As a Star Trek fan and a doctor in astrophysics, I often find myself wishing for a universal translator like those worn by the crew of the Enterprise. The insider speak of engineers and scientists is often as confusing to the general public as a Klingon ballad (yes they exist, and yes I have heard them sung). Ironically, I often find that Klingons, Wookiees, Brown Coats, and Fremen can serve as a bridge to teaching space science to the public.
My doctorate dealt with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration in gravitational waves which, up until 2015, were entirely theoretical and a prediction from Einstein’s equations for general relativity. As you may imagine, this is not easy to teach; most physics majors do not encounter spacetime or general relativity until the end of their degrees, if ever. However, the “bowling ball on the trampoline” image of gravitational wells is typically used in museums and classrooms to illustrate how general relativity (gravity) works. Lacking a bowling ball or trampoline, I sought other ways to tell people what I do.
Science Meets Fiction
My love for space and science is equally matched by my passion for science fiction, and when I was finishing my thesis, I found myself realizing that I could use my newfound knowledge in spacetime to calculate how warp drives would work. I started making all these connections with Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and more. As I was already a fan attendee at pop-culture conventions (like Comic-Con), I thought it would be great to share these connections with fellow fans. The first year I gave a talk on the science of the video game series Mass Effect, the attendance was so much higher than expected, they had to turn away three times the capacity of the room at the door.
Connect via Pop Culture
A great way to connect students with space science is to use pop culture as a reference point. When I was teaching my Astronomy 101 class about recent Kepler discoveries of planets around other stars (i.e., exoplanets), I started comparing them to planets in science fiction movies. The class immediately perked up and started asking relevant, inquisitive questions, spurred by the connection to something they already knew and loved. After the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting two stars, I shared this result at a convention on the science of Star Wars, showing that we were finding planets like Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tattooine. A child about the age of 10 raised their hand and said “So… Star Wars isn’t real, but there’s stuff out there that could be like it?” That for me was the best connection we could have made.
Photo credit Nerd Nite Los Angeles
X-Files Marks the Spot: The Siren Call of Scully and Janeway
Regarding my own career path, I was hugely influenced by popular culture. I was a child when The X-Files was popular, and I felt a huge affinity for Dana Scully, a red-headed woman who donned a lab coat and fought aliens with critical thinking. In the show, they reference that Dana Scully, while a medical doctor, received her undergraduate degree in astrophysics. That sounded cool to me, but it was also the first I had heard about it. I looked up “astrophysics” in the dictionary and was immediately hooked. There is much anecdotal as well as peer-reviewed evidence for the “Scully Effect” – women my age who entered the STEM field and point directly to Dana Scully as their inspiration, and I can include myself among them. Additionally, later in my studies I discovered Star Trek. I was struggling through classes and research and feeling lost, and came across Star Trek: Voyager. Captain Kathryn Janeway, the main character of the series, had a background as a science officer, and her passion for discovery drove many of the plots in the series. Having her as a guide and mentor, even in a TV show, got me through the rest of my studies and pushed me all the way through graduate school. The fact that I saw myself in these women is what led me down a career in STEM, and I would not have discovered it, nor continued it, if it weren’t for them.
Don’t hide your inner-nerd. If he or she inspires you, embrace your sci-fi muse and dive into some science. We’d love to see you do that at Engility.
-By Dr. Erin Macdonald
A PhD. in astrophysics, I am a rocket scientist by day and a warp-technology expert by night. I am one of the voices of Engility’s Get S.E.T. podcast. My twitter is @drerinmac and my website (with convention schedules) is www.erinpmacdonald.com.
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