Stupid Scientists in Science Fiction

I hate the show The Big Bang Theory. It is a stupid person’s idea of what smart people are like. But this kind of thing is hardly new. For years, I’ve been bugged by Star Trek. For example, there was an episode in The Next Generation where the surface temperature of some planet (or something) was minus 290 degrees Celsius. Or something. Regardless, it was some number of degrees below absolute zero. You would think these shows would have science advisers who would catch this kind of thing. And you would be half right: they have science advisers but they don’t catch this kind of thing.

By far the most annoying Star Trek science problem is Mr. Spock’s hyper-precision. He can’t say the temperature is 30 degrees; he has to say that it is “approximately” 32.14 degrees. This is okay when discussing something that can be stated that accurately, although adding that “approximately” really roils. But check out this scene from the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”:

One million seven hundred seventy one thousand five hundred sixty one. That’s assuming one tribble multiplying with an average litter of ten producing a new generation every twelve hours over a period of three days… And allowing for the amount of grain consumed and volume of the storage compartment.

1,771,561! It is way too precise a number given his calculation, given that his calculation is just 11 to the 6th power. He explains this.

But then he goes on to add in calculations that he most definitely didn’t do. He did not allow for the amount of grain consumed nor the volume of the storage containers. So again, we have TV writers who don’t understand this kind of thing. They figure, sciencey kind of people act and talk like this. The problem is, a real life scientist would most likely say something like this, “Over a million, most likely.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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