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Getting the science right 29.08.14

Gilead Amit takes a look at how science is represented on popular TV

In recent years science has well and truly made the leap into popular culture. Television series like Numb3rs, the Big Bang Theory, and the Emmy-sweeping Breaking Bad not only have characters who are scientists, but dare to treat science as integral to the plotline of the show – and have been rewarded with global viewership as a result.

These shows are famed within the scientific community for the pains taken by producers to ensure their accuracy. Like the medical sitcoms and hospital dramas which preceded them, rare is the title sequence which does not credit a scientific adviser or mathematically creative consultant.

David Saltzberg, the scientific adviser for The Big Bang Theory, fact-checks the show’s scientific references and provides the set designers with realistic material to adorn the characters’ whiteboards. The meth-making process shown on Breaking Bad, meanwhile, has deliberately had steps omitted or rearranged in the editing process to ensure viewers would not be tempted to recreate them at home.

Donna Nelson, a Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Oklahoma who advised on the show from the beginning, wrote that she had “heard that it was rumored impossible to have good science in a TV show and still have a hit. Producers and writers were afraid that a science advisor might push science too much and that the show could resemble a science documentary more than a drama.

The show’s phenomenal success among audiences and critics alike (let’s not forget it holds the Guinness World Record for highest rated TV series) has hopefully put paid to this rumour once and for all.

Such meticulous attention to accuracy, however, is not always possible. In this country,  for example, the television programme that makes the greatest use of science concepts is Doctor Who – a show whose very premise of a time-travelling, bicardial regenerating alien relies upon a certain scientific flexibility.

And indeed, over the course of the past 50 years numerous sins against pedantry have been committed in the interests of expediency, narrative and entertainment. Such is the beauty of fantasy fiction, and it would be a joyless literalist indeed who would condemn all television to adhere to strictly plausible plotlines.

That being said, Doctor Who is a programme that commands an exceptionally dedicated, young, and intellectually curious audience. It is a show that celebrates intelligence, equality and open-mindedness, with a title character who shamelessly flaunts his academic qualifications.

Which is why it came as a disappointment to see that in the first episode of the new series, which kicked off to an audience of 7.3 million last week, the producers reverted to a lazy stereotyping of science as chalky squiggles on a dark surface. Now, let’s be clear – the equations which the Doctor scribbles onto the wooden floor of his bedroom do not, by any stretch of the imagination, have anything to do with the plot. Nor, as enraged internet commentators have been quick to remind me, are they on screen for much longer than a few seconds.

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Nonetheless, those pseudo-mathematical scrawlings had to be physically drawn out. A set designer (or more likely an assistant with a textbook) painstakingly got down on their hands and knees to cover the floor and walls of a large room with these esoteric markings.

This would have been a fantastic opportunity to introduce young viewers to Einstein’s equations for general relativity, for example, or the Lorentz transforms governing the way time slows down at near-light speeds. Instead what they were treated to was a mistranscribed A-level physics equation, some simple binomial expansions and a handful of meaningless algebraic expressions.

How different from The Big Bang Theory, where Saltzberg says “I send the set designers the material for the white boards and they put it up during the week before the taping. Sometimes the scribblings pertain to the topic of the show. For example, in the episode where the boys buy a time machine replica, the equations for time travel using wormholes, are on the whiteboards. One mathematician blogger criticized the way they were adding spins on the whiteboard as clumsy, but he also recognized that this is the way physicists would actually do it.

Being a joyless, obsessive pedant is one thing. Noticing a worrying tendency to reduce science to clumsy stereotypes is another. I’m not for a moment suggesting anyone should try to take the fun out of joyous, spectacular television – but in exchange nobody should try to take the fun out of science.

A longer version of this post can be read here. A quick word of warning, though – Spoiler Alert.