Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


J.J. Abrams New TV Show “Fringe” is a Hunk of Crap (and Bad for Science)


Okay, so let me first state upfront that I am a scientist throughout every level of my psyche. I do not believe in Gods, the paranormal, homeopathic remedies, astrology, magic, UFOs, immortal souls, the chupacabra or any other such nonsense.

That being said, from an entertainment standpoint, I am a huge fan of nearly all science fiction, fantasy, and literary and cinematic portrayals of pseudoscientific and paranormal ideas (at least the good shows/stories).

In fact, I'm not embarrassed to admit that one of my favorite TV shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cool demons, magic, and truly amazing character development, mixed with brilliant examinations of our shared cultural and human's got it all. Also, I should mention that I was a fan of both "Alias" and "Lost".

That being said, I just watched the pilot episode of J.J. Abrams new TV show "Fringe" and I must say that it is a steaming load of shite on multiple different levels. And on top of all the things that make it horrible entertainment, I think it's bad for science as well.

I'd like to first tackle the reasons I think it's bad for science.

Reason 1: The main "scientist" character is a clinically insane old guy in a white lab coat that gets yanked from the loony bin to do his scientific deeds.  He's the stereotypical "mad scientist". And he's not the only one. Another mad scientist who used to be buddies with the other mad scientist turned himself into Bill Gates and now runs an evil science corporation (at least they strongly imply the corp is gonna be evil).

Reason 2: Just as an example of how science is portrayed in this show - one of the characters in the corporation says (paraphrased) "Science and technology have grown at such an exponential rate for so long, it’s now beyond the control of regulation." This seems like it will be a major theme of the show - giving a run-down of every possible way imaginable that science can go wrong. FEAR science! It's out of control!

Reason 3: This is basically the same as #2, but it comes not from the show but from J.J. Abrams himself as quoted in this interview (no longer available):

The show is coming out at a time when every week we read or see some kind of potentially horrifying scientific breakthrough … We are at a time where science is out of control,” Abrams told reporters during a conference call [emphasis mine]. He pointed out that recently scientists talked of having some success in attempting to develop an invisibility cloak device after creating two types of materials that can bend light the wrong way.

“The stuff you would never in a million years think is actually possible, is happening every day. It is pushing what we all thought was that comfortable quaint version of what sci-fi is, to a very different place, and that is where ‘Fringe’ lives,” Abrams said.

Obviously, Abrams knows exactly jack shit about actual science. The cloaking device is cool, but still a far cry from the science fiction incarnations that have been dreamed of for decades. If anything, I would argue that science is far behind most science fiction visions of our technological possibilities, and it certainly isn't producing "the stuff you would never in a million years think is actually possible". Despite this reality, Abrams now gives watchers more fears to ruminate on.

Reason 4: Despite the fact that Abrams himself has said that much of the show will at least revolve around real modern science, most of what I've seen in the pilot is nothing but moronic caricatures of real science. One quick example: When mad scientist guy is given back his ancient underground laboratory at Harvard from many years ago, he asks for a bunch of lab equipment, including "a microorganism detector".  What the hell is that? A microscope? Maybe a PCR machine for sequencing DNA (which he's never heard of because he's been in the mental clink for years). I've been in many many labs, but somehow I missed out on being trained to use the microorganism detector.

Which brings up the main reason I hate this show - The plot setup is so retarded that I simply cannot suspend my disbelief.

You see, good shows dealing with the paranormal or pseudoscientific do one key thing that makes all the wierd stuff perfectly alright - they give you a good reason to suspend your disbelief. Buffy, for instance, simply tells you "magic is real, demons are real, and she's the chosen one to kill evil".

Alright, I can accept that - now bring on Spike...

As another example, Heroes, X-Men and The 4400 simply said "There are people with superhuman or paranormal gifts. It's tied to biology or genetics. That's all you need to know." Alright, I accept your scene - on with the cool acts of derring-do.

"Fringe", on the other hand, makes its own setup utterly unbelievable and stupid almost from the very beginning. Fifteen minutes into it, we're told that there's some crazy disease melting people or turning their skin clear, and only one man can save the now-infected FBI agent. The savior is non other than the mad scientist who's been in the Nut Hatch for years.

So they pull him out, muttering, stuttering, and acting generally crazy, and they give him his lab. He immediately begins prepping a few electrodes and a massive tank full of saline or something, into which he puts the girl of the show. He hooks her up to the FBI dude so they can "share consciousness".

Never mind the fact that science and technology has in fact progressed far enough that the ten-year-old scientific knowledge of an insane man would be almost completely obsolete.

The problem is that the show doesn't set itself in the future or couch the strange happenings in a simple way that allows you to disregard the unlikelihood of its events. No - instead it takes itself MUCH too seriously and tries to make you believe that our technology, as we know it and understand it right now in 2008, already contains such things as transmogrification, teleportation, and connecting minds (through the rhythm of "brain waves" no less, ignoring anything about real neuroscience or brain structure or neurons). Not only that, but the crazy scientist many years out of practice is light years ahead of the real scientists.

