The science of Picard with Dr Erin Macdonald
We talk to Dr Erin Macdonald about supernovae, faster-than-light travel, and what a science consultant really does.
So, what do you think about Picard?
Oh, I loved it! It feels very nostalgic. Obviously, I’ve been watching Discovery, and keeping up to date with all the other Star Trek stuff that’s come out, but this really feels like watching the old Next Generation, which we haven’t seen in decades. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m excited to watch the rest of the season!
What is it about Star Trek that you think still resonates with viewers?
It’s classic sci-fi and it’s got this wonderful vision of the future that weaves together technology and philosophy, but I think what keeps bringing people back is the community.
I’ve met so many friends just though being fans of Star Trek, and the community really surpasses a lot of other fandoms. There’s so much positivity that surrounds it, it just brings out the best in people.
You’ve been brought in as science consultant for season two of Picard. What does this job involve?
Actually – I’m science consultant for the whole of the Star Trek franchise! Science is a big part of Star Trek, and my job involves reading scripts, talking to writers, talking to show runners, discussing the story arc and discussing episode to episode what type of technology they want to use, or what science is driving the story points.
But I also continue to provide fan content. I have a video on StarTrek.com where I explain how warp drive works, and I’m due to be a guest on the Star Trek: The Cruise, where I’ll continue using Star Trek to teach science – the fans really enjoy that!
Star Trek in general seems to be getting darker with each new series. Do you think this is a result of our changing perception of the future?
You know, it’s interesting. I think a lot of people who watch Star Trek see it as this bright, shiny thing. But if you go back to the original, there are some dark episodes, but it still has a very flashy, sci-fi feel to it.
Deep Space Nine, too, has story arcs that span seasons with very dark themes. So, I don’t think that the new episodes are necessarily darker, but I think it’s the stylistic approach to the visuals that makes it feel a little darker.
As well, we’ve gone from being episodic storytelling to being serialised, where you’re telling one story over the course of 13-16 episodes. Take the Xindi War, or the Dominion War for example. If you took out all those standalone episodes, and turned it into one shorter season, it would feel very dark.
We used to have a lot of filler episodes, and I love filler episodes! But that’s just not how we tell stories these days in general. Here in America, we’ve been doing 24-episode seasons for decades. Now, we’re starting to take out those fillers and tell one story over a shorter time.
Star Trek has been reflecting the darker parts of society for a long time, and that goes back to the original series, but I think more importantly, in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. I think it’s interesting to see how storytelling has changed more than the types of stories that are being told.
Let’s talk briefly about the first episode of Picard. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, a star near Romulus goes supernova and destroys the Romulan homeworld, which ties it in very nicely with the 2009 film. Picard addresses the lingering question of why Spock was alone in trying to help the Romulans in the film. We don’t think our Sun is massive enough to go supernova in this way, but what are the chances of Earth being destroyed by our Sun in other ways?
That’s a great question! Yes, if you look at solar masses, our Sun is pretty average. It’s not going to spectacularly combust and explode. Our Sun works by fusing hydrogen and helium. Because it has a dense centre, where the hydrogen particles are so close together, they fuse and become helium, and this releases energy that we see as sunlight.
Over time, this reaction will use up all the hydrogen in the centre of the Sun, and the residual helium will start to fuse into carbon. We’ll get heavier and heavier materials until our Sun just runs out. It’s only so massive and it will only fuse for so long.
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Once all the hydrogen has burnt out and it’s starting to fuse helium, the Sun will grow in size. It will get dimmer, redder and start to cool down, becoming what is known as a Red Giant. Our Sun will start to swell until its radius is about where Earth is now, so it will almost consume the Earth.
At the moment, the Sun is about halfway through its life cycle. It’s about 4.5 billion years old. It’s expected to live for around 10 billion years, so this is way into the future.
