Like many scientists, I love science fiction. While it hasn’t directly inspired a specific project or been honoured in my research’s nomenclature, it’s still part of why I went into the field in the first place. But occasionally, being a scientist and science fiction fan presents some unique challenges. Personally, I find it pretty easy to suspend my disbelief about the big things that are inherent to the premise of the story. It’s the little details that run into the limits of suspension of disbelief. I want it to be clear that I actually really love every property listed in this post, there are just these little things that bother me.
I’ve written before about what scientists would probably actually do if they got superpowers. So that’s not what we’re looking at today. Neither is the gamma ray issue or Steve’s survival or any of the big things. No, we’re talking about what was basically a throwaway line that was just there to move the plot along toward tracking down Loki.
Specifically, the line where Tony says to contact every research institute in the country and have them all get their spectrometers up on the roof and tune them to gamma rays.
Everything about Asgard? Yeah, I’m fine with that. But it was all I could do to not condemn myself to the Special Hell by screaming “Spectrometers don’t work that way!” in the theatre.
Why did this bother me, let me count the ways. First of all, there are many kinds of spectrometers meant to detect different wavelengths. The ones that are meant to detect something other than gamma rays? You can’t just tune them to a completely different part of the spectrum. And even if you could, every detector is going to have different sensitivities so how the heck are you going to get proximity information out of that?
And even assuming the spectrometer is small enough to move, just about anything called a spectrometer is going to have issues after being moved. You don’t just move it and start collecting data again. You need to get Garrus Vakarian down there to calibrate the thing.
This is definitely a special show. It actually made me wish for silicon based life, even though that’s actually one of my science fiction pet peeves. But at least with that one you can see where the writers are coming from. It’s right under carbon in the periodic table, it’s natural to start assuming the chemistry would work the same way if you aren’t a silicon chemist.
Chlorine based life doesn’t even have that excuse. You can’t make long chains of chlorine. It’s right next to the noble gasses, it only wants to form one bond. You bond a chlorine atom to another chlorine atom… well, congratulations, you now have chlorine gas and the chain isn’t going anywhere. They could have picked any element in the periodic table, and they went with a halogen that is always seen as a terminal atom.
Oh, the science problems on CSI are notorious. There is a reason I’m including in a post about science fiction and not apologizing for it in the slightest. But it wasn’t any of the big ones that caused my roommates to ban me from watching it with them. It was a moment that should have been innocuous. They weren’t going into a terrible lot of detail about the procedure the lab tech was carrying out. And yet they still managed to earn my ire.
Because he was holding a full micropipette sideways. Which you are direly threatened about the first time you ever use a micropipette. It completely ruins the calibration of the very expensive micropipette.
I will forgive a little science fudging to move the story along. But hold the equipment right.
I should really give this one some slack. After all, showrunners in the nineties couldn’t have predicted that people would be pausing the show to screencap it. But they had an NMR spectrum! I’m an NMR person, what was I supposed to do? Not stop and analyze it?
The molecule they said the spectrum was didn’t even begin to resemble something that could give those signals. The first thing that stood out was that the spectrum was much more complicated than the proposed model. The second thing was that the spectrum clearly had aromatics in it and there was nothing remotely like that in the model.
And then I made the mistake of really looking at the computation model and realizing it included terminal helium atoms. Obviously no one was ever meant to pause this scene but I did and I can’t unsee it. On a side note, anything that gave a spectrum like the one shown would have given the computational resources available at the time the episode was made an absolute conniption.
So please, writers and prop departments, let me save the suspension of disbelief for the things that really need it.