10 questions with Mika McKinnon

In March 2018, I had the privilege to interview Mika McKinnon for “10 questions.”

McKinnon is a scientist specializing in disasters and generalizing in as many subjects as she can master. She was a science advisor for the sci-fi television franchise, “Stargate.”

Mika McKinnon, courtesy of Mika McKinnon

Kurt Manwaring: As a young girl, you wanted to become an “oly-ologist” when you grew up. What is an oly-ologist, why did you want to become one, and how much of that mindset do you still possess?

Mika McKinnon: When I was knee-high and splashing in puddles, I knew about biologists and geologists and all these other scientists that all ended in -ologist. They all sounded so interesting! In classic kid-logic, I decided the first step was learning about all the different sciences — an oly-oligist — before I could pick which one I wanted to be when I grew up.

While my phrasing has changed, I still have that same desire to learn enough about other fields to understand what they’re doing.

Oly-ologist doesn’t work anymore since it turns out that chemists and statisticians and planetary scientists don’t end in -ologist, so now I tell people that my job is to be excited and curious in public.

I trained as a physicist and geophysicist specializing in disasters.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but physics is the undeclared science, the field that teaches you how to frame and solve problems if you can just add on a prefix that gives you enough background to ask interesting questions.

For me, I added the prefix geo- so I could delve into subsurface secrets, later realizing that geophysics is an odd mix of MacGyver and James Bond villain.

Working with disasters is a deceptive mix of simplicity and complexity. It takes drawing on all sorts of different fields from fluid mechanics to social science to effectively identify hazards, mitigate risk, and try to keep people from dying.


Kurt Manwaring: What scientific discovery of the past decade has most excited your imagination? What discovery do you most hope to see happen in your lifetime?

Mika McKinnon: Exoplanets blow my mind. When I was but a wee proto-physicist, we were just starting to get public talks about the first few exoplanet discoveries, worlds circling distant stars.

At my first science job as a planetarium presenter, I’d point out, awestruck, the specific stars in the summer sky we knew had their own family of planets like our solar system.

Now we’ve discovered literally thousands of exoplanets, sometimes with hundreds of new discoveries announced in a single day.

If you point at a star at random, the odds are good it has planets circling it.

These alien worlds are upending what we thought we knew about how planets form, ripping down restrictions on what types of planets can exist, and sparking imagination for what we have yet to discover.

Most people focus on the search for habitable worlds — rockballs with atmospheres at just the right distance from their star to hold liquid water.

But my favourite discoveries are the extreme worlds, the ones that are pitch black, or are gas giants nearly engulfed in their sun, or are clustered so closely together it’s a wonder they haven’t collided yet.


Kurt Manwaring: Alan Alda has an annual contest called the “Flame Challenge” where scientists are asked to explain concepts in a way children can understand. Do scientists need to have the skill of communicating their expertise to different audiences? Why or why not?

Mika McKinnon: Not everyone needs to do everything. The world would be awfully boring if we all did the same things.

Scientific research requires a peculiar set of skills, and a totally different set is needed to apply discoveries to everyday applications. Entomology requires different tools than mechanical engineering. Similarly, communicating in different media and audiences requires totally different skills, and not everyone can or should be good at all of them.

Some scientists enjoy communicating. Some communicators like sharing about science.

As long as we have at enough overlap that we have at least a people filling each niche, we’re good.


Kurt Manwaring: What is an entertainment science consultant? What were some of your duties on “Stargate”?

Mika McKinnon: Science consultants help content creators make more plausible stories. This can be anything from doing one-on-one science tutoring with writers by answering their questions to use science to inspire their plot, to lurking on-set as the stunt handwriting for a fictional genius about to scrawl endless equations.

For “Stargate,” I primarily worked on-set with the Property department (all the things an actor touches), although I was occasionally loaned to other departments, including working with the writers to find science-inspired solutions to their plots.

If you’ve watched the show, you’re exceedingly familiar with my handwriting!