Read more about stars:
When it swells to this size, our whole Solar System is going to change, and actually somewhere like Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, is not going to be the worst place to live. The Sun will fizzle out, and if we’re happily living on Titan, our biggest concern will be that we’re not receiving radiation from the Sun any more.
Earth, by this point, will be long gone. All of the material around the Sun will be returned to space in the form of base elements in a cloud, a nebula. Then, billions of years down the line, stars will start to form from this cloud. It’s a great cycle, and as Carl Sagan said decades ago, we are all stardust.
Our elements, the things that make us up, the things that make the Earth up, all came from that cycle of a star’s life, which is awesome. Space is awesome!
So yes, Romulus exploding is a great tie-in, but not something we need to worry about our star doing any time soon!
Is there any technology in Star Trek that you’d really like to see?
Oh, warp drive is my number one! If we can go faster than the speed of light, our whole universe will open up. Faster-than-light travel is a necessity for most science fiction. Back in the movie First Contact, it was Zefram Cochrane testing out the first warp engine that caused the Vulcans to show up and induct humanity into the Federation.
Do you think warp drive is theoretically possible, and that we’ll achieve it by 2063?!
I think theoretically, mathematically it is possible. The science behind the theory, is basically this idea that our universe is a ‘sheet’ of spacetime. Nothing with a mass, on the surface of spacetime can go faster than the speed of light – this is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
At zero mass, you can coast along at a fixed speed, at the speed of light. But there is nothing that says spacetime itself can’t go faster than the speed of light.
Warp drive is this idea that you can build a bubble of spacetime around your ship, and that bubble propels you faster than light. Our limiter is just our knowledge of spacetime itself.
Read more about faster-than-light travel:
- What would faster-than-light (hyperspace) travel look like?
- Wormholes: Could we travel through a black hole into another galaxy?
Imagine a bowling ball on a trampoline as an analogy for a mass on this sheet of spacetime – spacetime, our trampoline, will be curved. So, you can warp spacetime with a mass, but also an equivalent amount of energy – a lot of energy.
The question we need to answer is how much energy will get us from point A to point B – but the math at the moment is unclear, so I’m not sure we’re on target for 2063, but I’ll be the first champion!
Everyone has the internet in their pocket these days, we can find out the answers to questions in a few seconds. So, do you think being a science consultant now is harder than it was, in for example, Kirk’s day?
Oh, for sure. Sometimes writers will say, ‘I don’t need a science consultant, I have the internet’. And I don’t blame them! Me coming in as a PhD in astrophysics to be a science consultant is kind of a hard sell, because of that exact point. I think a lot of writers have had bad experiences with science consultants, where the consultant will just turn around and say ‘no, that doesn’t work. Sorry, science says no!’
But that’s where I take a different approach – I’m not there to be a nay-sayer. I’m there to take an improv approach and say, ‘All right, yes! You want to do this crazy time-travel story, let’s see how we can make that work!’
I’ll make sure that they don’t put anything ‘wrong’ in the script. And I love that. It eases the burden for the writers, I have a lot of knowledge already, but if I need to look something up, I know exactly where to look. I’m a sci-fi fan as well as a scientist, so, for me, it’s a dream job.
Are there any concepts in sci-fi that are just not possible?
As much as a lot of us want transporters, especially when we have to sit in the airport for hours, it’s really one of those physics-says-no situations, because of something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
For transporters to work, we would need to break down the body into all its fundamental components, then rebuild it somehow. This means you would need to know exactly where all your particles are, but Heisenberg’s principle does not allow you to do that – you can’t know exactly where subatomic particles are at any point in time.
What Star Trek did is brilliant – and this is the sort of thing I hope to bring to writer’s rooms in the future. They have a component in transporters called the Heisenberg Compensator – they don’t say anything more than that.
But for us science geeks, we’re like ‘oh, ok, so they compensate for Heisenberg’s principle somehow’. I love it when science fiction does that. As long as they’re not saying anything wrong when they try to explain it.
- Star Trek: Picard is available to watch on Amazon Prime