Dr. Erin Macdonald calls herself a “Tattooed Scottish-American N7 Slytherin Rebel from Starfleet.” As an astrophysicist, she worked on the LIGO project that searches the cosmos for gravitational waves. Among her tattoos is a beautiful illustration of the USS Voyager. She regularly hosts science talks at conventions – including the recent Star Trek cruise, which ended just a week or so before the coronavirus shut down the industry – and late last year became Star Trek’s official science consultant, beginning with season 3 of Discovery.
March 2020 also marked the release of her new book, an Audible exclusive titled The Science of Sci-Fi. TrekMovie’s roving correspondent Neil Shurley spoke to Dr. Erin last week to find out more about her book and her new role in the franchise.
Neil Shurley: Did you just do the big Star Trek cruise?
Dr. Erin Macdonald: Yeah, it was literally just over a week ago. I think we got back what, eight, nine days ago. So yeah, it was just in time, but it was great. Everyone was in great spirits. And, of course, all you have to do is tell Star Trek fans not to shake hands and the Vulcan salute becomes the mode of choice, so it was great.
NS: It couldn’t be a more conducive environment for that kind of alternative greeting.
EM: Exactly. It was perfect. And it was really fun. I had hardly any downtime, but it was just great to be able to interact with people and I got to give my talks and do some fun events, and I really thoroughly enjoy doing that cruise.
NS: Was this your first cruise?
EM: No, last year was my first. And it was my first ever cruise, full stop, let alone the Star Trek cruise. But it was great.
NS: This year, it was a big Voyager-themed cruise, which seems to me was probably a real positive for you.
EM: It was awesome. Especially because I know a lot of those actors really well. So we had a good time. And yeah, I mean, it’s no secret that Janeway is my captain. And a lot of my science stuff is centered around Voyager because of how much science content they really have in that show. So it was perfect.
NS: Tell me about your entry into Star Trek, as a fan.
EM: You know, I never really got into it when I was a kid because my parents weren’t big sci-fi fans. I had a close friend growing up whose parents were big Trekkies, and that was the only exposure I had to even knowing what it was. And it wasn’t until I went to college and was majoring in physics—there’s a big intersection in the Venn diagram of physics fans and Star Trek fans, and that’s how I got exposed to it. We would literally put Next Generation DVDs on during parties. And that was my first exposure.
It really wasn’t until the Kelvin film came out that I —it actually came out the night that we all graduated. So we graduated and then a whole bunch of astrophysics majors went to go see the Star Trek film. And that was my first exposure to the fandom side of the house. And I just loved that, I was like, this is where I belong. I was sort of a tangential Star Trek fan. I liked it, but I hadn’t really dove into a lot of the series. But as soon as I was exposed to that fandom, I was like, Oh, these are my people.
NS: Then I guess you went through and watched some of the old series?
EM: Yeah, so then I kind of went from there. Because of the Kelvin film, I went and watched the original series. And in fact, shortly after I graduated, I moved to Scotland to do my PhD. And I didn’t know anyone. So Star Trek became a way for me to meet people and to kind of build friendships. There was a woman who had also just moved, and she’s from Switzerland. And she was—and still is—a huge, huge Original Series fan. And so we would just get together on Fridays and watch the original series and have a glass of wine. That was an excuse for us to get to know each other. So little moments like that were really special to me.
NS: That’s delightful! It’s so nice that this weird shared interest can really bring people together.
EM: Exactly. And, and that’s something that I think is really unique to the Star Trek fandom. I don’t know if it’s because of how long it’s been around or how much content there is, but it does feel like an immediate bond when you meet people who also like Star Trek. You immediately have this shared connection that you can talk about. And that’s great.
NS: What drew you originally to study physics and astrophysics? A lot of folks seem to come to it because they like Star Trek, but obviously you were sort of the opposite.
EM: I came to it because of science fiction, just not Star Trek. It was actually The X-Files that made me want to study physics, because I found out that the character Dana Scully did her undergraduate degree in physics and studied astrophysics. And I was a big alien nut anyway. X-Files was fundamental in growing up and planted the first seed in my head. And then I also had that film and book Contact. So I had two amazing, strong women that I really related to and I really looked up to almost as mentors that inspired me to go down that path and, well, if I want to be Scully, the first step is to get a physics degree.
NS: What was the genesis of your new book – which I’ve really been enjoying, by the way.
EM: It came through a partnership with The Teaching Company. It’s an Audible Original, so it’s an audio-only book. Some people might be familiar with The Teaching Company, that record professors’ courses and make them available. It’s got a very high production value, and really cool content. But they were trying to find ways that they can expand their audience and find different ways to provide educational content to people and I’ve been giving talks at conventions, like I said, for about 10 years now on science in science fiction. And I did my PhD in general relativity. And because I’m a sci-fi fan, that was sort of my natural progression—to just figure out and talk about how faster than light travel works and how artificial gravity works. And these conventions really latched on to it. The audiences that showed up to these talks were just hugely into it.
And for me, I’d left academia, so it was a great opportunity for me to still be able to teach to an audience that I really related to and really enjoy teaching—people who don’t necessarily have a technical background at all. But we have that shared reference point of science fiction and I think there’s a lot of power to use sci-fi to teach difficult science concepts, because it’s still a reference point for people.
I’m really proud of it. It sums up a lot of my favorite subjects and it’s been able to reach a lot more people than just doing conventions.
NS: One of the things I really like is how much more you dwell on the science part than on the science fiction examples. But they’re great examples, and you really drill down into the science.
