Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If it's July, it must be Comic-Con: Abusing Science on Fringe

I apparently was caught in a time vortex because all of a sudden I find that it's the last week of July. Where has the time gone?

Anyway, what shook me out of my lack of blogging was the realization Comic-Con had come and gone already. If you aren't familiar with Comic-Con, it's a massive annual convention in San Diego that started out focusing on comic books but has been embraced in recent years by Hollywood. That means movie previews and panels with TV stars along with comics and science fiction fare,

This year a panel on "Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi" was moderated by Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy), and included panelists*:
 Now I am a fan of Fringe, so it's not a criticism when I say that it appears to have only a tenuous basis in any sort of real science.  I think that works because Walter Bishop (played by the excellent John Noble) is a mad scientist extraordinaire, who works his genius on the fringes of a wide range of scientific disciplines.  The crazy science on the show is no less believable than having a scientist who is a hands-on expert in astrophysics and microbiology and synthetic organic chemistry and mechanical engineering and everything in between. (And yes, I know they claim that the science on Fringe is based on "reality", but I don't see that.)

And on the panel Stentz confirmed that science plays second fiddle to "story" on Fringe as Eric Wolff reported at Science not Fiction:
“Sometimes you have to break the rules to tell the story you want to tell,” he said, and ran a Fringe clip in which Olivia and Peter realize that Bell has  extracted memories from Walter’s brain by removing actual pieces of Walter’s brain.
“He literally had his memories removed,” Stentz said. “We knew when we wrote it that memories aren’t stored in a discrete portion of your brain.”
That episode - "Grey Matters"  - was indeed especially silly science.  Wolff suggests that it's especially bad bad science because most people don't know it's bad science:
Everyone knows we can’t travel faster then light, so we accept a universe where we all agree that the technology exists. But the brains/memories plot device hinges on the audience being too ignorant to understand the inaccuracy. The rule-breaking isn’t based on the paranormal or on advanced technology. It’s based on the audience not knowing better. That seems like the wrong kind of rule-breaking to me.
When I saw the episode I knew it was ridiculous, but in a fictional universe where a person can be wired to a dead man's brain to retrieve his memories it didn't seem particularly out of place. But Wolff may be right that the way the story was presented most people might not have realized that it was as unrealistic as regular travel between parallel universes. Perhaps that has something to do with the average SF-watcher's knowledge of bioscience as compared to physics?

Apparently the scientists on the panel disagreed that science needs to bend for the sake of drama.

I'm hoping someone posts a video of the panel online, since it sounds like an interesting discussion.

Script PhD also has a write up of that and a few other science and science fiction-related Comic-Con panels.

* The panelists seem like an interesting and intelligent group, but they appear to embody the stereotypes that "science" is the realm of white men working in the physical sciences and that the science in "science fiction" is astronomy and physics.  And it perhaps provides a hint as to why the biosciences are portrayed so inaccurately on SF TV shows.


  1. Welcome back! Readercon panels were better at including biologists, including yours truly. A brief account:

    What I Did During My Summer Non-Vacation

  2. Welcome back Peggy ,it was really a long desperate wait to see you here ,
    as you are aware its an old discussion without a final conclusion.As sf is literature not science no rules can strictly be imposed on the genre let the creativity flow on its own ceaselessly,spontaneously and without any roadblocks.

  3. Fringe is really best sci-fi show. I have watched all Fringe episodes. each episode is amazing. You have posted a nice article about fringe..
    Keep it up friend...

  4. Glad to see some people are still reading :)

  5. Thank you for this article unique, wonderful blog is clear that the author of this blog has a great deal of culture.
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