In summary, don't waste your time with "Fringe". From the pilot, I saw no redeeming interesting plot elements or particularly intriguing character development. Perhaps it will get better, though I doubt it.


A Small Example of the Ignorance of (Some) Rednecks

Black Rat Snake (aka "the only good snake is a dead snake")

Today, once again, I witnessed a not-too-uncommon display of ignorance and primitive barbarism in the rural south.

I was driving along a small country back road near my home in North Carolina, listening to a book on CD (no it’s too embarrassing to tell…OK, fine – it was “Twilight” the first novel by Stephenie Meyer about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. Hey screw you – it has amazing character development and who doesn’t like vampire stories?)

Anyway, I was ambling down the road when I saw what I thought might be a snake crossing up ahead. No one was behind me, so I stopped in the middle of the road and got out to check it out. I’m usually the guy who stops to pick up box turtles and carry them across the road – what can I say? I’m a biologist. Sure enough, it was a black rat snake of average length - about 4 feet long – stretched out across the road and moving as if in no hurry. I was glad he had not been run over - usually when I see a snake in the road it’s already dead.

I see a truck pull on to the road a quarter mile down and head right toward us. “Shit,” I think, “This truck will probably aim right toward him.” So I grab the tip of the snake’s tail with the intention of toss him in one quick movement into the ditch. But the snake’s scales were firmly latched onto the blacktop. Plus, he was much quicker than I anticipated. He lashed out at me and coiled into a raised striking position in the middle of the road. He did not find my actions quite as altruistic as I did. Black rat snake bites can be quite painful, considering their row of tiny sharp teeth. I’ve been bitten by one before. They also have a tendency to chew on you once they grab hold. So I backed off.

The truck was not slowing down and other cars were now moving towards us. My car was parked in the middle of the road. I could not see any sticks or anything to handle the snake with, so I decided to leave it to the fates. Maybe the redneck will see that I was just out looking at the snake and will leave it alone, just for my sake (note: I come from a long line of Arkansas/Texas rednecks myself). I get in my car and quickly start it up. I slowly pull forward, and the truck, which had a long trailer attached to the back pulled to a stop in front of the snake. I watched an elderly man get out of the pickup in my rearview. He glanced at the snake, jumped back into the cab, swerved his wheels into the center of the lane, and squashed the snake.

Yet this old man went out of his way to smash a creature that spends its days protecting the man’s crops, or his neighbors. Out here, I’ve seen people swerve to hit opossums, raccoons, snakes, and any other little non-dog-or-cat species.

I saw it writhing over itself - dying - as the truck righted into the lane.

Why do I taste burning rubber?

The black rat snake is non-venomous. It feeds almost solely, as its name implies, on rodents. The land around where we had been is all farmland, the truck was carrying farm equipment, and the man looked himself to be a local farmer.

It makes me sick. I simply cannot understand the mind that would derive pleasure from brutally snuffing out our animal neighbors, particularly considering that these are people that have been raised in their presence. I’m not a hippie PETA activist. And I’m not a vegetarian. In fact, I do experiments on animals for brain research. But the pointless, barbaric smashing of animals with a car for pure fun simply reinforces my own views about large swaths of the human population – namely that in many people, pure barbarism lingers within their psyches, reinforced by superstition, fears of things they don’t understand, and utter unadulterated ignorance.


Loss of Truth: How the Government is Killing Science

Everyday lately, while listening to the news and watching the world around us disintegrate into war, chaos and malcontent, I see and feel the deception pervading the information fed to us by our government and media outlets. It seriously sickens me. This PDF is a report put out by Rep. Henry A. Waxman to Congress listing many of the incomprehensible (and I would call downright evil) manipulations, lies, and dictatorial eliminations of truth the Bush Administration has committed in obvious contempt of the American people. This administration is single-handedly destroying science in America.

And by science I simply mean the basic human understanding of the reality around us (not to be confused with technology which is the application of scientific knowledge). Many of you likely agree with the administration's positions on some of the key issues being discussed such as embryonic stem cell research, and understandably so. This article does not focus on arguing the issues themselves but mainly focuses on exactly when where and how the Bush administration lied or manipulated (or sometimes even completely falsified data). I do not believe any American can truly read these acts of manipulation and falsification and not feel betrayed by the folks supposedly working for our benefit, regardless of your political position. I guarantee you will be shocked by what you read.

So please at least read the summary at the beginning of the article if you don't care for the details, and pass this along if you feel as upset as I do.

I would also like to point out that almost all of the sciences are being negatively affected by this administration including my own lab. We are doing research to understand how the human body creates a heart. The potential benefits to humanity are obvious considering 1 out of every 100 are born with a heart defect. Unfortunately we and many other labs are losing much of our funding due to Bush's slashing of the science budget (to pay for his war).

I know most of you probably couldn't care less what I think about the Bush administration's science policies. But I feel that by trying to reach as many as possible, I am least doing what I can to affect the world around me. I think it would be unpatriotic of me not to expose as many Americans as possible to the lies and deceit of this administration.

And no matter what "issues" you may agree or disagree with the administration on, NOTHING excuses them from feeding us patently false and manipulated information to achieve their ideological goals.