Bad Science in Science Fiction

I’m sure that science isn’t the only profession that gets misrepresented in popular media. I’m sure lawyers and police cringe when watching crime dramas, and soldiers are uncomfortable when watching war movies. Leaving aside shows like CSI, I think that scientist’s main media foil is almost by definition science fiction. On the one hand, I’ve learned to mostly ignore exaggeration, over-simplification, and implausible technology – I’ve come to understand (though it was hard) that these things are sometimes necessary to drive a plot, and that it’s unrealistic to expect that the writers are all trained scientists. On the other hand, there’s no excuse for getting things blatantly wrong.

Today’s rant is inspired by the Fox television show Terra Nova, which is a somewhat campy show about a distopian future in which humanity has so polluted the atmosphere that it’s impossible to go outside without a breathing apparatus. Luckily, they found a portal back in time, and most of the show takes place in a lush tropical world filled with dinosaurs. As you can probably imagine, there’s no shortage of scientific… um… inaccuracies, but on the whole I actually enjoy the show. It’s not world class television, but it’s fairly entertaining.

Terra Nova TV Series.jpg
(Source)

I was able to look past the second episode, in which they manage to somehow identify, isolate and mass-manufacture a pheromone from an entirely unknown species in less than 12 hours – I could chalk that up to advanced technology. I was able to tolerate the third show, in which a virus wiped out memory, but could be cured by getting infected with a common cold, because: antibodies – and the memory loss was entirely reversed. I overlooked the fact that somehow this effect happened in a day (normally adaptive immune responses take about a week), and that the massive brain damage was somehow reversible. Whatever, time compression is a plot device, and I can imagine a way a virus could reversibly alter memory (not plausible, maybe, but possible).

I feel like I’m giving them a lot of slack, but in a recent episode, they made an unforced error, a scientific misstep that’s not only completely wrong, getting it right would not have affected the story at all. But I decided it could be a teachable moment.

The set up is this: the leaders of Terra Nova are looking for a spy – someone is sending information to a group of rebels living outside the colony. They’re hot on the trail, and the spy manages to escape unseen, but gets cut on a piece of glass and lets a drop of blood fall into a can of paint thinner. The dogged detectives take the can back to the lab to see if the scientists can get a genetic ID. The scientists reject the idea completely, not because the DNA is far too dilute, not because the chemicals in the paint thinner will degrade the DNA, but because one of the chemicals in paint thinner, toluene, is incredible good at destroying red blood cells.

It’s true, toluene does bust up red blood cells (and indeed many cell types), and it’s even used for this application in some labs. The trouble is, red blood cells don’t actually have any DNA. During development, red blood cells destroy their own nucleus and other organelles, becoming in effect sacks of hemoglobin. They have no nucleus, no DNA (not even mitochondrial DNA), and so their loss from a blood sample is no problem in terms of identification.

Blood contains plenty of other cells (the white blood cells) which are largely cells of the immune system like B-cells, T-cells and monocytes. These guys have plenty of DNA to sequence, and would almost certainly be mucked up by toluene to make the scientists’ job more difficult. In the end, they put a little petri dish with a spot of red liquid on a dias that lights up, presumably to sequence the DNA. I can look past even that absurdity, but there’s just no excuse for getting basic facts so spectacularly wrong.

In the future Terra Nova writers – if you ever need any biology-based fact checking, just shoot me an e-mail.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    December 16, 2011

    I have yet to watch an episode.

    I think, though, that my favorite reality divergence in TV fiction is in the various Law and Order shows where the courtroom/trial/plea bargaining process from the time of arrest takes two or three days, max, instead of several years for complicated cases (such as they like to depict)

    Right now Huxley and I are watching a Kratz Creatures on Aardvarks and it’s pretty accurate.

  2. #2 jrkrideau
    December 16, 2011

    So they got the science wrong. Just to be expected. Movie/TV producers do it all the time

    One of my favourites, no science, is a TV WWII escape sequence in “Deepest Germany” which uses one of the most famous châteaux in France, the Château de Chenonceau ” as the German castle. Duh
    ,
    And a particular one since I am from a farm family is the Sounder (1972) movie, BTW very good,that has Charolois cattle in the 1930′s US
    A. NOT LIKELY!

  3. #3 nomuse
    December 17, 2011

    Well, yeah. Nothing makes you wriggle like a fact that could have just as easily been gotten right, without changing the script.

    Or a pure and simple missed opportunity, when there is so much story potential in the real science and the script actually shot is so pedestrian.

