Aliens and AI: André Bormanis Explores the Science Behind 'The Orville'

Wednesday, 20 September 2017 - 11:51AM
Artificial Intelligence
Wednesday, 20 September 2017 - 11:51AM
Aliens and AI: André Bormanis Explores the Science Behind 'The Orville'
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Image credit: Fox
The Orville is Seth MacFarlane's take on a Star Trek-style space adventure, complete with new galaxy, ship, and crew (who still wear color-coded uniforms and forehead prosthetics). André Bormanis was brought onto the show as the resident science consultant, and now helps MacFarlane and the cast make The Orville as accurate as possible.

We spoke with Bormanis about his work on the show, his time consulting for Star Trek, and what's on the horizon for science and tech.

Outer Places: You've worked as a science consultant, writer, and producer on a whole string of Star Trek series, from TNG to Enterprise. What was that experience like, and how did it influence the way you look at science and sci-fi?
André Bormanis: For the most part it was a lot of fun but sometimes it could be very challenging. I had to do research in fields outside my expertise, like biology, and I had to stretch my imagination into the far future, and into scenarios that I'd never considered before.  The experience made me think more creatively about science, and sometimes to question things we accept as scientific fact today that might be reconsidered or shown to be outright wrong in the future...

I probably consider science itself to be a little more provisional now than I did before I worked on Trek. Science is not so much a body of established facts and laws as a methodology to achieve a better understanding of the natural world through experiments and mathematical models. I knew that before, of course, but I have a better appreciation of it now.

OP: Can you give us some insight into what your day is like as a science consultant for The Orville? What questions do they come to you with, and what kinds of research do you have to do?
André: Most of what I do in that capacity is help guide the visual effects team on the look of astronomical phenomena—stars, planets, comets, and other space stuff that comes up in our episodes...As a member of the writing staff, I was in the writers' room when we developed most of the stories for our first season, so when a writer had an idea that involved some scientific element, I was there to kick it around with everyone and share my knowledge of the subject and how it might fit into a story.

For example, in one of our episodes we were looking for an interesting setting for some jeopardy, and I suggested stranding someone on a "sun diver"—a comet that's on a collision course with a star. Everybody thought that could look really amazing, and it gave us a good "ticking clock" to build suspense into a rescue mission.
OP: What are some of the more annoying (or at least persistent) scientific issues you have to deal with when working on a sci-fi show?
André: The proper use of specific scientific terms is something that crops up pretty regularly. There are ways scientists and doctors talk about things that are different from common language, so I try to make sure that our scientist/engineer/doctor characters use the right jargon. Making sure numbers that come up in dialogue—things like distances, or our hull temperature when we are caught in a plasma storm, or the strength of electrical current in an overloaded circuit—are reasonable; for example, our ship is mostly exploring just one small part of our Milky Way galaxy, so it wouldn't make sense to talk about traveling a million light years (ten times the diameter of our galaxy!) unless we were explicitly leaving the Milky Way far behind.

OP: The Orville takes a lot of notes from classic Star Trek, from the aliens to the aesthetics. Behind the scenes, were there scientific ideas or concepts The Orville team decided to borrow from the series?
André: Nothing explicit. Since we're also doing a show about a starship crew, there is inevitably going to be some overlap. We have a faster-than-light drive system, which we call quantum drive as opposed to warp drive (the idea being that space, at the deepest level, is quantized, like the energy levels in atoms, and if someday we understand how this works we might be able to manipulate the fabric of space to travel faster than light).

Our power source is called Dysonium, a fictional transuranic element we named in honor of the physicist Freeman Dyson. We have environmental simulators and food replicators, which are analogous to the holodeck and replicators on Star Trek, but these are technologies that are being developed in the real world right now and have never been exclusive to Star Trek.
OP: The crew of the Orville is a pretty interesting cross-section of alien races, including Isaac, who is part of a non-biological species. What kinds of research went into fleshing out these alien races?
André: Seth did a lot of work and brainstorming with Howard Berger, our brilliant makeup designer/artist. Seth had very clear ideas about how the alien species on the show should look, and since he's also an artist, he's very good at visualizing his concepts. He never wanted the look of an alien to be intentionally funny. The idea was always to make our aliens look believable, to have a plausible biological reality.

OP: What do you see as the next 'frontier' of scientific discovery? Or, alternatively, what are some of the most interesting scientific questions you see today?
André: Of all the amazing things going on in science these days, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence will probably have the biggest impact on our lives. Now that we've mapped the human genome (and the genomes of many other organisms) we're on the cusp of a revolution in medicine that could extend human life by decades.

The ability to control computers (and the machines they're connected to) with our minds is already happening, and will just keep getting more sophisticated. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we may see the creation of "homo sapiens 2.0," humans augmented by artificial intelligence and robotics, which is both exciting and frightening.

You can watch The Orville on Fox on Thursdays at 9/8c.
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