Stargate: From Fiction to Science

I’ve written before on the value of using good science in works of fiction; the Stargate franchise embraced this philosophy and I worked as their science consultant for several seasons.

I’ve been asked why Stargate cared about having detailed, plausible science in their shows. The level of detail is transparent to casual viewers; without freeze-frames and familiarity with the specific starting science of an episode it is unlikely anyone would ever notice if a particular equation made sense. Yet as long as the science doesn’t disrupt or distract from a story, the science entertains and challenges the viewers who are interested, and provides consistency and plausibility for the viewers who do care about the details. Like the novel mathematical proof written by Ken Keeler in Futurama The Prisoner of Benda, the equations of Stargate provide depth and support the story while providing suprises for curious fans to discover.

As the science consultant for Stargate, my job was to provide equations for our fictional geniuses to puzzle over, both in background set decorations and as props the actors interacted with (most commonly by completing the equations). I made sure the science was plausible and related to the plot, recognizable to those who know the subject area yet complex enough to be justifiably challenging. It would break plausibility for our genius-scientists to be stumped by a high school physics problem, or for them to be struggling with chemistry equations when trying to figure out the orbital dynamics of a strange solar system.

Science fiction requires creativity in applying scientific research and a willingness to go where no sane or practical researcher would tread; a science consultant takes responsibility of starting with the real science we know in our universe today, and maintaining plausible, consistent extensions of that science to support a fictional world. All the science presented in any Stargate episode I’ve worked on is a plausible extension of real-world, peer-reviewed research. For every episode, I have a (massive) list of articles I used as the starting point for the science, then modified, recombined, and extended their work into our fictional setting. I’ve often wondered if academic authors would include being referenced in a television episode when calculating their impact factor!

For every episode, I start with the real science, and modify the it to fit the scenario. In some cases this is feeding the energy of solar flares into wormhole generation equations (Stargate: Atlantis Last Man), in others I ran interrelated equations from the underpinnings of string theory and parallel universes, through thermodynamics, ending in the consequences to atmospheric science of a steady temperature imbalance (Stargate: Atlantis Brain Storm). The laws of science in the Stargate universe are modified from our own, but those laws are consistently applied and evolved from episode to episode, season to season, and even series to series. The consequences of particular choices in one episode extend into the future scientific research in other episodes: the matter bridge from Stargate: Atlantis Trinity and McKay and Mrs. Miller was justified by Steven Conboy (friend, string theorist, and science consultant immediately before me), with his mathematical formulation consistently evolved for use in Brain Storm. A further evolution of the technology makes its way into the scribblings on the walls in Stargate: Universe, a side problem our heroes continue to chisel away at for possible future applications.

This level of detail adds to the richness of the story, providing support for unlikely scenarios and solid groundings for the “what if…?” of science fiction to be explored. Plausible science helps a viewer suspend their disbelief and get lost in the story for an hour, enjoying their show without being distracted. Then, if the science does fascinate them, they can look for clues, pull out more of the story, and see the details that help describe the world our heroes inhabit.

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1 Response to Stargate: From Fiction to Science

  1. Morten Karlsen says:

    I’ve wondered about Teal’c’s staff weapon, if made in real life, how would you describe the burst of energy shooting out of the weapon? I’ve been wondering because that’s a classic in science fiction

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