To boldly go: Mission to sell science to school girls with help of sci-fi
A TATTOOED Star Trek fan who was inspired by Dana Scully in The X-Files is going where no woman has gone before to encourage young girls
Dr Erin Macdonald is an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer who “explains the universe” through popular sci-fi TV shows and films.
She has made a Sound Tracks podcast for the University of Glasgow – where she gained her PhD – and is planning to take her fresh approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects into Scottish schools.
“A lot of young people – particularly girls – are put off physics and maths, but if you explain theories in terms of what is and isn’t possible in films such as Star Wars, you can get through to them and hook their interest,” said Dr Macdonald, who consults with science-fiction writers in Los Angeles, where she lives.
Science fiction first drew her into the field of astrophysics when she watched Gillian Anderson’s character Dana Scully, an FBI agent with a degree in astrophysics.
“At high school I was interested in robotics and technology but I’d never heard of astrophysics until I watched The X-Files,” added Dr Macdonald, who studied at the University of Colorado before moving to the University of Glasgow. She now works with the team at the university researching gravitational waves, providing important insights into the origins of the universe, black holes, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts and neutron stars.
“Dana Scully was the coolest person I’d ever seen and all I wanted to do was become her so I could use science to solve problems and fight aliens.
“I came to Star Trek later in college and Captain Janeway in Voyager kept me going through graduate school.”
While science fiction is not short of these strong female leads, Dr Macdonald found that real-life science is still a male-dominated field.
“As a first-year undergraduate, my physics class was made up of around 10 per cent of women but, by the time I reached the final year, there were only 17 people in the class and one other woman.”
She first realised she could encourage others like herself into science through her love of popular culture when she started teaching in community college.
“I made a comparison to Star Wars and the whole class perked up.
“So much of science, like quantum physics, is foreign to most people but when you can compare it to a familiar TV show or film you can help them understand.
“I started giving talks at sci-fi conventions, sharing my passion for the ‘science of science fiction’.
“There’s a huge audience of people who have always loved science but never went into it, and who take any opportunity to learn more.
“Linking it to their favourite fandoms gives an anchor for references and makes it seem a little more accessible.
“I explain what can and can’t work in real science by exploring sci-fi devices such as travelling faster than the speed of light with a warp drive.
“And I use the Star Trek transporter to explain the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states we can never know the exact position and momentum of particles.
“This rule makes a real-world transporter scientifically impossible but the writers of Star Trek were clearly aware of this as there is a component in the transporter called a Heisenberg Compensator,” said Dr Macdonald, who has an Audible Series, The Science of Sci-Fi, and a YouTube series, Dr Erin Explains the Universe.
“People teaching physics, maths and astronomy sometimes don’t know how to teach it – they know how it works but don’t understand how to communicate their knowledge in a relatable, accessible way,” added Dr Macdonald, who sports tattoos of e=mc2, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and “Live Long and Prosper” in Vulcan script.
Now she is planning a return to Scotland to visit primary and secondary schools.
“I get kids coming up to me after my talks asking how they can get into science.
“I think popular science communicators play an important role in encouraging youngsters into STEM.
“And there’s no doubt that dramas like The X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars and The Big Bang Theory help make these subjects more attractive and less nerdy.”