Master of the Galactiverse

    Nestled deep in the heart of every fanboy lies the dream of having a say in sci-fi canon. Malcolm MacIver lives that dream.

    Photo of Malcolm MacIver. Illustration by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern.

    A biomedical and mechanical engineering professor at Northwestern, MacIver works as a script consultant for Caprica, a recent prequel series in the award-winning Battlestar Galactica franchise.

    Battlestar is one of my favorite TV shows ever,” he says. “I’m not much of a TV fan, so that’s saying a lot.”

    MacIver helps out on the show by coming up with ideas that are grounded in scientific principles.

    “I suggest technical ideas, and I show how they work in a particular part of the script,” he says. “Then it’s up to the writers to incorporate my input or not.”

    Among MacIver’s contributions to Caprica is the concept of generative algorithms — pieces of data that code for objects in virtual reality.

    “It’s especially cool to see where I can borrow from my knowledge of artificial intelligence, robotics and neuroscience to help make the story more compelling or believable,” says MacIver. “For my set of interests, I can hardly imagine a show that would fit better.”

    The scientist was introduced to the Caprica team through the Science Entertainment Exchange (SEE), which connects TV and movie producers to experts in relevant areas of study. Also through SEE, MacIver along with four other scientists, brainstormed ideas for the script of TRON Legacy, the forthcoming sequel to the 1982 cult classic.

    “The environment was really slick,” MacIver says of TRON’s studio. “It was fun in some ways, of course, but we were there with a specific job, and I was pretty focused on identifying what would be useful to contribute after coming all the way out from Chicago to do the consul… They showed us around the studio and showed us some footage they were working on, which was absolutely gorgeous.”

    MacIver sums up a scientist’s experience in the studio as “an enterprise of nudges.” The responsibility of the experts is to give the finished product factual validity.

    “Does the science in the film or TV show make sense? Is it technically feasible, or at least given a feasible explanation?” MacIver says. “Does it reflect the most exciting of what’s going on in labs right now?”

    In addition, MacIver wishes to ensure that his profession is represented in the media as more than just a confederation of geeks in lab coats. “It’s about going beyond the mad scientist idea to something a little richer and more true to life,” he says.

    Perhaps the greatest value of science fiction is the discourse it stimulates.

    “The way shows like Caprica engage the public or raise awareness is to provide a neutral ‘play box’ for all kinds of scenarios that new science, technology or culture could bring into existence,” says MacIver. “This paves the way for engagement in discussions on these things that are more grounded in reality.”


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