    Ah, well. Fond memories of when a certain television show set at Fort Bragg was on the air, and an entire dayroom of 82d airborne paratroopers would gather to watch it with hysterical laughter.

  4. #4 Mike Olson
    December 17, 2011

    I actually like it when scientist point out basic errors in sci fi. There is a whole series on, “bad astronomy.” I enjoy sci fi written on the very edge of genuine technology. Don’t get me wrong. Growing up I loved, “Star Trek.” But, good grief, consider that travel at speeds faster than the speed of light is impossible? Or that nearly every story line involved aliens that spoke english, or were “parallels” of earth culture? Even crazier they all followed Earth’s evolution and earth’s basic chemistry: meaning they are all bipeds, all carbon based and all sight oriented…as opposed to being advantaged by using some greater or different sight: what if they saw into the infra red or ultra violet. What if they signaled through ultra sound? what if they had pheromes that signaled something undetectable to humans? Look, the original, “Star Trek,” was great, but it was flawed in that it was based upon human experience in that decade. All sci fi is crippled to the times and experiences of those lving in the times it was written. But, somethings are transcendant: the greatest episode of the original “Star TRek,” was “The City on the Edge of Forever.” But, even better than that story, was the story that never aired, written by Harlan Ellison. That story, using Star TRek Characters and ideas, which never aired…is a fucking great story. When sci fi goes to far it is just a myth. Another god story written in a modern language. When it is written in the near future, with near technology it can stand as a prophesy or a warning. Consider Aldous Huxley, “A Brave New World.”

  5. #5 BurntSynapse
    December 17, 2011

    Plot errors of every kind were treated in “Star Trek by the Minute” blog series (see http://structureddream.blogspot.com/2009/06/my-take-on-star-trek-2009-001.html ), going far beyond “Bad Astronomy”…and correcting a Phil Plait error claiming humans “outgas at both ends” when depressurized.

  6. #6 Lotharloo
    December 17, 2011

    Instead of calling them ‘science fiction’, I call them ‘science fantasy’.

    I used to watch Stargate Atlantis and that show was horrible too. So the basic plot is that there are these stargates built by some super powerful ancient civilization that allows instantaneous travel between two stargates.

    So, at the beginning of the series, they travel to another freaking galaxy where everyone speaks English, even the weird looking aliens. Then there are aliens called wraiths who ‘suck your life essence’ with their hands which makes you older with white hair and stuff. And they ‘evolved’ because a bug that used to ‘suck life’ fed on a human and their DNA’s combined or some shit like that. The main smart guy from time to time ‘invents a new kind of math’ to tackle the very difficult physics problems that they face. And so on. It was atrocious but very entertaining.

  7. #7 Kevin
    December 17, 2011

    @ Greg – I used to love L&O (the original), and I always assumed that each episode was meant to take place over a long period of time. I think they put dates in the transitions between scenes, but I never actually paid attention.

    @ BurntSynapse – FYI, I edited your comment to put a space between your link and the close parentheses, hope you don’t mind.

    That level of nit-picking seems a bit excessive to me, but I can certainly sympathize. I no longer expect shows or movies to get everything right, but as nomuse said, when it would have been just as easy to get it right without actually changing the substance, it still rankles. That said, I’m still going to watch the show.

    @ Lotharloo – I never watched the Stargate television series, but I quite like the movie. In the original, they go through the gate and the people there speak a language distantly related to ancient egyption (the nerdy dude is an Egyptologist, so he eventually figures it out). They are human, but the story is that the aliens had abducted ancient egyptian humans and brought them to this other world.

    Again, not necessarily plausible, but it doesn’t have the gaping holes of every species in the universe looking like people and speaking English.

  8. #8 Wes
    December 17, 2011

    Bad science in bad science fiction!

  9. #9 Astrobot
    December 17, 2011

    Ah, Terra Nova. I only managed to watch the two-part pilot, really couldn’t stomach any more.

    What really gets me is that their time-travel mechanic is beautiful. It’s really well thought through, and explained. Where the hell did those scientific advisors go?? Because EVERYTHING else about the science is appallingly wrong, and often for no reason whatsoever.
    The most brain numbing moments were whenever token-smart girl had a little scene for the sole purpose of showing off how smart she is… and spews absolute bullshit! First showing complete lack of knowledge about dinosaurs, for no reason whatsoever, and then butchering some astronomy, once again being wrong for absolutely no reason.
    I can only assume the show no longer has scientific advisors. If it does, I would like to have some word with the frauds pretending to be scientists.

  10. #10 Mike the Mad Biologist
    December 17, 2011

    “In the future Terra Nova writers – if you ever need any biology-based fact checking, just shoot me an e-mail.”

