Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pleasing Mr. Science

So I’m watching Bones with the hubs recently. The hubs, I should point out, is a scientist—an environmental chemist—who’s been working in his field for a good many years. This particular week on Bones the scientists at the Jeffersonian decided to use a GCMS to do some analysis. Now the GCMS (Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer) is an instrument the hubs has used for years. It’s found in every lab in the country. It’s used to determine the components in organic compounds.

The analyst on the show injected his sample into the very real GCMS, and the hubs snorted.

“What’s wrong?” I asked with a sinking heart.

“They injected twice as much sample as they should. They flooded the instrument.”

“Maybe it made for better TV,” I mumbled.

Just then the onscreen GCMS dinged. “We’ve got the results,” the onscreen scientist chirped. The hubs groaned. “Geez,” he muttered, “that’s faster than Quincy.”

Now Quincy, for the uninitiated, is the old Jack Klugman show about a genius coroner/crime fighter. It’s considered a benchmark for lousy science largely because the results of any test they take onscreen come back instantly. Needless to say, in real life it takes a bit longer since Mother Nature is a bitch.

The hubs watched the rest of Bones in somewhat grumpy silence.

The reality here is that the average TV drama isn’t going to be overly authentic in portraying a lot of things, including science. Similarly, most of us who write know that we’re going to get some details wrong in our stories if we’re writing about something unfamiliar, even though we try to do our research and we’d prefer not to make any huge glaring errors.

Many of these missed details will only be obvious to experts like my hubs, and although we may get the occasional snotty email from those experts, most of our readers will neither know nor care. Nonetheless, stuff like this will probably drive some people nuts, particularly those who know the profession or hobby or activity well. Back in the day when I played the violin, I remember being really annoyed at actors who pretended to play but whose bow strokes bore no relation to the music booming on the sound track.

You might ask if it really matters whether a portrayal is absolutely realistic? The answer is, as usual, it depends. If a movie or a book gets some basic details wrong, then that’s a problem—the producer or author missed something vital in their research and they deserve the annoyed reviews they’re probably going to get. But there are details that only experts know, and authors/producers may simply overlook those. It’s fun if they get them right, but it’s not a disaster if they get them wrong.

And I think that’s probably the bottom line about professions and activities in books and movies. People who know these professions or who take part in these activities are likely to groan. But hell, how many people in the audience have ever injected a sample into a GCMS? Perishingly few, I’d guess. The rest of us just concentrate on Booth and Bones and ignore what happens in the lab.

Then again, when my own profession shows up in TV land and they screw up the details, I’m likely to snarl. Don’t get me started about Rick Castle and the writer’s life (when does the guy have time to produce those bestsellers anyway?).

So what mistakes drive you crazy about TV shows and movies? Any glaring errors that make you want to throw a shoe at the screen? Or are you the live and let live type much beloved by authors and producers everywhere?

3 comments:

flchen1 said...

See, I think in general an author (or screenwriter, or whoever is creating this "reality") needs to do his or her homework and do the best job of getting the facts right possible (given reasonable time constraints...)--it is very true that most of us don't know much in depth about a lot of these subjects and will happily watch/read a good story, but on the other hand, it's a real turn off for basic facts to be wrong!

I guess I am more lenient if it comes to the nitty gritty, in depth stuff that matters less for the big picture--but at least get the big picture stuff right!

And well, my personal hot-button issue (since I have an editing background) is having grammatical errors or typos in a story distract me--this also tends to mean that the story is lackluster--if I'm sucked into the story, I will forgive a lot. Typos, misuse of medical terminology, phasers set to high... you name it ;)

Um... not sure that answered the question ;p

Meg Benjamin said...

Oh I feel your pain! Typos drive me nuts, also misuse of words like affect/effect and simplistic.

PG Forte said...

For me it's tattoo and piercing details. It seems they're invariably wrong. OTOH, I know it's really impossible to get all the nuances right. I'm sure I make huge glaring errors all the time. That's why I love paranormal so much. My world, my rules. :)