How much science can you fit into an hour-long television show? When you talk to Glen Whitman and Rob Chiappetta, executive story editors on the hit Fox series Fringe, it almost seems like the answer is “an unlimited amount.” Science seems to be crammed into every nook and cranny of Fringe, so much, in fact, that Fox offers high school lesson plans that explore the science of specific episodes. Fringe doesn’t hit viewers over the head with science though; it’s not a documentary dressed up as fiction. Instead, it takes scientific twists and turns, imagining “what-if” by taking real science to the edge, also known as fringe science. Think parallel universes, mind control and wormholes through time. 

It is fictional science, but still, Whitman and Chiappetta, who kept an archive of science concepts and ideas during the first season of Fringe for inspiration, feel a sense of duty to the scientific community. “We want to promote the idea that science is not just a bunch of facts and figures and experiments, but that it’s people, it’s passion and it’s adventure,” explains Whitman. “On our show, the heroes are scientists. The heroes are really smart people asking really smart questions.”  

Fringe, as Whitman and Chiappetta explain it, is about science as a means to deepen and explore storylines and characters, which is part of the exchange with The Exchange, says Chiappetta. “Our relationship with the program is not just about helping us accurately depict science; It’s also to promote a general feeling, a general respect, interest and wonder about science, about technology and what’s coming next, and how can we infuse these ideas into storytelling.” 

Not that scientific accuracy doesn’t count on Fringe. Whitman and Chiappetta are working to build story arches, develop characters and immerse viewers in a plausible world – all for the sake of telling the story. That’s hard to do if the science comes off as, well, ridiculous. Whitman and Chiappetta are careful to craft plausible science scenarios for Fringe, which means a call or e-mail to one of The Exchange’s consultants is sometimes needed.

In Fringe’s third season finale, for instance, Whitman and Chiappetta contacted physicist (and Exchange consultant) Sean M. Carroll for a particularly puzzling wormhole/radiation conundrum. “In the finale, which is set in 2026, a wormhole is opened in the middle of Central Park,” explains Whitman. “What we wanted the characters to realize, in a couple of lines of dialogue, is that the wormhole leads to a specific point in time, 250 million years ago. So the question was, what could they detect coming out of the wormhole that would allow for that conclusion?”

In the original script, the characters detected gamma radiation, which is real but not accurate. Whitman and Chiappetta also considered Hawking radiation, a type of radiation emitted by black holes, but again, the real science didn’t fit. “The problem was that any wormhole or black hole would emit Hawking radiation. So, the characters could detect the radiation but it wouldn’t tell them that it was coming from a different time,” says Whitman. If he and Chiappetta wanted the characters to know the wormhole led to a point in time, not a point in space, they would need a different explanation. “We considered some other possibilities,” he explains. “One is that they captured the airstream that was coming through the wormhole and tested it for its carbon content and nitrogen content. Then they would compare it to a profile of their estimates of atmospheric concentrations over many millennia. But ultimately, that was a big, long explanation for what was supposed to be more of an emotional scene between two characters.”

Boiling it down to a few lines of dialogue was not an easy task, but with Carroll’s help, the two story editors found a conceivable explanation. “We needed something that could make people go ‘Aha! That’s connected to another period of time!’” says Carroll. “We threw around a couple of ideas and [Whitman and Chiappetta] settled on an unknown form of radiation.” Since the season finale is set in the future, it is possible that scientists could discover a new form of radiation. So, Whitman and Chiappetta “discovered” kappa radiation, which became the series’ tell-tale sign that a wormhole goes through time, not space. “It’s not something that exists in known physics,” says Carroll, “but it is a plausible way that future scientists could tell something fishy was going on.” 

The end result of consultation? A few lines of dialogue between characters Walter Bishop and Peter Bishop:

Walter: I also hear there’s been a massive increase in kappa radiation.

Peter: That one is true. A wormhole opened in Central Park, right in the center of Sheep’s Meadow. Took us months but we were finally able to Amber it over.

Walter: A wormhole shouldn’t emit that type of radiation. Not unless it’s a wormhole through time.

Peter: Exactly right. The carbon levels were consistent with the late Paleozoic era, 250 million years ago.