    Don’t give this away! So young…

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    December 17, 2011

    In the good old days, science fiction was supposed to be based on known science, or reasonable extension of same. One exception was faster than light space ships. Many of the science fiction writers had some background in physics or chemistry. Chad Oliver wrote from an academic background in anthropology, etc.

    I used to be a rabid science fiction fan, but as the importance of biological ideas became more prevalent in science fiction, I grew increasingly unable to suspend disbelief, and, in 1980 let my subscription to Analog lapse.

    I haven’t watched the TV show in question, and don’t intend to.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2011

    Kevin, I think it is usually ambiguous, but there are some great examples where the times/dates are made very clear. For instance, there is a statute of limitations running out on Wednesday, or somebody is on vaction for two week while some drama is playing out. And in these cases, you get to see major time compression.

    I’ve been involved in two legal cases, one where I was part of a group that were the plaintiff suing the city and a church, the other as a juror, both civil. I joined the former very near the “end” of the process and that last phase which involve one spectacular and dramatic courtroom battle followed by a judgement by a federal circuit judge (alas, against my side!) took about six months. The whole thing took enough time for our lawyer to run for governor, lose, and get appointed as county attorney.

    The case where I was a juror was the very end of a civil liability suit that had been going for seven years. There was a fight, a jaw was broken, there were small unpaid medical bills and a LOT of milkshakes that needed to be paid for (the guy’s jaw was wired shut). We awarded him half the cost of the milkshakes.

    None of this was interesting enought to get on LAO, though.

    I recommend, by the way, Dr Who and Torchwood for your science fiction. The science is perfect, no mistakes. Of course, much of the Time Lord Technology has not been discovered yet, and to do so we would have to cross our own time line.

  13. #13 Kevin
    December 17, 2011

    @ astrobot – yeah, they do make it tough sometimes. So far, I’ve managed to let it slide – I just have really low expectations and they mostly meet them.

    @ Mike – Who said anything about giving? No, you’re right, I would probably give it away :-/

    @ Jim – I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that science knows so much more, it’s harder for science fiction authors to actually have the requisite knowledge in all the fields they have to cover. It’s not just mechanics and relativity they have to keep plausible, it’s quantum theory, biology, sociology etc etc. I’m sure there’s part of it that’s laziness, but I wonder if our standards are going up too.

    @ Greg – Oh well, I can forgive some radical time compression – as long as it serves some purpose. I haven’t watched the two shows you mentioned, but I think Dr. Who is on Hulu – I’ll check them out.

  14. #14 Roy Atkinson
    December 18, 2011

    Please explain this sentence: “During development, red blood cells become destroy their own nucleus and other organelles, becoming in effect sacks of hemoglobin.” Thank you.

  15. #15 kevin
    December 18, 2011

    @ Roy – that sentence was originally “become enucleated…” But I decided that that’s a vocabulary word most people don’t need to know. Didn’t edit as thuroughly as I should have – fixed now though.

  16. #16 Buck Field
    December 18, 2011

    @ Kevin – I vaguely remember the Stargate film and wanting to like it, buy they started off with military guys who got so upset at being stuck on an alien planet they decided to harass the only person absolutely necessary to getting home, messing with his papers, and then abandoning their duty to protect him in a hostile, (potentially lethal), unknown environment.

    Suicide squad?

  17. #17 Karl
    December 18, 2011

    I’ve often thought that I could build a good high school science course based on things people get wrong in science fiction:
    Larry Niven’s “Smoke Ring” is physically impossible.
    Gyroscopes don’t work in the real world the way they do in Heinlein’s “The Number of the Beast”.
    Gravitational force won’t hold you to the inside of a Dyson sphere.
    Examples abound.

  18. #18 Kevin
    December 18, 2011

    @ Buck – See, I feel like I can let that go because it at least adds to the plot a bit. And it’s not completely unreasonable that people under high degrees of stress would act irrationally. Not saying it’s likely for an elite special ops group to behave, but at least it’s possible

    @ Karl – Might be a fun college course, though I feel like there’s too much background knowledge required for all of those things to make it feasible in high school. Maybe I’m wrong though. I’m sure you’d get a lot of kids signing up, and they might learn something despite themselves.

  19. #19 Derek in DC
    December 18, 2011

    I once had a chemistry teacher who refused to use the department-selected textbook because it contained typos and factual errors. *That’s* a time to worry about people getting things wrong. I find it hard to get fussed about non-scientists who are writing – under a deadline – made-up stories for an audience that feels pretty much disengaged from the “science” and is much more interested in the “fiction.” Is it the fault of TV folk if the general public is more interested in “Dancing with the Stars” than the absence of DNA in blood cells or gravity in a Dyson sphere?

