The entire practice of science is to take observations about the world around you and use them to make predictions about the future, which is like a superpower. @mikamckinnon #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Jayshree Seth: 42% of the people we surveyed agree that movies and TV shows can place unrealistic expectations on science. So what should scientists think of science fiction that is going to make people demand flying cars and jetpacks? We’ll ask a science consultant with a Master’s in Disaster on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
At a glance, science and science fiction couldn’t be less similar. Science is about using real and observable phenomenon to explore and explain the world around us. Science fiction is about using our imagination to create worlds that don’t exist, and can’t be measured or observed.
At the heart of science both fact and fiction, you will find the same traits: Curiosity, wonder, an imagination, a desire to understand the universe — and even shape it to a better future for all of us.
To help us explore this topic, my guest this week is Mika McKinnon. Mika is a freelance scientist, geophysicist, sci-fi consultant, blogger and much more. Mika, thanks for being here today.
Mika: Absolutely, I always have fun doing these.
Jayshree: What sparked your interest in science? Was there a moment in your childhood that stands out, or is it something you developed over time?
Mika: I was raised to be a scientist. My family is artists and lawyers. But they handled that, "But why," stage of childhood by going, "Let's figure it out." So my childhood is full of impromptu experiments, or research projects, or testing things to the point where it's almost inevitable that I went into science.
Jayshree: Your parents really took on that role, that’s wonderful. That must have been difficult in a pre-Google world, right?
Mika: I am part of the Oregon Trail Generation, so we were definitely pre- “Google it!” I learned to type on those horrible green screen computers and they gave us, like, the little cardboard stands over the top to block you from seeing when they were teaching you how to do touch typing, completely useless skill set now. It's amazing how quickly those things go obsolete. But no, it wasn't necessarily that difficult because it turns out science isn't so much about learning individual facts as it is a mindset. It's about experimenting. In essence, every single time you bake a batch of cookies, you're conducting a scientific experiment. And your cookbook is your logbook where you're making notes about things you adjusted or changed, and you're revising the recipe until you get the consistency and flavor you actually want. And it turns out making cookies is something you can do with a little kid and do experiments as a small child without your child accidentally poisoning themselves. So that's how we went about doing all of these sorts of learning how to be a scientist, of, "Oh, you wanna know something? Okay, let's go figure it out. Oh, you wanna know what happens when you do a particular thing? Well, it's not gonna kill you. It's not gonna hurt anybody, so let's try it and find out." Why look it up when you can do it yourself?
Jayshree: That is a wonderful example for parents to follow. So from there, how did you follow that interest all the way into a science career?
Mika: I became a physicist because the head of the physics department called me up and told me I should be one. It wasn't even on my radar. I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I had no idea what type, and I felt like I didn't even know what types of science there were to choose from. So I got recruited into the physics department at UC Santa Barbara. And I soon figured out that physics is almost like being an undeclared scientist. It's teaching you how to solve problems. It gives you a toolset and skills that you can apply in any field. Unfortunately, it turns out, being a physicist is a very vague sort of title because you're really good at solving problems, but you need a type of problem to solve. And I realized fairly quickly, I like rocks. I like the simple complexity of rocks. I like being able to get frustrated and throw one off a cliff or kick it over. I like that you can learn the basics very quickly and then spend years figuring out the details. More importantly, I realized if I did a good job working with my rocks in the right sort of way, I could have a positive impact on society. I could give back in some way. And so I quickly started specializing in disasters, specifically, I work in geophysics. So geology mixed with physics, so working on problems inside geology.
Jayshree: Interesting, yes. Now, how did the disaster research enter the equation? How does that tie into geophysics?
