Dear Science,

Are there any movies or television shows that you feel depict scientists particularly accurately or depict how science is actually done? I cannot imagine Jurassic Park is the best things can get.

Nerd-Loving Movie Watcher

Science can think of a few films and television shows that do get it right—or at least close—among a sea that get things terribly wrong, in particularly frustrating ways. For now, let's limit ourselves to works of fiction. (NOVA was vastly better years ago. Science vividly remembers sneaking to watch a NOVA presentation of Voyager II's flyby of Uranus in the middle of the night: live coverage of men and women in thick glasses huddled around computer monitors gleefully devouring the first scraps of data from the distant planet. Now that's science.)

Gattaca was a prescient standout. The film got the science of the near future nearly perfectly correct—right down to one of the twists at the end. When doing PhD studies, Science worked with some of the earliest deep sequencing technology, machines that can rapidly and massively decode DNA. What once took a billion dollars and a decade—sequencing the bulk of a human genome—can now be done for a few thousand dollars in an afternoon. On the near horizon are machines than can do this task about 10 times more quickly and cheaply than even these machines.

Gattaca, however, does not depict scientists working. Television shows, it seems, do a better job of this. Better Off Ted—the now-canceled dark comedy set at an outwardly evil corporation, Veridian Dynamics—captured the feeling of working for a huge organization as a scientist surprisingly well, allowing for a bit of farcical hyperbole. The two primary scientists in the cast, Phil and Lem, also stray a bit from the typical portrayal of scientists as socially inept, sexless, inhuman wretches. (I'm looking at you, Big Bang Theory. Hate.)

House—despite being a medical show—depicts the mechanics of a scientific inquiry well. A team throws out different hypotheses to explain a set of observations (symptoms, in this case). Tests are proposed to determine which of the hypotheses are true or false. The limits of the tests are acknowledged: How sensitive is the test? Could it be negative even if the hypothesis is true? How specific is it? Could it be positive because some other hypothesis is true, not ours? Sometimes the team attempts to test a hypothesis, by looking to see if the implications of the hypothesis are true: treat for the suspected disease and see if the patient gets better. The flow of this is little different than what a well-running lab will do in pursuit of an answer to a scientific question.

Nonfictionally Yours,


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