    I wonder if Wiccans pick apart “Harry Potter” like this. (“Powdered root of asphodel? What was that woman thinking?!?”)

  20. #20 CarrieVS
    December 19, 2011

    I hate it when they do things like that. Really spoils it.
    I hope I have room to cast stones though, because I may have set myself a rather difficult challenge. I’m writing a vampire novel, and trying to make it scientifically plausible. There’s plenty of vampire lit out there which explains it by some mutation, virus etc, but I’ve yet to see one that makes any real attempt to explain how they work – how they can be immortal, or what makes them catch fire in the sun, for instance.
    Well I’ve got the idea roughed out for how it will work, but I’ve got a fair bit of research to do on the finer points and I’m just hoping I won’t find myself backed into a corner.

  21. #21 Kevin
    December 20, 2011

    @ Derek – Typos, I could care less about, but factual errors in a textbook is unforgivable. Especially since most textbooks are constantly revised. I can understand making a couple errors in a 1200 page book, but they have to know about them by the 5th edition.

    To your other point – on the one hand, you’re right; in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter. On the other hand, I care about science literacy, and unfortunately, a lot of people’s exposure to science is entirely based on TV and movies. Not that I think it matters if the viewers of Terra Nova think that there’s DNA in red blood cells, but it would be nice if TV writers and producers made a bit more of an effort.

    @ Carrie – The main problem I see for a scientifically plausible immortality is the issue of infection. But if the immune system figures in your explanation at all and you want to run something by me, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

  22. #22 Jim Thomerson
    December 20, 2011

    I like for textbooks to contain some mistakes. If textbooks are perfect, why not just teach class by having the students take turns reading them aloud? First we do not want students to uncritically read things. Secondly, because I am a professor, I know about stuff and can point out the mistakes, and show the student the literature which documents the mistakes. I think this is a valid part of the teaching process.

    One SF author I particularly liked was Hal Clements. His stories dealt with inhabitants of well thought out strange planets, and their interaction with humans. Best known story, perhaps, was “Needle” about a microscopic cop pursuing a microscopic criminal through a human’s body. I think there was a second story along the same lines.

  23. #23 Garnetstar
    December 20, 2011

    One of my favorites occurred in the premier epsisode of 24. A hijacker in a skin suit and without any breathing apparatus parachuted out of a passenger jet flying at 35,000 feet. I wanted to see her hit the ground suffocated and frozen solid.

    She also jumped out of the jet *in front* of one of the jet engines. I didn’t actually want to see footage of her being sucked into the engine and shredded, but whoever shot the film deserved it.

    In Star Trek, Next Generation: the pronunciation! “Moo-on” and “An-ee-on”. Come on, ask a grad student.

  24. #24 Gorilla trekking
    December 21, 2011

    lo that’s a good one about the red blood cells. Though i still love scific MOVIES

  25. #25 Kevin
    December 21, 2011

    @ Mike Olson – Your comment got held in spam filter for some reason, and I never get notifications about this sort of thing, sorry :-(.

    I look at shows like star trek (especially the original series, but also TNG and DS9) more as allegories for our own time that are just placed in the future. I don’t think the fact that Klingons were all played by African Americans was an accident, for instance. In that case, exaggerating the science or using it as a plot device isn’t really the point.

  26. #26 Jim Thomerson
    December 22, 2011

    I have read that camels do/do not have nucleated red blood cells. I Googeled around and found reports of occasional nucleated red blood cells in various mammals, but I am still not clear about camels.

  27. #27 Kevin
    December 22, 2011

    @ Jim – This seems to be a common rumor, but I couldn’t find any references in support (a few things like wiki answers say No, but no source). Camels do have some interesting immunology though – their antibodies can exist as single chains, and there’s an MIT professor I know trying to use this therapeutically… come to think of it, that might make a cool post.

  28. #28 CarrieVS
    December 23, 2011

    @Kevin. Thanks for the offer: I may take it uo at some point. I have got some ideas about their immune system, but mainly, they’re immortal but not immortal. They don’t age or die of age, but can become ill and die. Only a small proportion live for a very long time.

  29. #29 Ludwik Kowalski
    December 28, 2011

    Science fiction films are probably not judged on the basis of how realistic the content is. They are probably judged on the basis of how exciting they are. That is unfortunate.

    Ludwik Kowalski (see Wikipedia), is the author of this autobiography:
    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html