Connecting the test tube to the boob tube

Science fiction drama Fringe uses science consultants to avoid some plot holes.

If TV sitcoms were the only form of science education, our perception of the realities and advancements of science would be warped.

“Accuracy is not the primary goal of TV shows,” says Sean Carroll, research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology and science consultant for science fiction show Fringe. “It’s not a science documentary, a public service announcement, or a commercial for science.”

Shows would have the public think all physicists are “nutty” like Fringe’s mad scientist Walter Bishop or “eccentric” like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, says James Kakalios, University of Minnesota physics professor and superhero consultant for Warner Bros. films like Watchmen.

Some organizations like the Science and Entertainment Exchange are trying to close the gap between the lab bench and the studio. The Exchange pairs entertainment professionals with scientists to  balance intriguing viewers and plugging scientific plot holes.

Scientists have been slammed for being inept communicators in the past. The National Academy of Sciences looked for the best communicators, which took them to Hollywood, says Ann Merchant, deputy executive director for communications for the National Academies.

“I think it is very wise to have scientists or other consultants that try as much as possible to ground some of their fictional elements into an element of truth,” says André Loiselle, film studies professor at Carleton University.

Since it was established in 2008, the Exchange has garnered nearly 1000 volunteer scientists and made about 450 consultations with entertainment professionals on science topics ranging the gamut “from structural engineering to astrobiology,” says Merchant.

Lawrence Krauss, an advisory board member for the Exchange, participated in a symposium on science communication in popular culture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting  in Vancouver, B.C. in February. He showed some of his favourite science bloopers from Star Trek. The Arizona State University physics professor pointed out explosions and screams would be impossible to hear in space, since there’s no medium to carry sound.

The lecture wasn’t just to mock TV shows, says Krauss. He was showing how better consultation between scientists and TV producers can draw the audience in.

Even with science fiction shows like Fringe in production in the booming film industry city of Vancouver, there are few Canadian scientists part of the Exchange. This could be a problem since bad science takes away from storytelling.

“Any moment that the audience is watching and thinking ‘that’s wrong,’ is a moment that they’re not paying attention to the story,” says Kakalios.

Merchant says the Exchange receives three to five new queries a week from film professionals for science help and she hopes more Canadians will get involved after the Vancouver symposium.

The Big Bang Theory is hailed as one of the most scientifically accurate shows on TV.

“In North America, culture is driven increasingly by science and technology,” says Loiselle. “The thirst for technology has picked up over the last 10 years in great part due to all the developments of communication technologies.”

Even if the audience craves more science and technology stories, Hollywood has been slow to put a dollar value on scientific accuracy.

“It’s a secondary issue for the writers and the scientists don’t get paid,” says Krauss. The Exchange provides a bridge, but it doesn’t set the toll.

Although TV shows focus on the entertainment more than the theories and facts found in science textbooks, some say science actually reaches further than any science fiction drama can.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” says Krauss. “The imagination of nature is far greater.”

Scientists rate TV science

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The Big Bang Theory

Rated 5 out of 5
“No question Big Bang Theory has the most accurate science on television,” Sean Carroll says. “But the science is mostly used for background color.” Whether its Sheldon babbling about Einstein’s cosmological constant or references to Green Lantern comics, Big Bang Theory’s writers are trying to get it right. As for the portrayal of physicists, here’s what James Kakalios has to say: “Most physicist are more normal like Leonard and less eccentric like Sheldon. Of course, we all know a Sheldon and, if you don’t, you may be Sheldon. ”


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The CSI Family

Rated 4 out of 5
The CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise has inspired a lot of interest in forensic science. Case in point, the above clip for an exhibit at Fort Worth Museum in the United States. However, studies by American criminologists in 2008 and 2010 have suggested that CSI and its spin offs, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, may have raised jurors’ standards for forensic evidence. In this case the fictional science looks too good to be true and the messy real world science can’t keep up.


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Rated 4 out of 5
“CSI and House are very comparable: they use science in interesting ways, but aren’t afraid of bending the rules for dramatic purposes,” Carroll says. The above clip is an example of a pretty standard House episode, packed with a lot of fast-talking medical jargon. Sometimes the cast breaks away from the weightier stuff and has a little fun, as with this recent trip where a novice doctor takes acid: hallucinations – and hilarity – ensues.

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“Fringe uses a lot of inspiration from real-world science, but deviates from reality in extremely noticeable and unapologetic ways,” Carroll says. Meanwhile, Kakalios says the portrayal of scientists in the show is a problem, specifically with character Walter Bishop – discussed in the clip above by actor John Noble. “We’re not really these mad scientists who have our own labs and are doing all these other things. That’s not the way it goes,” he says. “There’s a little bit too much of the nuttiness there.”


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Terra Nova

Rating 1 out of 5
“People who’ve watched it often complain that they don’t even try to get the science right,” says Carroll.  Some examples: dinosaurs and drugs, like azimuth mentioned in the above video, that never existed. Azimuth is actually a term in astronomy used to indicate where a star is in the sky. Maybe better science would have led to better ratings. Fox Broadcasting isn’t renewing Terra Nova for next year.

Videos courtesy respective copyright holders.


Produced by Matthew Kupfer

Fringe image courtesy Fox Broadcasting. The Big Bang Theory image courtesy CBS.

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