Scientist Spotlight Series: Mika McKinnon

Happy Pi Day!

In celebration of this wonderful number, today I thought I’d highlight a scientist who is out there in the wild doing math and weaving it into the content we consume. Meet Mika McKinnon:

I came across her Twitter yesterday while I was sheltering-in-place during the “bomb cyclone” hitting Denver, and this tweet jumped out at me immediately (I ❤️2️⃣👀 math on social media):

Naturally, I jumped into the conversation (thanks, Twitter!) and let my curiosity get the best of me:

We arranged a time to speak this morning and I was delighted to hear about her journey through geophysics to consulting on the scientific integrity in modern storytelling.

I have selected some highlights from the interview to address how she got involved with this facet of science communication, but I am saving some of her stories for future blog posts (complete with pictures and sources to more scientific information!).

You’ve got an impressive history on some big shows. How did you get involved in the film and television industry?

I was in grad school doing disaster work. I actually started with volcanos on Mars and then ended up doing landslides on Earth! I was in Vancouver, which is nicknamed Hollywood North because we have so much SciFi filmed there … all these alien planets look like the Pacific Northwest.

One day we got a call for the physics department saying “we need a string theorist!” I wasn’t a string theorist but my buddy Steve was… he literally put his research notes up on the sets of Stargate; he published string theory in Stargate three years before his dissertation. It was really fun, and I quickly realized that they didn’t actually need a “string theorist;” that was just the fanciest scientist they could think of.

When Steve left … and they came back looking for him, I went “you don’t need a string theorist! You need me.” So I showed up on set, … I have no idea what my original instructions were, but apparently I did well enough that I then got invited to come back the next day, and the next day, and the next.

Vancouver is not just a city where a lot of SciFi films are made, it’s a city where a lot of unionized SciFi films are made. People leave … and they remember who they worked with … then work on other amazing shows. I end up working on all these other shows because someone has my cell phone number from ten years ago and I’ll get a call saying “Hey, can you show up on set, like, tomorrow?”

Wow, you nailed the summary in the tweet. Right place and time plus maintaining a network! What was it like on set once you got there?

One of the more unusual parts about this was because they want real math and they want real science, and there’s a script that gives you an idea of what the subject matter is. Mostly they’d give me instructions like “we need six feet of equations,” and I’d respond with “six feet of equations on what?” And they go “just six feet!”.

I ended up doing a lot of things like, say, feed the energy of a solar flare into a black hole, which although mathematically valid, is just not something you’d ever do in real life. I got the opportunity to do generally novel mathematics.

A lot of movies and TV shows will hire a specialist to do science at them and leave, but on Stargate I built up a relationship, one of trust. At the beginning, I was working for the property department (things actors would interact with), and I’d get lent out to the “set dec” (set decoration department), and maybe VFX (“video effects”) would need me for something.

Over time, as I would reliably worked for them and was friendly, always answering questions between takes … I came to understand that this is not a science lesson, it is a story with science in it, so story always comes first. We eventually came to the point where the writing department would come to me with something like “our starship is running out of oxygen, we need to go to an alien planet. How do they find the rocks they need to fix this?”

What was your favorite prompt?

[The writers came to me with], “we need an astrophysical big baddie that kills every body every twenty-two minutes,” which was by far my favorite thing I ever got to do at Stargate. Their original idea was a really slowly rotating pulsar.

Now, a pulsar rotates on the order of milliseconds. A slow pulsar still rotates in milliseconds, so if you had one that rotated so its beam would cross every twenty-two minutes, the electromagnetic field would be about as deadly as holding refrigerator magnets and do cartwheels. Sure, it would generate an electromagnetic field, but it’s not one anyone would even notice, much less kill somebody.

So my idea was to have a “starving pulsar,” one right on the brink of being able to pulse and not pulse, and put it in a binary star system, where one feeder star would zip by really close to a bigger star, and sap off some of that plasma and dust…

At the time we did this episode, we never saw a system like this in real life, but we did see that pulsars could be in binary system, and we knew there were such thing as an inactive pulsar, so we went “eh, this is plausible. why not?”

Three years later, scientists found such a system1 in real life! So I was super proud that we hypothesized this in Stargate as a major plot point three years before it was discovered.

I love the way you’re just like… sneaking things into pop-culture this way. It’s so wonderfully subversive.

Oh yeah, I have so many references to my friends’ thesis work in various episodes of Stargate… it’s pretty much that all my physics classmates have some sort of reference to their work somewhere on the blackboards.

That is incredible! How many people are there in similar roles?

Very very few, as far as I know. There have been Science Consultants for a long time, going back to Star Trek, before I was even born. But most people who do science consulting either do one show or movie and then never again, or they do a little bit of it and then transition into script writing.

As far as I can tell, I am the longest running one … it’s been over a decade at this point … and I’m still doing science consulting as opposed to script writing. There are a handful of other people working on high-profile shows, but there are very few women, and they usually just do one-off engagements. It’s not for a lack of want, it just seems that they haven’t been able to.

A lot of people in science are deep fans of sci-fi, and it’s such a common idea that “if only they talked to me first, they could have fixed this idea.” But it turns out it is much easier to destroy than create… It’s kind of a game of “yes-and” improvisation… they’re going to do the story they’re going to do, and your job is to make it plausible. You will run into situations that may make you cringe a bit…

But it’s okay to sacrifice some scientific integrity for the sake of story.

Yes, and that’s exactly where you have to be. You have to understand that story comes first. It’s all about the story and that we have some scientific plausibility there is great, but it is not the primary function of the show.

And what would you suggest to those interested in Science Communication as far as conferences, organizations, etc?

For those looking to get involved, the National Academies of Sciences “Entertainment Exchange” is a great place to start. It’s primarily one-off conversations, but it can lead to paid work. I consider it a great way to learn the process.

Figure out how to teach quickly, get to the high-end stuff first so [the writers] can pick between options, and then start running down what the various consequences would be, what could be incorporated as story-telling elements. How does it also play out in the details and how are they part of the world-building?

Those are the sorts of mindsets to put yourself in. As far as getting into the industry, look out for media fellowships and internships from organizations like the AGU, AAAS, The National Academies, AIP, and various other subject-specific groups. Many even offer discounted legal services for members that freelance science communicators should definitely try to take advantage of!

SciComm Camp is an excellent event, and the National Association of Science Writers does a lot in this space. You can also look for local groups, and even volunteer to work with Creative Writing workshops to hone these kinds of skills.

So there it is, put yourself in situations that facilitate networking, and maintain relationships you form in the industry. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from our conversation:

My job is to be curious and excited in public, and it’s all just different facets of that job.

  1. These rotated at 38 minute intervals! Which would have been perfect had the episodes been twice as long. ^
Michael Pilosov
An (applied) mathematician on a mission. Denver, CO.