In the beginning, there was the Professor.
Though he never could figure out how to repair the S.S. Minnow, Russell Johnson’s high school science teacher, stranded with the other castaways on “Gilligan’s Island,” was so ingenious he could re-charge a battery using only bamboo and coconuts, so morbidly cerebral it never occurred to him that he was the most likely mate for Ginger and Mary Ann.
Now, there’s Walter Bishop (John Noble), a psychiatrically challenged scientist so ingenious he can take a few wires, some ice cubes and a big battery and talk to the dead on Fox’s “Fringe.” Or Dr. Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell), who’s too busy deconstructing experiments in cloning and mind manipulation at the “Eleventh Hour” (CBS) to notice that the agent protecting him (Marley Shelton) is pretty hot.
Over at “Bones,” also on Fox, it’s the same situation in reverse -- Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) would rather be performing her miraculous autopsies on the ancient dead but reluctantly solves more modern crimes with the emotionally irrepressible Det. Booth (David Boreanaz).
Flip through prime time on any night, and along with the requisite numbers of cops and docs and lawyers you’ll find an astonishing number of scientists. On CBS alone, there are the adorable physics geeks (played by Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons) of “The Big Bang Theory” and Charles Epps (David Krumholtz), the mathematician turned detective of “Numb3rs,” and the former fake psychic (Simon Baker) of “The Mentalist,” who uses the power of informed observation to unravel mysteries.
More than 40 years after the Professor talked Gilligan out of some ridiculous scrape or another while rigging up an irrigation system, rational thought has taken over television. As medical shows find themselves butting against an increasingly over-informed public, not to mention one another (has every medical show in existence now done a patient-who-feels-no-pain episode?) writers are broadening their horizons. Fox’s “House” served as the perfect bridge -- it may be a medical drama, but it celebrates the cerebellum over surgical, or curative, prowess. The titular genius (Hugh Laurie) is less concerned with saving the patient than he is with solving the problem. “Trust me,” House says, giving voice to the scientific creed in episode after episode, “it’s much better when you know.”
Science goes mainstream
Taking cues from the success of “House” and before that “CSI,” television is revisiting the lure of evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are all right there, if only you know how to put them together. Science is the new medicine, physics has gone mainstream.
“My husband, who’s a physicist at CalTech, says, ‘Physics is the new black,’ ” says Jennifer Ouellette, who regularly blogs about the subject on cocktailpartyphysics.com. The author of such science-friendly books as “The Physics of the Buffyverse,” in which she deconstructed the science of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Ouellette is also the new director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new program developed by the National Academy of Science to help Hollywood understand scientists and visa versa.
For years, the scientific community has longed for the same sort of setup the medical community has with USC’s Norman Lear Center, which, through its Hollywood, Health & Society Project, provides a clearing house of medical information and expertise for the entertainment industry.
Now, it seems, they’ve got it. Ouellette and the Exchange are already open for business at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. There she will help television and filmmakers find the experts and research they need, but more important, she hopes to bring the groups into the same room more regularly.
“Most people in the entertainment industry don’t know a scientist,” she says. “Or even someone who knows a scientist. I know lots of scientists.”
And she’s happy to share. Last month, Seth MacFarlane hosted the group’s first symposium, inviting writers, producers and other industry types to listen to and chat with experts in fields including astophysics, genetics, robotics, neuroscience and marine biology, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
For many scientists, “CSI” was a watershed, offering a cop drama based on investigation rather than hunches, on cold, hard facts rather than emotional trickery and induced confessions. But the last few years have been rather remarkable in showcasing the rational and the skeptical.
“At a time when the presidential administration bashes science, there has definitely been a resurgence on television,” Ouellette says. Whether this is because of the increased profile of issues like global warming or just a return to a still-vivid fascination with Sherlock Holmes, she will not hazard a guess (she is a science writer, after all). “Who knows what causes these trends? Science was big in the ‘60s and ‘70s because of the space program before it got marginalized.”
Now she and other scientists are working to root science-driven shows in some sort of credibility. With “The Big Bang Theory,” “Fringe” and “Numb3rs” regularly filling the screen with scientific equations, it would be nice for those of us who were stopped in our tracks at Algebra II to know that well, yes, that does sort of make sense to a scientist.
An egghead’s world
A lot of it, of course, doesn’t. (News flash -- no matter how convincing Noble’s performance is on “Fringe,” there is no talking to the dead, not even the newly dead, not even sort of talking.) Scientists and the Internet being what they are, it’s not surprising that there are entire websites devoted to taking down entertainment science (check out “insultingly stupid movie physics”), but Ouellette is more interested in getting real scientists and Hollywood types in the same room than she is in fact-checking.
“It’s easy to point fingers, but that gets a little old,” she says. “And if we genuinely want to reach out to Hollywood, it’s not such a great idea to insult them.”
She is, for example, a big defender of “The Big Bang Theory,” which, with its geek-savant leads, splits the physics community down the middle. “Older scientists still bear the scars of their youth,” she says. “They don’t understand that geek is now cool. The younger ones do.”
Some of her peers are not so sure. Like Ouellette, Clifford Johnson, a USC physicist and science blogger (find him at asymptotia.com), is happy that science has a higher profile on television. He just wishes it was a more flattering, or even accurate one. Science and scientists are still played as novelty at best and weirdly menacing at worst.
“There is a problematic image that scientists are somehow otherworldly,” he says, pointing to the characters in “Big Bang,” “Numb3rs” and “Fringe.” “They’re always socially awkward, always talking in a language we don’t understand.”
Johnson, who has worked as a consultant on science-centered shows for Discovery and History, is encouraged more by shows like “CSI” and “House,” which showcase the deductive process, warts and all -- House is brilliant, but he is never right the first time. Johnson hopes for a day when science will be just a “random career. People are scared of science because of how it is portrayed in popular culture. We need to be talking about science the same way we talk about Brad and Angelina or art or global politics. It’s just another subject.”
Yes, apparently even physicists have crazy wistful dreams. This is television, of course, which demands a fairly high level of drama-driven fluidity from its subject matter, whatever that might be. Ninety-nine percent of all professionals portrayed on TV would be fired Day One for their various high jinks -- some real doctors have been known to grow visibly pale or burst into hysterical laughter when the name “House” is mentioned.
But for the less scientific-literate viewers, there is revelation enough in learning the numerical value of music from a recent “Fringe,” the various secrets the body can reveal on “Bones” or just the orderly beauty of a mathematical mind from “Numb3rs” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
There’s something both hip and soothing about those equations, those bits of arcane knowledge about flora and fauna, all those hologram re-creations. Like watching the Professor come up with some wild but crucial piece of information from his treasured books or just rig a very nice shower for “the girls,” it’s good to know that, in a crisis situation, cooler heads will prevail. That someone knows exactly what he or she is doing.
From a layman’s standpoint anyway, it’s good to have the scientists back in charge.