To be clear, Glen Whitman and Rob Chiappetta, executive story editors on the hit Fox series Fringe want viewers to know not all of the science on Fringe is accurate. But it is as accurate and grounded in reality as it can be for a show that takes on parallel universes, mind control, and super-sized viruses. The series depicts science by imagining how far it can go, which has called for a few science consultants from The Exchange. We chatted with Whitman and Chiappetta to learn more about how far science can go on Fringe, why they love real science on the show, and what science viewers can expect in the fourth season.
Tell us about your background. How did you start working in the entertainment industry?
Whitman: Both of us had careers prior to this. Rob was a lawyer. I’m an economics professor. But we got into entertainment in large part because we were consulting for a friend of ours who is a successful screenwriter, Roberto Orci, and after consulting for him on various projects, we started to develop a buzz for the writing itself. We decided that would be an exciting thing to do, so that’s when the two of us teamed up and started working on our own material. We got our first paying gig in the industry, when the show Fringe came along. At that point we had a good bit of practice under our belts and Roberto was able to give us a boost to get on to the show. That first year, the role that we played was the “science guys,” so we weren’t official writers on the staff yet. Largely our role was acting as researchers and intermediaries between the writers on the show and the actual scientists we talked to, such as the consultants provided by The Exchange. Since then, we’ve been boosted to official writers on the show, but we still continue to play the role of “science guys” as well.
Why did you want to work on Fringe? We heard you built up an archive of science articles during the first season.
Chiappetta: When Roberto, his writing partner Alex Kurtzman and J.J. Abrams all came together to create Fringe, they first wrote a pilot that was a 2-hour episode. As they were writing the pilot, they were asking us to research general scientific facts and ideas. As we were doing that, we were collecting so much other material that we were like, “Wow, if this show got on the air, these would be cases. These would be interesting scientific principles/conundrums/starting places to extrapolate and have an interesting 1-hour episode about.” Roberto encouraged us to put together an online archive of these ideas. After the pilot was filmed, and after it was being shown to the network and the studio, you also have to put together a show bible, which is sort of pitch documents that explain what’s going to come next – what are episodes 2, 3, 4 and on through the first season. You usually want to have some ideas and concepts. Since we were sitting on this pile of ideas already, basically little scientific nuggets of crazy science that we could start episodes about, Roberto said, “Start coming up with general stand-alone show concepts – a crime or scientific mystery the Fringe team could investigate.” That’s where we started after that.
Whitman: Then, after the writing team was assembled to begin writing the first season, that’s how we ended up being the “science guys.” Technically, we had a different title that I’m not going to get into. It was a weird kind of support position that doesn’t even exist anymore. But it ended up being de facto that we were the “science guys” simply because we were the ones reading up on the scientific literature. When a concept came up, we volunteered a way that it could be grounded in real science. We fell into the role of the researchers and “science guys.”
Do you still go back to that science archive? Are you adding to it?
Whitman: The archive is largely defunct now but that’s mainly because we’ve continued to read the scientific literature, especially the popularized versions of it, such as New Scientist, Science News, Wired, and so forth. As a result, it ends up being very fresh in our minds anyway. Every now and then, we’ll remember an article we saw 2 or 3 years ago and say, “Wait a minute. That might be relevant.” So we’ll go looking through the archive again.
Chiappetta: It would be a good idea if we kept that updated. It was a great idea. The other people on the show were able to access it the first two seasons and the other writers used it. It was useful to them and I think they saw the value in what we were doing.
We know that Fringe has high school lesson plans on the website. Did you have something to do with that?
Whitman: Initially, we had a role in that. At some point, other people started handling it. But early on, when we were contacted about [Fringe], there was a desire to take advantage of Fringe’s pop culture edge in getting the attention of high-school students and trying to leverage that into a way of showing students some real science. Naturally, when the lesson plan writers came looking for examples of how real science has played into, or inspired something on the show, because of the fact that we had been the “science guys,” they came to us. We were able to give them a list of when that had happened, especially in the first and second season. The second season the lesson plans have been handled independently of us.
Why bother with accurate science on Fringe? Why not just make something up?
Whitman: Just to be clear, we certainly would not want to be on the record as saying all the science on Fringe is accurate. Far from it. The whole idea is imagining science and technology has advanced beyond what we know now. It’s also the case that you have to make sacrifices for stories sometimes. So, there might be times when there would be a more accurate, but also a much more complex and hard to explain answer, and there’s just not enough time on screen for that or we don’t want to confuse the viewer when we don’t have to. So, we end up adopting a simpler version that is not always as accurate as we would have liked.
