When TV Gets Its Scientists Right

Sometimes, TV shows and books do portray scientists accurately. Perhaps almost too accurately, Alice Ly writes.

Alice TSSS 5

AsianScientist (Apr. 10, 2015) – A few months ago, we explored when scientists go to the movies and when those movies get it horrifyingly, agonizingly wrong. Sometimes though, the portrayal of science in movies, books and TV isn’t as bad as it usually is.

I started thinking about this because I was forced by friends to start watching the recently concluded Breaking Bad TV series this past month. Upon being asked what I thought of it after watching the first few episodes, my first comment was, “Well, I can’t say I know too many science teachers or scientists who decide to cook meth, but the chemistry is correct.”

It also reminded me of that time in Chemistry 101 where the lecturer decided to illustrate how one could synthesize illegal heroin from legal codeine with minor structural changes (probably not the smartest thing to tell a bunch of impressionable teenagers). So what are other examples where the portrayal of science or scientists are fairly true to form?

Keeping it real

Perhaps the most obvious or famous example would be the sit-com The Big Bang Theory, which is known not only for having physicist David Saltzman as the science consultant for the show, but also for cast member Mayim Bialik, who has a PhD in neuroscience and plays neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler. Put in all the high number of cameos from various eminent scientists (e.g. Stephen Hawking, Michael Massimino, Neil deGrasse Tyson), and you have a show that takes science (a bit) seriously.

However, that’s not what impressed me. No, what actually impressed me was a line in the pilot episode where Sheldon said something along the lines of not being able to eat two curry-based meals in a day. I swear that the colleague who introduced me to this show actually said something similar to me one day at lunch. And that means that this show doesn’t just know their science, but it also knows their scientists.

It’s in the details

In another example of knowing scientists, we have the New York Times bestseller The Rosie Project. A scientist friend of mine was recently complaining about how difficult it is to find an appropriate life partner and said that it would be much easier if one could write up a questionnaire and force people to fill it in in order to find an appropriate match. While I pointed out that this is the strategy of online dating program OkCupid, I also noted that this was the approach taken by the main character of The Rosie Project.

This book was recommended to me by a ‘friend’ who told me that they read it and said, “It made me think of you!” (i.e. me). Whether it was because the main character worked in a biomedical department at the same university where I completed my PhD (wooh!), or because the main character has Aspergers-like symptoms (ummm…), this book does contain key elements on what scientists were like on this campus (e.g. knowing restaurants nearby where scientists liked to hang out, being borderline alcoholics (*cough cough*) and the various stresses on being a research scientist in this day and age (e.g. the pressure to bring in grant money). This is likely due to author Graeme Simsion formerly being a computer scientist who completed his PhD at my alma mater.

Not just the doctors

Medical shows are known for being almost magically inaccurate (I know of no hospital that is staffed only by sexy young doctors!), but one medical show was noted by friends as being incredibly accurate. That show? Scrubs. Think about it. Many of my medical friends have said that JD’s internal monologue about whether he was treating patients properly is something that they have done themselves, particularly in their younger years when they were lacking experience. This was also built from the show having a medical adviser and having writers to interview doctors.

In addition, while most medical shows concentrate on the doctors’ relationships with each other as they try to solve problems and cure patients, all hospitals are teeming with other people who each play a role—nursing staff, technicians and various others. For example, cleaners are an important part of how hospitals function but name another hospital TV show where a cleaner has such a prominent role?

Moral of the story?

So while science and scientists are often portrayed incorrectly in fictional materials, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes real effort is put into presenting everyone and everything with a measure of accuracy, and this is apparent to all. This was especially true of what could be the real moral of Breaking Bad—that scientists and science teachers should be paid more.

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: NASA Blueshift/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

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