Mika: So geophysics is a little bit like a mix of James Bond villain and MacGyver. You take a whole bunch of really fancy equipment out into the wilderness, and sometimes you get to fly around in a helicopter when you're doing it, and you land on a glacier or a remote hillside or something like that and you spread out all of your extremely delicate, sensitive equipment. And then the rain comes or a bear chews on your cable, or something else and it breaks your equipment, and you're in the middle of nowhere, so you have to fix it with whatever you have in your pockets, which is the MacGyver part of things. And then once it's all working again, you do something to provoke the planet. You blow something up, you zap it with 2,400 volts of electricity. You do something to generate a signal that travels to the earth and back up to your sensors. And then from here, it loses the James Bond villain part of pushing the big red button, and then moves almost over into Douglas Adams’ "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in that you have an answer, you know what the signal did, and you need to figure out the question: what was the geology between the point of provocation and the sensor where you pick it all up? What had to have happened in between to get the results that you see? So that's geophysics in a nutshell. But you're going, "Okay. That's cool. It's like extremely geeky mathematics mixed with camping."
But that doesn't really get to the disasters. Well, it turns out disasters are all about what is the physics of what is happening? How exactly is that landslide moving? What are the dynamics in the type of wave of the tsunami? What are the thermal dynamics of that storm? Because that tells you how fast it's going to build, how big is going to get, how strong the winds are gonna go, and where is it gonna shift. If you can understand the physics of the problem, you can outline the hazard, the idea of where the damage will happen. And if you can take that and communicate it clearly and make good decisions based on that science, then you start getting into risk reduction. You start getting into places where policy and decisions can mitigate what the disasters will do, and then fewer people die. So it's a couple of steps along the way. It takes a couple of pieces to get there. It's not a direct “if this, then that.” But the stepping stones of it all work together so that if I do a good job figuring out the science of extremely large landslides and can communicate that to the people who are making decisions about city planning, and then they could not put the hospital at the bottom of an unstable slope, and then when the landslide eventually happens, people don't die in it. So that's pretty much my link there.
Jayshree: So it’s essentially the science of saving people from the vast forces that shape our planet?
Mika: Yeah, pretty much. I like to think of it as humans are extremely small, fragile creatures on a planet that is, at best, indifferent towards us, in a universe that is full of far too much energy for my personal comfort. But we have this amazing capacity. We have the ability of doing science. And the entire practice of science is to take observations about the world around you and use them to make predictions about the future, which is like a freakin’ superpower. It's an incredible skill set. But if you can do it really, really well, then not only can you make predictions about the future, but you can build the future that you want. You could make things better. And that's just incredible.
Jayshree: Do you feel like science fiction is another way of trying to build the future that we want? Because the Star Trek future sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it?
Mika: think what I really love about science fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to explore possible futures without committing to any of them. So we have this opportunity to try out possible paths. And those paths can be anything from “what would it look like if we all work together, so we're a post-resource future, we're a post-scarcity future,” to “what would it look like to live on other planets and other places?” And every story has a different viewpoint on it and a different set of science, and a different set of ideas, and different consequences. But it's these infinite possibilities, and then we have this chance again, if we see one that we like, you know, we can make decisions now to try and build that future.
Jayshree: So it sounds like the work you do as a science consultant is similar to what you’re doing as a disaster scientist, in that they’re both about predicting and shaping the future. So how do you see your many different roles informing one another?
Mika: I do a lot of different types of jobs. And from the outside, they look like they're really chaotic and unrelated. I do disaster research. I do field geophysics. I do science communication. I consult in fictional TV shows and movies. I do all of these different types of things. But they're all tied together in that my job, at its essence, is to be curious and excited in public. Humans are born curious. We have to learn everything about the entire world. We have to learn what our fingers and toes are. We have to learn what shadows are and that gravity hurts. We have to learn all of these things. But for a lot of people, that curiosity gets ground out of them over time, that they get ashamed to not know things, to be embarrassed to say, "I don't know." And start pushing back on it and start trying to bluff through.