That’s a caveat we have to make before we can talk about why we like it when there is the real science. But I think the reason why we like real science on Fringe is because unlike other science-fiction shows that are set in the distant future, Fringe is supposed to be taking place in the present day. It works on this conceit that the science that we read about in magazines and the journals has actually gone further than people could imagine. So, for that reason, because it’s supposed to be happening right this very moment, we like to draw upon the concepts that people might actually be hearing about and reading about in their science classes, in the news, in the media. That gives the show a level of realism and connection that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Chiappetta: I think the show creators and the show runners have always been very clear that they want to start at a place where if someone hears about a concept on the show, they can go to Wikipedia, they can go to Google, they can go to the newsstands and find something that says, “Scientists are working on this concept. This is something real that the scientific community is researching, is developing, is trying to crack.” The idea is that we want to start at a place that is real, that allows people to say “Oh, I’ve heard of that before!” Then we get to say, “Okay, now, what if? What if it worked this way?” I think that allows people to say, “Okay I’ll go on that adventure and see where this goes, because I know this is starting at a place that I know does exist in the world that I live in.” The idea that Fringe is going far out [with science] isn’t true. Science is already there.
Whitman: We could give you a lot of examples of that but probably the best one is one of the key pieces of the Fringe mythology, the idea that there is a parallel universe that is very much like our own but with a number of important differences as well. That’s an idea that directly comes from, and was inspired by, the existing cosmological and physics literature. There are physicists that do believe that there might be multiple and parallel universes, some of which that could be very similar to our own. We were explicitly drawing on that and asking, what would happen if two of those universes collided? That provided the impetus for a huge amount of what has happened on the show.
To pick another example in a different realm of science, transgenics is a growing field in biology, specifically the idea that you can takes genes from one creature and insert them into another organism, resulting in a hybrid organism. For example, a glowing rabbit, where genes from a jellyfish are inserted into a rabbit’s genome. That’s happened, those rabbits exist. Fringe takes it to the next level by creating an episode with a transgenic monster that is the result of a hybridization of multiple species, resulting in an organism that is not what the scientists intended or expected.
Sometimes, story trumps science. Can you think of an example of this on Fringe, when the accuracies of the science needed to come second to the storyline?
Whitman: During the first season of the show, there was an episode with the conceit that there would be a super-sized virus – basically, a virus that is no longer invisible to the eye but has grown gargantuan in size. Everybody liked the idea that the super-sized virus is a cold. But if you looked at the way the virus actually turned out, what was actually visible on-screen looked like a giant slug. A giant cold would look like a soccer ball. If you wanted a micro-organism that looked like a giant slug when you super-sized it, it would actually be better if you said it was bacterial rather than viral – that would be the more accurate thing to do. But we did not want it to look like a soccer ball because it would not fit with other aspects of the story. So, that was an inaccuracy and some people observed it online, that a super-sized cold could not look like a slug.
We actually had another possible explanation that we could have done. We were talking about making it so it was a cold virus but it was inside a human cell and then super-sized that human cell, making it appear slug-like. But then again, that would have taken an extra line and a lot of explanation in a lab scene that would not have been interesting or exciting to people watching the show. So, ultimately, the story and the desire to make things fast and simple won out in that case.
How did you become involved with The Exchange? What has the program done for you?
Whitman: The Exchange had literally just formed during the first season of Fringe. We, simply in our role as “science guys,” had gotten invited to an initial event that The Exchange was holding, a kind of kick-off for the organization. So we decided to attend that, just in the world of wanting to learn about stuff. There were going to be some prominent speakers, among others Craig Venter of the Venter Institute, a key figure in the Human Genome Project. We went to see those presentations, but while we were there we met Jennifer Ouellette [former Director of The Exchange] and became friends with her. She came to visit Fringe’s writers’ office one time with Rick [Loverd, Director of Development for The Exchange]. That was the beginning of the relationship. We ended up calling The Exchange a handful of times during the remainder of the first season and into the second season.
Chiappetta: But there’s also sort of a deeper interaction between the Fringe staff and The Exchange, because it’s the entertainment and science exchange. We see our relationship with The Exchange as not just about trying to get the program to help us accurately depict science, but also to promote a general respect and interest and wonder about science and technology and what’s coming next in those fields. It’s about how we can infuse those ideas into storytelling. It’s not a one-way exchange of “We need a scientist.” It’s more who are the scientists, what are their personalities, how can we show that onscreen accurately as well? That’s another interaction with The Exchange.
Whitman: It’s a two-way exchange in other words, or at least, we hope it is. What we hear from a lot of the scientists we talk to is that science fiction was part of their inspiration when they were kids. They watched Star Trek and Star Wars, and they were excited about that and that’s why they decided to become scientists. We really hope a show like Fringe helps inspire the next generation of scientists.
Can you share with us any of the upcoming science on Fringe?
Chiappetta: Obviously, the parallel universes are going to continue to play a huge role. Recently, there have been more articles coming out, more descriptions of the multiverse, and different theories of how parallel universes exist, so obviously we’re going to be playing around with that. Whoever comes up with the next article, I’m sure we’ll be reading it and trying to use some of the language to justify why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Whitman: It’s hard to say which specific things will be used but we can tell you, as always on Fringe, there will be some wacky neuroscience because we love to fiddle with the brain. One of the people we’ve been connected with through The Exchange is Ricardo Gil da Costa at the Salk Institute, and we consult with him from time to time on how to use brain science. We’re going to be doing more of that. You’ll be seeing more unusual brain issues. In particular, a popular theme on Fringe is memory and we go to the source of memories, where the memories come from, where the memories are stored, if memories can be changed or transferred. That’s all we can say for the moment.