AUSTIN (KXAN) – Erin Macdonald didn’t grow up in a science fiction household. She watched X-Files as she got older, but the big names in Sci-Fi weren’t something she was familiar with. Today, she is the science advisor for one of the biggest franchises in the universe: Star Trek.
“I didn’t even get into Star Trek until I was at college because I was a physics major, and there’s a big crossover of Star Trek fans,” Macdonald said.
Since 2019, she has helped Star Trek writers bring some scientific reality to the influential franchise. She sometimes has to find scientific explanations for some wild concepts.
“The first assignment was really for The Burn.” That event, depicted in Star Trek Discovery, disables or destroys starships across the galaxy after the fictional dilithitium crystals go inert.
She’s also had to understand the franchise’s big concepts like transporters, artificial gravity and faster than light travel.
“Star Trek: The Original Series” premiered on NBC 57 years ago this month.
Macdonald is currently on strike as part of the Writers Guild of America’s ongoing strike. You can learn more about the strike at WGAstrike.org and donate to support non-writers and non-actors working in the industry who are impacted by the strike.
“It’s an important fight. And it’ll make even better television than what we’ve had before.”
Getting into the orbit of science advisors
Erin Macdonald got a PhD from the University of Glasgow in Gravitational Astrophysics. After a career in academia, she was brought into the orbit of science fiction conventions.
“I would meet other people who had worked on things like Stargate and Battlestar Galactica, as science advisors. That’s cool. You know, I wonder maybe I could do that one day.”
Following several speaking engagements, she got the attention of producers. “I’m folded in as part of the process to try to figure out the stories they want to tell.”
Using real science in fiction
What exactly does Erin do? Let’s go back to The Burn, how do you destroy a galaxy full of starships?
“Dilithium crystals are fictional, but they have been around in Star Trek canon since 1966.” Macdonald was able to go back through the history of the series, understand the science used to describe these crystals (they’re actually like the oil in the engine, preventing warp drives from overheating) and then build real science into the story to support the plot.
“That’s what kind of led me to using subspace, the idea of the area that’s like, just outside our universe, where the laws of physics aren’t necessarily as strict.”
Another example, transporters. Characters use the transporters on the series all the time, which rip apart a person at an atomic level and then reassemble them somewhere else.
“With our laws of physics, we can’t have transporters, because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The laws of physics that we know say that you cannot know exactly where every single particle is to a precise degree. The more you know about its location, the less you know about its momentum.”
So writers cane up with a Heisenberg Compensator. “I think that just helps it be more believable and realistic.”
Star Trek science influences real world science
“There’s this feedback loop to the science inspiring the stories, and then the stories inspiring the science,” Macdonald said.
Macdonald said that she knows many scientists who watched the franchise and then became scientists as a result.
It also influences our technology.
“In [Star Trek] The Next Generation (the second series in the franchise), they all walked around with those pads, that had all the information on them. And the first generation e readers were exactly the size and shape of those pads. That is not a coincidence.”
“I think popular culture has such an impact on our society, with how people approach their lives and their careers and their motivation that you can’t discount that for sure.”