Kurt Manwaring: What was the range of comfort with science like among writers on “Stargate”? You’ve mentioned the cast and crew used to play a game called “Stump the Scientist.” Could you tell us a little bit about this and perhaps share a story or two from behind the scenes?

Mika McKinnon: I was a naive grad student when I first showed up at Bridge Studios, with no experience with how the entertainment industry worked.

Instead of taking advantage of my cluelessness, the cast and crew welcomed me into the “Stargate” family, teaching me how scripts are written, how filming functions, and how to move around on set without being a walking disaster.

Part of being a family means getting teased.

Any time people had a head’s up that their scientist was coming to set, they’d cram on the latest science news to give me pop quizzes.

Intermixed with the latest discoveries were all the classic questions — why is the sky blue? why are sunsets red? — with a fair helping of all-new puzzles like explaining the aerodynamics of dragonflies that pushed me harder than most of my exams.

“Stargate: Universe” featured patterns in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation as part of an ongoing plot, which led to me developing the world’s fastest lesson in the beginning and end of the universe.

After accidentally holding up filming one day by taking too long explaining how shapes in the cosmic microwave background could tell us about the end of everything, I practiced until I could cover over 13 billion years of history in under 60 seconds.

The diagrams I drew on the walls of starship Destiny for my condensed history of the universe later showed up in an argument between Eli and McKay, with the actors learning enough cosmology to pick which side of the argument they thought their character would support.


Kurt Manwaring: You worked on one of the more remarkable episodes in all of sci-fi when it comes to real-world scientists sharing the screen with fictional characters. Could you take us behind the scenes of “Brain Storm” and share a memory or two of working with some of today’s most recognizable scientists? And what is the deal with “freeze lightening”?

Mika McKinnon: I knew something was up when I showed up for filming and my lead promptly led me across set with the biggest grin.

We approached a huddle of men talking to episode director Martin Gero, and before I could identify who they were, I was introduced with a gleeful, “We have a scientist!”

Unable to resist showing off their scientist, one of the crew promptly started a game of Stump the Scientist by asking about recent announcements of perchlorates on Mars.

And that’s how I met Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, and why our first conversation was an analysis of geological evidence for liquid water on the surface of the red planet and implications for possible future human habitation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Martin Gero, and Mika McKinnon the set of the “Stargate: Atlantis” episode, “Brain Storm.”

The two guest scientists were featured in the episode’s problem-solving scene when we needed inventive and plausible solutions that wouldn’t quite work.

It was hard to come up with ideas that lived up to the level of competence and creativity we expect from the duo, yet not actually solve the plot too early.

I compromised by finding ways to foreshadow the ultimate solution, hints hidden in the equations.

As for Freeze Lightning: I can justify a crackling bolt of heat transfer, but only if I talk quickly and wave my hands around a lot so you can’t look too closely at what I’ve done!


Kurt Manwaring: On a related note, what are the top three “Stargate” episodes you worked on? What is it about these episodes that remains so memorable?

 Mika McKinnon: The first season finale and second season premiere of Stargate: Universe (Incursion part 1 & 2, Intervention) features an intermittent pulsar that emits deadly radiation every 46 minutes and 37.4 seconds.

Originally, the Big Bad Science Monster was going to be a really slow pulsar, but because of how electromagnetic radiation is generated, that would’ve been about as threatening as holding fridge magnets and doing cartwheels.

Instead, we developed a binary system with a feeder star zipping close to a starving pulsar at the necessary interval.

At the time the episode filmed, this idea was pure fiction. Plausible, but nothing we’d seen in space.

Years later, astronomers spotted a real-world system that behaved like we imagined. I burst out laughing when I read the research paper on MSP J1723-2837: Our fiction was retroactively fact.

My favourite thing to do during an episode was run elaborate equations that fed into each other in logical and consistent ways that would never happen outside a fictional setting.