It doesn’t seem like much. In fact, blink and you’ll miss it. But that’s the point. The scene is a reunion between the two characters (father and son). Walter is behind bars, imprisoned for an action with dire consequences, and Peter is seeing him for the first time in years. When you watch the scene, the emotion is apparent, not the science – which helps the viewers get deeper into the story without an interruption from an implausible science scenario. 

You might wonder why Whitman and Chiappetta bother with (theoretically) accurate science at all. It’s a television show, so why not just make something up? Building Fringe’s science from real science has its benefits, says Chiappetta. “Viewers are very, very smart. They demand a higher degree of accuracy and, at the least, plausibility.” Plus, adhering to some sort of logic is integral for the cast. “John Noble, the actor who plays Walter, he’s always reading about Einstein, about new revelations in physics. Many times he comes up to us to ask, ‘Okay, explain this to me. Why would I be doing this? Why would I be saying this?’” explains Chiappetta. “If we can provide him with a real reason why this is what he’s doing or why this is an actual scientific process, he feels more emboldened as a character, that his character is really this genius. The more we can provide [the cast] with real reasons, the more they feel emboldened to grab that and play that part even more deeply and richly.”

Whitman agrees, referencing a scene where Walter needed to talk to another character about a complex mathematic calculation with 60 or so equations. “I got a call from John Noble and he literally wanted to know what was happening in each line of the mathematical calculation. He wanted to understand what the notations meant, what each line was proving and how the whole logic of what they were doing worked,” says Whitman.

It also helps if the characters are able to speak like scientists. Sometimes, Whitman and Chiappetta need input from scientists and engineers on how to phrase dialogue and terminology. “It’s helpful when you have someone in the field who can say ‘This is how you would present this concept,’” says Chiappetta. “If we can use the terminology correctly, if we can have our [characters] talking the way that scientists talk, I think it sounds real.”

As much as Whitman and Chiappetta are obligated to the storyline and the characters, Whitman also mentions a loyalty to the science. “The odd thing is that, especially after talking to a scientist who really knows what they’re talking about and has an interest in educating the public, I suddenly feel a strange obligation,” says Whitman. Story does come first though, reminds Whitman, but it would seem he and Chiappetta are keeping science and story in perfect harmony. “What we hear from Robert’s father, who is a professor of science education at the University of Houston, is that people involved in science get excited about a show like this,” says Whitman. “That he has colleagues on campus who come up to him and say, ‘Hey, I watched Fringe last night and I noticed that they used this concept. That’s awesome!’ We love it when we hear stories like that.”

 

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Comments

"kappa radiation" is Treknobabble at its worst. "How can they tell it's a wormhole through time? Hmmm.... I know! A made-up kind of radiation seen only in wormholes through time!" Did they really need to consult a physicist for that one? <p> The whole idea that a wormhole linking 2026 Earth to 250Mya Earth is stationary in space is just wrong, but assuming you want to distinguish a wormhole that links to its own past light cone from one that links to absolute elsewhere, what would be a plausible explanation? <p> We could imagine that particles spontaneously appear along closed timelike curves. The particle would need to be able to travel (say, orbit the Milky Way) for 250 million years without interacting. So if you saw an unusually high ratio of weakly-interacting particles (say, neutrinos) traveling at 200 km/s entering the wormhole, that would be a strong hint. <p> But if you detect these particles, they wouldn't be there, since their worldline is no longer closed. You'd have to detect them nondestructively, maybe with an extremely sensitive gravity detector. If you have two ways of detecting neutrinos, one destructive and one nondestructive, and your nondestructive one is showing high neutrino flux while your destructive one is registering zero, that would be a dead giveaway. <p> So my proposed line would have been, "I hear there’s been a huge discrepancy between direct and indirect neutrino counts." A bit outlandish overall, sure, but compared to a kind of radiation that miraculously tells you what you need to know, it's downright plausible. :)

I'd appreciate any advice on scientific consulting for Fringe or other shows. I am a research scientist working on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). I have been doing this since the early days of BCI research and know all the people, ideas, technologies, tales, emerging directions, etc. I tried posting contact info yesterday, but my comment was not posted. I'm easy to find online.

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