Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

APS 2009: The Expanding Potential of Physics and Television

by Andre on 20 March 2009

There seems to be an increasing number of TV shows that promote a positive view of science, the scientific method, and a sceptical world-view: it cures people on House, solves crime on CSI and Bones, and entertains on The Big Bang Theory. Even math is useful in the Numb3rs universe. But, when scientists see these shows, they often get hung up on the inaccuracies and misperceptions (I know I do). There’s a lot to complain about, but in the end I think they are a net positive for science because they reach a broad audience and tend to put science in a positive light. Compare these to X-Files, a show I enjoyed. In every episode, the sceptical scientist-type Skully is basically portrayed as a close-minded party pooper to Mulder, the uncompromising truth seeker who sees, and in the show finds, paranormal activity everywhere. This couldn’t be illustrated more succinctly than in the show’s tag line: I want to believe.

Still, if the current offerings don’t satisfy you, there’s now a way you might be able to help. Just contact the Science and Entertainment Exchange and let them know your field of expertise and willingness to consult with writers eager to get their science right. Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger is now the director of the National Academy of Sciences program.

Jennifer gave a very entertaining talk introducing us to some shows that feature science prominently and she picked out a few great examples to illustrate her points. A lot of them made me cringe, but I also saw some truth in them. As she says, TV shows sometimes reflect life through a funhouse mirror: it may distort and exaggerate what you see, but it’s still a reflection of reality. This is true of Brennan’s habit of using too much jargon when trying to communicate her findings on Bones. It always annoys me and part of me wishes the writers would cut it out, but then I remember how often it happens in reality and I wonder if there’s any exaggeration at all. At least the main character doesn’t look like Einstein in a lab coat!

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