For the “Stargate: Atlantis” episode, “Last Man,” it was feeding the energy of a solar flare into a black hole.

But my favourite convoluted equations were in “Brain Storm,” a background detail it’d be hard to notice. I managed to run a single set of equations starting at multiverse theory, feeding through a chain of equations on quantum mechanics and thermodynamics and atmospheric science until ending with an estimate for the size of a hurricane produced by that episode’s Big Bad Science Monster.

But possibly my favourite moment wasn’t tied to a single specific episode.

When we first started filming “Stargate: Universe,” I was led into a long hallway and told it was mine.

Mine to cover in equations, mine to hint at future plots, mine to create a maze of math chronicling Rush’s efforts to overcome each new challenge, mine to add notes from other characters as they, too, struggled with being alone and far from home.

The “Stargate: Universe” hallway on which Mika McKinnon wrote equations.

it took multiple days to empty my notebooks onto the walls, with more scattered hours later as we’d create new panels specific to a particular episode.

That hallway quickly became my favourite place, and a new focal point for Stump the Scientist when crew would quiz me on particular equations or diagrams.


Kurt Manwaring: What do you think about the idea of a fourth in-canon iteration of the “Stargate” franchise? Do you know other scientists who like the show and would be supportive of a revival? Why is now an ideal time for a new sci-fi show?

 Mika McKinnon: I love “Stargate.” I was a fan before I ever worked on the show, leading to retroactively embarrassing moments where I was too busy reigning in my fangirl squealing to pay proper attention to instructions.

But working on the show made me even more of a fan, delighted to contribute to good people doing good work while supporting each other.

I would be beyond excited to work on any new Stargate series, any time, any where.

Once, I was worried other scientists would give me a hard time for working in fiction, or subject me to endless grilling about technical details.

Now, I know that they’re just as excited as anybody else for a good story, and particularly happy when it’s a story with recognizable extensions of science they know.

Science fiction is a genre for telling stories about how the world could be, good or bad. Any time is a good time for scifi because it gives us a framework to think about how the world works and what type of future we want.


Kurt Manwaring: Mormons have a book of scripture called, “The Book of Abraham.” A fascinating portion of the text involves Abraham learning principles of astronomy and teaching them to ancient Egyptians. What is it about the combination of ancient history and cutting-edge astronomy that so easily excites the imagination — whether it is Mormons and scripture or fans watching “Stargate”? Did you find the unique mix of history and astronomy conducive to a healthy imagination?

Mika McKinnon: All you need to do in astronomy is look up. This was even easier in the past than it is now with our skies faded by light pollution, so it’s no wonder stargazing sparked countless stories about how these pinpricks of light in a sea of dark came to be.

We are a species of storytellers. It’s how we share our cultures and what we’ve learned about how the world works in each successive generation.

Stories astronomy still captivate today, with people telling tales of great hunts alongside multi-wavelength imagery of the gaseous Orion nebula, or tracking astronomical events back in time to explain the function of baffling archaeological sites.

The stars are our history and our future, seemingly constant yet ever-dramatic. It’s easy to dream when faced with a vastness of unending possibilities.


Kurt Manwaring: Let’s assume anywhere you want to go in the universe is equipped with a stargate. Where would you most want to visit? (Bonus points if you tell us which “Stargate” actor you would take along for the ride and why.)

Mika McKinnon: Most of the places I’d love to visit are too hostile to survive — it’s a major pain any time a stargate locks on near a black hole!

Cutting out those more dramatic astrophysical adventures, I’d love to go planet-hopping in the TRAPPIST-1 system where a cluster of seven small rocky planets are huddled around their star so close they look like moons in each others’ skies.

Mika McKinnon the set of “Stargate: Universe.”

I’d either want to go through the gate with John Sheppard so he could pilot us in a puddle-jumper exploring the close-packed worlds, or emerge on a single planet with Eli Wallace as he’d be most likely to be awestruck and curious with me instead of nagging to be serious and get back to work.

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