Bad Science in Science Fiction

I'm sure that science isn't the only profession that gets misrepresented in popular media. I'm sure lawyers and police cringe when watching crime dramas, and soldiers are uncomfortable when watching war movies. Leaving aside shows like CSI, I think that scientist's main media foil is almost by definition science fiction. On the one hand, I've learned to mostly ignore exaggeration, over-simplification, and implausible technology - I've come to understand (though it was hard) that these things are sometimes necessary to drive a plot, and that it's unrealistic to expect that the writers are all trained scientists. On the other hand, there's no excuse for getting things blatantly wrong. Today's rant is inspired by the Fox television show Terra Nova, which is a somewhat campy show about a distopian future in which humanity has so polluted the atmosphere that it's impossible to go outside without a breathing apparatus. Luckily, they found a portal back in time, and most of the show takes place in a lush tropical world filled with dinosaurs. As you can probably imagine, there's no shortage of scientific... um... inaccuracies, but on the whole I actually enjoy the show. It's not world class television, but it's fairly entertaining.

Terra Nova TV Series.jpg (Source)

I was able to look past the second episode, in which they manage to somehow identify, isolate and mass-manufacture a pheromone from an entirely unknown species in less than 12 hours - I could chalk that up to advanced technology. I was able to tolerate the third show, in which a virus wiped out memory, but could be cured by getting infected with a common cold, because: antibodies - and the memory loss was entirely reversed. I overlooked the fact that somehow this effect happened in a day (normally adaptive immune responses take about a week), and that the massive brain damage was somehow reversible. Whatever, time compression is a plot device, and I can imagine a way a virus could reversibly alter memory (not plausible, maybe, but possible).

I feel like I'm giving them a lot of slack, but in a recent episode, they made an unforced error, a scientific misstep that's not only completely wrong, getting it right would not have affected the story at all. But I decided it could be a teachable moment. The set up is this: the leaders of Terra Nova are looking for a spy - someone is sending information to a group of rebels living outside the colony. They're hot on the trail, and the spy manages to escape unseen, but gets cut on a piece of glass and lets a drop of blood fall into a can of paint thinner. The dogged detectives take the can back to the lab to see if the scientists can get a genetic ID. The scientists reject the idea completely, not because the DNA is far too dilute, not because the chemicals in the paint thinner will degrade the DNA, but because one of the chemicals in paint thinner, toluene, is incredible good at destroying red blood cells.

It's true, toluene does bust up red blood cells (and indeed many cell types), and it's even used for this application in some labs. The trouble is, red blood cells don't actually have any DNA. During development, red blood cells destroy their own nucleus and other organelles, becoming in effect sacks of hemoglobin. They have no nucleus, no DNA (not even mitochondrial DNA), and so their loss from a blood sample is no problem in terms of identification.

Blood contains plenty of other cells (the white blood cells) which are largely cells of the immune system like B-cells, T-cells and monocytes. These guys have plenty of DNA to sequence, and would almost certainly be mucked up by toluene to make the scientists' job more difficult. In the end, they put a little petri dish with a spot of red liquid on a dias that lights up, presumably to sequence the DNA. I can look past even that absurdity, but there's just no excuse for getting basic facts so spectacularly wrong.

In the future Terra Nova writers - if you ever need any biology-based fact checking, just shoot me an e-mail.