EM: I’m glad. That really makes me happy because when I got into studying math and physics, the stuff that kept me going, that I was really interested in, wasn’t stuff that you learn until almost your junior or senior year, these sort of advanced topics. One thing I was excited to learn about was chaos theory, because of Jurassic Park. That was my first intro to what chaos theory was, and because it’s extremely complex nonlinear dynamics, I didn’t get to learn about it until I was almost done with a degree. I pushed through, but I know a lot of people don’t have that option.
I really want to bring that to people, to be like, okay, if you’re tangentially interested in black holes, or this idea of special relativity, or general relativity, or any of that, you can still get a basic understanding without needing to major in astrophysics. We can still learn a lot about that. And that content really isn’t out there that much.
NS: You use a lot of Voyager references in this, and you’d already mentioned that they obviously made that a priority in the writing. What’s one of your favorite Voyager references that you mention in the book?
EM: There are two. One of my favorite ones is in the episode “The Eye of the Needle,” which is early season one Voyager. This is where they find the micro wormhole that connects the delta quadrant to the alpha quadrant. And we’ve most commonly encountered wormholes in science fiction as a shortcut to connect two points in space, which is totally valid from a storytelling standpoint. But this episode introduces the idea that wormholes also connect two points in time, because they discover that the Romulan guy that they’re talking to is actually from the past. So it’s this idea that it is a fabric of space and time, and wormholes connect those two. You can shortcut space, but you also shortcut distances in time, and I love that and it’s a great reveal. It’s a great reveal. It’s such a good episode. That’s definitely one of my favorites.
And then my other one is “Blink of an Eye,” where Voyager gets trapped in a planet’s gravitational well, and it turns out that Voyager is experiencing time differently than the people on the surface. This is something I get asked about all the time. And I do love this because it’s also our only practical application of general relativity. In a gravity well you experience time slower than people outside. It’s really brilliant to use this gravitational differential as a storytelling technique, which we’ve also seen since then in Interstellar, which I think is probably the most common reference for people. But the thing I love about it is that it’s reverse to what we know. So instead of time going slower for the people on the surface, time to actually moving faster. And whether they meant to or not, there’s a throwaway comment that the core of the planet is made of tachyons which are inverted gravity wells. So that’s like 100% consistent with the idea that time would go faster on the surface than it would outside and I just love it. I love it!
NS: Something else popping in my head that I remember really enjoying in the book was the example of gravity lensing from Discovery.
EM: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite things of all time. It was so brilliant to use gravitational lensing as a way to detect cloaked Klingon ships, because the way Star Trek has described cloaking technology is not that different from how we struggle with detecting dark matter. It interacts gravitationally but it doesn’t have any electromagnetic component, which is the traditional way that we view space, when we view our universe. However, we can detect dark matter through gravitational lensing. So using that to detect the cloaked Klingon ship, I still geek out over. It’s just the coolest.
NS: So speaking of cool, you are now a science consultant for the franchise. Tell me how that came about, and what your duties involve.
EM: Yeah, this is a dream job. This is as good as it gets.
You know, I’ve been speaking on the science of sci-fi for years now, almost a decade. And my path just started to cross with Star Trek, because this is exactly the topic I’m talking about, and as you mentioned, there are a lot of Star Trek fans that became physicists. And I started giving talks, they started inviting me to the official Star Trek conventions, and giving these talks there and seeing how passionate the fans were. I mean, they knew that the fans are passionate about science. They’re realizing how effectively Star Trek can be used to teach science, they really want to capture that, and with Star Trek having this big resurgence, and having all of these shows now being developed, they realized that having someone who is a behind the scenes person as well as a representative for teaching science through Star Trek would be an advantage to them.
So that’s what they’ve hired me to do. I’m working this year on retainer for the Star Trek franchise. That doesn’t say that every show is using me, but I’m available to any shows that do want to use me, and to try and keep track of all the technology and all of the travel and all of the stuff that they mention. All of these series are coming out at different points in different timelines, and someone’s gotta keep track of all of that. And they are, but it helps having me who can just focus on the technology and the technobabble and the galaxy and to try to keep that all straight. So it’s really exciting and I can’t wait for the stuff that I’ve worked on to actually start airing so that I can talk about it!
NS: You’ve primarily been working on Star Trek: Discovery season three?
EM: Yeah, for the most part. I’ve also been working with the writers’ room for the new Nickelodeon show—it’s not titled yet—but that’s not coming out for a while. But that’s also been a great experience. So I’m really, really excited for that one as well.
NS: Well, I’m very excited for you. What a neat gig! Oh, one more thing: Something else I really enjoyed about the book is when you talked about how some of the science of the Next Generation reflects thinking from when the show was made, and how those choices likely wouldn’t be made now.
EM: It was about using superconductors to explain artificial gravity. Because superconductors were huge in the 80s and 90s—a cool, unbelievable, weird technology that we’ve discovered that has quantum mechanical properties and all of this stuff. And we’ve obviously continued studying it and using it and it’s kind of embedded in our technology now, so much so that the idea that it would be used for artificial gravity is kind of like, well, no. [laughs] It’s cool, but you know, we use it now and not for that. But I do love that. It is so fascinating for me to see those technologies, to be able to date the science fiction based on that.
NS: Right. And it’s just another example of how science fiction is not really about predicting the future. It’s about telling stories now in a different way.
EM: Exactly. And yet it still is able to inspire people to go into science. It’s still inspired the future generation, which I love. It’s just amazing.
Erin’s book is available now
Download Erin’s book The Science of Sci-Fi.