Thursday, February 5, 2009


Sometimes, as a scientist in-training (when do I get to call myself a scientist?) I see things on television which are utter nonsense. I'm not talking about things like flashing bullets, or gasoline explosions where special effects are an obvious assault on the natural laws of the universe. Sometimes though, there are real head scratchers in a movie or tv show which you can't really call bad science because the characters are dealing with sci-fi concepts not actually based on anything we understand.

For example, I sat up a little straighter in my seat when I was watching The Fantastic Four for the first time on television. I saw the scientist of the group working on a blackboard with an intense focused look on his face as he pondered the mysteries of his mutations. On the actual board however was a mundane equilibrium calculation on it. I don't remember what it was, all I know was that it looked like something ripped out of a high school textbook. Simple equilibrium calculations of this nature are pretty mundane, and while they are used for some things, it's not really the sort of thing that requires intense thought. There was nothing wrong with the equation that I could see fleetingly, it's just that I can't imagine how it would be useful in that context. This is the sort of thing I'm talking about. Things in movies that are more "sciencey" than scientific.

Then, yesterday I was watching Fringe. Now I swear I don't watch sci-fi just to point out all the errors, but there are some things that make complete suspension of disbelief impossible. There's a part where I see one of the characters pouring some thick green liquid into a rotavap. Yes, into the actual rotavap, in the vaccum column. It was a fleeting cut, so I may have misinterprested what I saw, but I'm pretty sure I actually saw the character pouring crap into the vaccuum column (not the coils either).

I cannot imagine for one second why you would do this on the one hand. On the other, people improvise lab equipment all the time, and the whole point of the show is that the science being dealt with is "fringe". I can't really say that it defies science as we know it, all I know is that the prop department potentially ruined a perfectly good rotavap with green paint.


  1. LOL! I have the same problem, I'm forever critisizing the science/technology in movies and TV shows, which annoys the crap out of my partner/friends. I however have friends who work in the film industry, and it's all about what looks good, they don't care about getting the details right. Besides, the vast majority of people wouldn't know a rotavap if it came up and bit them on the arse. :-)

  2. Reminds me of the moment I stopped watching the US version of Eleventh Hour. I know it's semi-scifi, and I can enjoy all sorts of show that get some science wrong or make stuff up. However, I just could not let go of the main character going to talk to the genetics researchers in their lab, which consisted entirely of a Spec 20 in a lecture hall! I turned to my Microbiologist GF and asked "Can we stop watching this now?" She was already reaching for the remote as I asked!

  3. The 11th Hour has other issues, including the episode where Dr.Hood finds himself enamoured of and impressed by a naturopath. That's enough to make you want to take a shower.


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