Mika McKinnon has two words for women considering science: Do it! The geophysicist and Exchange science consultant is enthusiastic about how much fun science is, and that more women should be getting involved. McKinnon previously consulted for the Stargate franchise (before she joined The Exchange’s expert database), so we asked some questions about her experiences on set, as well as what science-fiction technology she wants and what messages she has to share with future scientists and entertainers.
Tell us about your background. What initially drew you to science and, more specifically, geophysics?
Nothing, and everything! I come from scientists and artists, people who closely observe the world, and share ways of interpreting it. Growing up, a task as mundane as doing dishes morphed into an opportunity for fluid dynamics experiments in resonance frequencies. The question wasn’t if I would be a scientist, but what type of scientist?
Physics gave me a solid grounding in analytical thinking, mathematical methods, and how models link to experiment. When deciding which field to work in, geophysics caught my attention as a science that lets me commute in helicopters, wear authoritative high-visibility gear, and zap rocks. Working with disasters allows me to contribute back to society, while fieldwork keeps me from getting too lost in theory over practice.
Were there any TV shows or films that sparked your interest in science as a kid?
A weekly Star Trek habit, supplemented with more sci-fi books than I can enumerate, led me to dream about alien worlds and study physics and astrophysics. More recently, MacGyver is my leading inspiration when troubleshooting grumpy generators in pouring rain on an isolated hillside. Each time I find myself with a load of high techgear in yet another extreme environment, I feel like a James Bond villain about to undertake another dastardly plan to provoke the planet into revealing its subsurface secrets.
You were already a consultant for the Stargate franchise before joining The Exchange’s expert database. How did you become a science consultant and why did you join The Exchange?
I started working for Stargate by being at the right place at the right time when their Property Master needed a replacement science consultant on short notice. On my first day, I was utterly enchanted by being on set, and that enthusiasm hasn’t faded. Stories need science, and anything that makes it more transparent for storytellers to access scientists is fantastic.
When The Exchange started, its very purpose was to make it easy for entertainment professionals to access scientists, so I volunteered.
Can you walk us through the typical process for consulting on Stargate? Has anything about the experience surprised you?
A week in advance of filming, I read the script, and find ways to blend relevant science in a way to support the plot. Often, I’d mix peer-reviewed research from vastly divergent fields of science, exploring novel ideas while maintaining plausibility.
The day before filming, I prepare any set decorations and props, and go over the science with the crew. The day of filming, I complete any last-minute preparations, teach the cast the relevant science, and answer any of the director’s questions. If the scene required dynamic science, I pick a plausible and visually interesting equation and reset between takes.
As long as I stayed within the plot, I was given total independence to choose what science to use, and how to present it. I had the freedom to shape the show’s science to build a cohesive, coherent system of rules that carried between episodes, seasons, and even between series.
The most surprising part of the process was the curiosity of the cast and crew. A lunchtime chat once resulted in script changes for more threatening physical phenomena, and a set tour derailed into a lesson on the beginning and end of the universe. I’d regularly get into conversations about geohazards in the Vancouver region, recent observations on exoplanets, and opinions if CERN would prove supersymmetry. I quickly fell into a habit of boning up on current events in popular science in preparation for their daily game of Stump the Scientist!
Has there been an example of “story trumps science” on Stargate? How important is it for television and film to represent real science?
Story always comes first, but I see no conflict between story and science. A good story needs details to support it, and science is certainly full of strange and wonderful quirks that can drive a plot forward. A story with bad or over-simplified science feels weak and hollow. Like the hero who never runs out of bullets, a deus ex machina pseudo-science solution breaks suspended disbelief, and leaves an audience baulking at the impossible scenario.
That said, like any show, Stargate has some moments where a scientific gaff makes me hide and hope no one notices. Just don’t ask me to point them out!
We know you’re a big science-fiction fan. Is there a technology or science concept from science-fiction that you wish was real?
Fieldwork makes me desperately crave sci-fi technology. I wish I had a teleporter or Stargate every time the fog is thick enough to ground the helicopter.
As a total tool junky, the technology I crave most is my own Doctor Who sonic screwdriver. I’m absolutely certain a sonic screwdriver would make it far easier to repair my transmitter every time gremlins have shaken wires loose, blown fuses, or overloaded a resistor.
What are the benefits of science consulting for television and film projects? Are there any benefits for the science consultants themselves?
Being a science consultant is flat-out fun!
The cast and crew of Stargate are an enthusiastic, curious, creative group of people. Having such positive coworkers with very different perspectives on life certainly counts as a benefit, and I miss them now they’re scattered amongst new and different projects.
The practice of consulting requires I stay current in a much wider breadth of sciences than is typical for a researcher, helping me see connections between fields I might not have otherwise noticed. As my research specialization grew ever narrower, consulting gave me external incentive to maintain functional knowledge of other disciplines, and enough awareness to know when to look for an expert in another field. Interdisciplinary collaborations are key, both in building fantastic sci-fi plots, and for pushing research in novel directions.
Consulting also develops an entirely different set of skills for science communication than the typical lecture-format of classrooms and formal talks. I constantly teach high-level technical concepts to non-specialists, hitting the highlights for comprehension without anticipating they’ll ever need to practice, while casually debating scientific current events with people who aren’t involved in science research gives me a better perspective on how the public perceives science.
But really, I love the contrast of both working in the entertainment industry and as a field scientist. One week, I’m drenched and dodging bears; the next week, I’m scrubbing dirt from under my nails to pull on a veneer of glamour for a wrap party.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Storytelling requires a balance of detail, where science plays as vital of a role as character development in building an interesting world, but accuracy should not overwhelm a story. Movies and TV shows are not meant to be lectures; even subtle science increases the scientific literacy of its viewers. Science consultants help the writers, directors, and actors understand enough science to make their story function, and to provide a model for who scientists are and what they do. Plausible does not need to be precise.
Chat with a scientist about what they do. It will surprise and inspire you.
Call a consultant when you need the details for a scientific twist, for when you need your character to spew technical jargon, and for when the background needs to be littered with scientific detritus. But also call a scientist when you think you don’t need one, and find out the weird details that get glossed over on Wikipedia, and the quirks that characterize true experts of that discipline. Let your fictional researcher type notes in LaTeX. Strew a mess of notes, all in tidy handwriting. Give your geologist a hand lens and expensive boots, and your geophysicist a tool bag bulging at the seams.
What else would you like to share?
A quick note to women considering science: do it!
Both the film industry and science are still primarily mostly-male fields, but I certainly wouldn’t call them male-dominated. Women in science have excellent networking and support resources, and women in both fields are open and enthusiastic mentors. So go on: ace that math class, learn how to program, observe the moons of Jupiter, and build a robot. Get your hands dirty, and experiment! Because being a scientist is really, really fun. And sometimes, you get to blow things up.