If I can instead model, "Hey, it's okay to be curious, and it's okay to keep learning, and that it's okay to get excited and to be happy about this, and to be thrilled to be learning something new because there's always something new to learn," then other people can join me in that, that it's a little bit more okay and a little bit less scary to join somebody in doing something than to be the first one. And that plays out in everything from working on disasters going, "Okay, so here's what the science is actually telling us and what we're gonna learn and what we're gonna do, and now we know that, let's make good choices," through to in fictional settings, getting some good foundational science in there so that people are not necessarily learning a fact from their TV shows, but learning about the process of science and about the way that we use observations and data to make predictions and to make decisions, that if we can model that in our shows, then people are learning how to do science just by having fun, which is what it all comes down to. Being curious is fun. Learning new things is fun.
Jayshree: I couldn’t agree more. Right now, though, I’m curious to know more about your consulting work. When you’re consulting on something like the new Star Trek series, obviously the science and technology is firmly in the realm of fiction. How does actual science fit in with the phasers and the transporters?
Mika: Exactly. Like, every now and then, we do get to do actual real science in TV shows. I worked on a romantic comedy about the end of the world called "No Tomorrow." And this romantic comedy, it's like people are in a warehouse, they're going on first dates, all of that, but through it all, I managed to have extremely accurate science about orbital deflections of incoming asteroids and comets, about planetary defense, which is a really big deal. It's huge level of disaster preparedness, that it is the only disaster we can fully mitigate. We cannot keep an earthquake from happening. We cannot prevent a volcanic eruption.
But with enough time and enough resources, we can identify any sort of near-earth object that's on a collision course with the earth and then go out and intercept it and do something. We can break it into smaller pieces. We can paint part of it white and part of it black, so the sunlight pushes it a different way. We can put solar sails on it. We can try and attach it to a tug and yank it out of its orbit. We can do all sorts of things to completely prevent an impact if only we want to, if only we're willing to put in that time, that effort, that energy. This is like serious grim topics. This is like the end of the dinosaurs sort of topics, all inside a romantic comedy, inside, like, the sort of TV show you'd watch if you were into "The Office" or "Psych" or "Chuck," which is not the usual sort of audience you get for diving into science recreationally.
Jayshree: So how do you communicate the fundamental science without losing your layperson audience? I mean, in fiction, but also in your work on science blogs. How do you find that balance?
Mika: When working in fiction, the story always, always comes first. It's not a classroom lecture. It's not an academic textbook. Its primary purpose is entertainment, not education. The science exists to support the story, to add plausibility to the story, and to give the storytellers more spaces in which to explore. It turns out we have a really weird universe. Like, reality is in so many ways so much stranger than fiction. So I see myself almost as a science tutor for the writing staff, giving them a playground to work on. And then when I actually get to work on set, I'm pretty much the stunt handwriting for the actors where we'd be really upset if our genius scientist who was about to save the world was stumped over a physics equation like E=MC2, that we've all heard of. We want something more complicated than that. We want something plausibly challenging for them to sink their teeth into.
So when it comes to the fictional world, it's all about the story, and what science do we need to be able to tell that story, and to support that story. When working in science communication as a writer or as a speaker, it's still about the story, but now it's a story about science. Now, it's drawing together the narrative of, how does this science work? How does the science fit into the things we already know? Where is it interesting? Where is it neat? Why do I care about it? That is not just a series of unrelated facts because those don't mean anything to us. But how does this science fit into the things we already know and understand and care about? And what does it mean to us? So it's centered on the person and the people, and how it matters to them, not on random facts that are scattered throughout the universe.
Jayshree: That makes so much sense; it’s easy to focus on the information we’re trying to get across, and forget that we need to appeal to an audience, just as much as any fiction writer does.
Mika: So my mother is a teacher and she worked on...she's a teacher and an artist. And her research was into, how do we evaluate what students actually know and understand? And so I've always been interested in this concept of how do people actually learn? I went to teacher conferences when I was, like, eight years old. I'd tag along and hide under the tables and eavesdrop. So when the opportunity came to my university to be involved in a research project on how do people actually learn science, I jumped on it. And it turned out, most of the ways that we teach science and math is that we throw facts at people and we just shove facts at them, and we hope that they can figure out how to put the pieces together. And it turns out, nobody learns that way. The fact that anybody learns anything is more random chance and stubbornness than actual skill.
