Well, this won’t be one of those articles. I’m interested in the cultural mistakes, the mistakes about scientists themselves and science as a process, rather than just factual inaccuracies.
I can accept factual twists and implausible devices. That’s part of fiction. I can accept that a human-made computer virus can bring down an alien mothership – I just have trouble accepting that computer virus was written overnight by one guy.
But anyway, here are three entries. I might make this a series if and when I can formalise a few others.
Scientists are always “ON”
The Movies and TV:
Scientists are always scientists. They always talk in convoluted words.They’ll never say “fast” when “28.996 metres per second” sounds more intelligent. And there’s always a lot of decimal places, whether they’re significant or not. They can practically see the Matrix as equations fly around their head constantly no matter where they are. If asked about their favourite music, they’ll respond with discussing the mathematical patterns found in music without any room for a subjective judgement. Even discussing dinner plans, they can’t help but break it down into a hyper-fine quantum-physics like description, trying to use a quantum mechanics thought experiment to solve which restaurant to visit.
Well, scientists are real people. Colleagues I know with a strange obsession for cricket don’t talk about it in terms of “and then the human with the wooden shaped object strikes at an angle of 45.76 degrees and a force of 27.89 Newtons, immediately changing the velocity of the spherical object propelled toward them”. They’re more likely to just say “and then he knocked it for six” like, you know, normal people.
There’s a certain element of being unable to “switch off”, but in that case it’s more the stress of grant proposals running around in the back of everyone’s mind. “We need this final draft submitted to Nature by tomorrow, so we’re staying late, guys” may well happen. But that’s because it’s a job,and it can carry such stresses.
Worst Offender: The Big Bang Theory
Particularly earlier episodes of TBBT, before it turned into a repository for just stating nerd-culture references out of context. Leonard asks Leslie Winkle out with the words.
“I was going to characterise it as the modification of our colleague/friendship paradigm, with the addition of a date-like component. But we don’t need to quibble over terminology.”
In many ways, I’m pleased Leonard devolved into a complete dickhead in the later seasons – because at least now he talks like a real person.
Science is done by one person
The Movies and TV:
She’s the world’s foremost expert on quantum astrophysics, and she has 18 hours to synthesise an antidote to a genetically engineered virus. 5 minutes of pipette-and-petri-dish montages later, she has it. Now she has to fly a helicopter to the distribution net, and inject it into the air filtration system once she’s repaired it – but first she must hack her way through the layers of cyber security installed by the terrorists by using a GUI interface made in VBA. But the only way to guess the password is through obscure trivia about 14th century French literature… luckily, she has a degree in that, too.
Science is a team effort.
It takes dozens, if not hundreds, of people to make a decent dent in the world of scientific discovery. I was recently at a lecture by a recent Nobel Prize laureate – and he invited about 30 people in the audience to stand and receive applause for their contributions to that work, listing them all by name. And that’s the people who were just in the audience – about another 30 couldn’t make it in person. And the others who shared that years prize had teams of similar size. Many of those people were now older, with research groups of their own, working with dozens of additional scientists under them and around them across the world.
Day-to-day, the big name superstar professors are unlikely to ever get involved in the hands on lab research. They’re too busy writing the grant proposals and having high level discussions. The post-docs will author the papers and communicate at conferences around the world. The PhD candidates will do the actual experiments, the technical staff will maintain the equipment, the workshop engineers will build the crazy bespoke stuff… it goes on.
Louder for people at the back: science is a team effort.
Worst Offender: Tony Stark
While I could have pretty much said “everythinge” for this, I decided to stick with Marvel’s super-genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. Sure, in the movies he has fabrication equipment to build the suits. And he hardly has to do any designing because Jarvis will do the hard work for him. But who builds the maintains the fabrication equipment? Who delivers the raw materials and mashes them out into usable material first? Who programmed Jarvis? Who replaces Jarvis’ busted hard-drives and processors? If Tony did all of this himself… where would he ever get the time to actually wear the suit? Where is most of the money going if it’s not going to pay people to do most of the intricate fiddly research and development in the background?
I can do it if I had access to my lab!
The Movies and TV:
“We have to get back to the lab, my equipment is there!” shouts the elderly scientist. But the lab has been destroyed, now all hope is lost! In the movies, laboratories are magical places with infinite power supplies, and infinite racks of every known chemical. Spectrometers of all shapes and sizes are squeezed into every orifice. If you locked the one-man super-genius in here, they’d build a warp drive within the week!
Labs are just… a… place, you know? They’re a room. Sure, there’s some specialist kit in there, but it’s specialist to whatever that lab is. See, the reality is that a lab can’t have everything in it. It just wouldn’t be possible. Why does my lab need pots of iridium trichloride, our research focuses on controlled polymer synthesis? Why do we need our own IR spectrometer, we record one about once a month and we can just steal the one in the teaching labs!
In reality, it’s easier to bring your research to a lab – one that has the specialist equipment you need, but not necessarily your own. A large research group might have one spectrometer to share, a department might have their own collection of NMR instruments, a university might have its own high-performance super-computer. When we look at really big stuff like particle colliders, they don’t even service whole countries but whole continents.
Your lab is just whatever is closest to your office. It’s mostly storage and a work area. If you have something there, it’s the essential day-to-day stuff – diligently maintained by a post-doc who knows her way around Stores and isn’t afraid to tell the MSc student to lug a trolley of crap from the other side of the department. Because science is a team effort, remember.
Worst offender: Fringe
It’s been a while since I watched
X-Files Fringe, but I’m pretty sure “I need to get to my lab!” was one of Walter Bishop’s catchphrases.
I have no idea what he actually kept in there – Fringe was never particularly specific about anything – but by heck he had stuff that could take a particle and image it in full-HD on a display within moments before making a super-slow animation that revealed something important. Bishop and Son were very much the epitome of that one-man-army trope about super-scientists who can do anything with just some pluck, wit and access to their home-made Ambient Quantum Resonator Microscope and their Bi-Lateral Endophrenoscopic Separator.
Or, you know, something like that. It’s definitely been a while since I watched this – but, as fun as it is, I’m pretty sure Fringe is to science as American Pie is to sex.