of Nicholas Rush started scrawling on the walls of the spaceship in a desperate attempt to understand the unknown. On set, it took me twelve hours to fill the hall, leaving me with an aching wrist and sniffling from chalk dust. The crew claimed to find errors in my addition as I meticulously photographed each section.
A week later, in a single moment of miscommunication, the walls of chalk were washed clean. It took another full day of poring over photographs to replicate each smudge and overlapping equation. I didn’t relax until the sealant dried, preserving the equations against future mishap.
Teach while learning
Scientists are irrepressible teachers, who want to share the beauty of fluid dynamics in coffee cups and of optics in sunsets with anyone who will listen. The cast and crew quizzed me on aerodynamics of dragonflies, natural hazards in Vancouver, and why the sky is blue. I traded answers for questions of my own, about the process of filming, the function of equipment, and stories of careers that led to this moment.
Embrace fans’ passion and curiosity
Theories are challenged in academic literature and debated at conferences. The first time I directly engaged with fans of the Stargate franchise, I assumed that I’d face harsher questioning than I experienced in my thesis defense.
The fans were as passionate as I expected, but far more relaxed. Curiosity focused on scientific concepts rather than technical detail, and scenes from episodes illustrated ideas from forgotten science classes. Fiction allowed me to engage their passionate interest in the show to build scientific literacy.
Be a model scientist
Every scientist who interacts with the entertainment industry shapes the cultural image of a scientist. Crew members continually seek new knowledge to inform film portrayals; as the on-set scientist I became a resource. When the costumes department asked me about the realism of our fictional scientist working at home in his flannel moose pajamas; I affirmed with stories of my own late-night sessions clad in fleecy polar bear pajamas.
In one episode of Stargate: Atlantis, the two lead characters argued over the use of a spaceship’s shields to deflect a coronal mass ejection from a nearby star. The dialog comes almost word-for-word from a conversation between the author Carl Binder and his daughter, an astronomy graduate student, who rejected the idea as implausible.
For me, the Stargate: Universe episode “Human” is a disorienting mix of fact and fiction. Filmed in my university's lecture halls, fictional graduate students sipped from brightly colored water bottles deliberately purchased to resemble the one I habitually carted around on set. I ransacked my undergraduate notes on cryptography when drafting the fictional blackboard notes, and started with a friend's current research in quantum computing to take real physics and spin it somewhere entirely fictional.
Before I first stepped on set, I thought I would be conducting an uphill, one-sided campaign to include actual facts in stories. Instead, by breaking down the mutual intimidation, Stargate built a symbiotic relationship between science and entertainment to create something better than either could in isolation. I see the glow in other shows that have embraced science, partners in crafting strong and fascinating stories to set loose in the world, and I hope to see it more often.
Great article on the behind the scenes stuff on Stargate. Thanks!
This is wonderful, I mean, how you are show casing real science with our fiction. Well done, I love the detail. I think what you're doing is great, it is as if you think the fans are intelligent.
Thank you for that,
See the web magazine http://www.LabLit.com for a great deal of discussion on this topic, including my own essay on the perils of putting real technology and science into fiction at http://www.LabLit.com/article/83
Jack, It is my pleasure, and I certainly do! The speculation of scifi requires fans embrace curiosity, a key characteristic of lively minds.
This is so cool! The science on this show seems so realistic to me. It's inspired me to try to learn some physics. I found a recent book called The Physics of Stargates that I'm going to try to get through. Who knows? I might even switch my major to physics next year! Thanks again for the inspiration!
What a role model for women in science! My daughter's going to love this.
I hope another production will snap up your services, if someone hasn't already. As a layman who enjoys stretching my brain on science (current effort, Brian Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos) I appreciate efforts at believability. Rodney McKay was always fun.
Courtney: Physics is wonderful for learning how to solve all kinds problems in science. I've found that it's excellent in combination with any other subject of science to provide a field of unanswered problems, which probably explains why so many physicists eventually add on a prefix (bio-, astro-, geo-...).
AC, BMc: Thank you!
I was sent this article by a friend. I couldn't stop reading it. I'm blown away by your knowledge and creativity. You are a steward for women in science and I applaud you! Brilliant!
I would also add that not only is a background in physics and methematics good for solving all kinds of Science problems, I find that it provides a very broad background for my work in electrical engineering. Many times my background in Physics and Mathematics has allowed me to think outside of the 'conventional box' when tackling tough engineering problems. This typically leads to quickly narrowing down a problem's solution set when faced with a seemingly insurmountable number of what-if scenarios.
I am reminded of the occasion when Robert Heinlein and his wife are reputed to have taken three days—and a table covered with butcher's paper—to have solved by hand (and checked) the orbital transfer in the scene were Matt approachs the Randolph in Space Cadet. Having watched this happen many times in other SF (and in my more lucid moments provided a few hints to friends who write science fiction), I appreciate the effort which goes into ensuring that SF stories contain plausible science.
Heather: Thank you! I always loved how many of Stargate's scientists were women, so it makes sense to have one behind the scenes, too.
Scott: When talking to high school seniors, I always suggest they take a philosophy course, and a physics course, because both teach you how to approach and solve problems in a logical manner. Even if/when you go on to something different, the skills carry forward into any other discipline.
Jim: Hal Clement's "Whirlygig World" essay in "Mission of Gravity" on his philosophy of hard science fiction, and on the orbital dynamics of his fictional planet, was one of those reading experiences that changed my entire perspective.