Instead, to get from being a novice to being an expert, you need scaffolding. You need an expert to show you, "here's the overall structure and how everything fits together," and then help you fill in the pieces, and go, “okay, so now we have the scaffolding, we're gonna work on the walls next. Let's get these pieces in and here's how to put them together. Here's your blueprints. Here's your instructions. Okay, now you've put them together. Let's add on the next layer. Let's start working on this part. Let's work on this part. Let's work on this part." So even in an educational context, you still need that overarching narrative of, how does everything fit together?
When you start working with people who are learning science for fun, that they are opting in to discover something new about their universe, they're not there because they've got a checklist of required classes they need to grind their way through, then, not only do you need to teach them something new and fulfill that promise of, "Hey, you just gave me three minutes of your life in return for which I promised I'd teach you something," but you also have to stay interesting and relevant, and to some extent entertaining, that people have to enjoy that, otherwise, you're not gonna come back. They're gonna bail out two paragraphs in, and that's it. That's all they got, and you've just spent however long writing this article that nobody actually reads.
Jayshree: How do you think scientists can really zero in on a specific audience, though?
Mika: Well, I mean, there's this idea of, who is your audience? It's a core question in communications, who are you communicating to? And a lot of people answer, "Well, the general public." Well, the general public doesn't exist, it's always about individuals. And you can find examples of people and test things out. When I'm struggling with a story, I go around and I take every opening any stranger gives me to launch into a 30-second elevator pitch about the story I want to tell. That if my cashier at the grocery store says, "So what are you doing today?" I will respond with, "Well, I'm here to watch the orbital insertion of a, like, giant lead tank or titanium tank in orbit around Jupiter. And it's gonna dive into the electromagnetic fields and all of these cool things about it." And if they start glazing out, I know I haven't found the orientation of that story yet.
For me, personally, I found that my audience, the place where I resonate best is adults who are curious about the world, but don't want to put in for another degree. They don't wanna go back to school, but they would like to know why is the grass green and why is the sky blue, and they don't wanna feel stupid for asking these questions. So my best place to test out if I figured out how to frame or how to tell a story is to go hang out at a bar on a Friday night and see if I can get somebody who's had one or two beers, is relaxing at the end of the day, and see if they're still interested in asking follow-up questions over all the ambient noise and all of the distraction. And if I did, there we go, I found my story.
Jayshree: I think persuading more scientists to hang out with others could have many benefits. I think we need to.
Mika: Everybody's gonna have a different audience, right? Like, some people need to go and spend more time in a kindergarten classroom or go hang out at playtime, and see if you can get a handful of rowdy six-year-olds to sit there and sort rocks by color as a way of learning about geologic classification. By the way, kids are way better at that than adults are. It's all about, who are you talking to? Who is your audience? You can also go spend time in a retirement home, volunteer there and see who do you reach and where does your story resonate? Who are you trying to talk to?
Jayshree: Absolutely. I can tell you’re passionate about your role as a science communicator. Why do you think it’s important to advocate for science?
Mika: If we can use science to make our decisions, then we're going to build a better future. I want everybody to live in the end, which means I will try and get more science in there any way I can. I am totally fine with cheating to squeeze a bit more science in.
Jayshree: Last question: In a few words, what about science brings you joy?
Mika: Everything about science brings me joy. I am often accused of being a little bit too cheerful about doom.
Jayshree: Mika, this has been delightful. Thanks for chatting with me today.
The curiosity and imagination that drives scientific advancement is our best hope for saving the human race. From predicting natural disasters to developing renewable energy, science combines creativity with the intellectual rigor that can turn science fiction into science fact.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.