Glamorous, sexy and brilliant – the TV scientist of today is an all-round hero, but as our babbler-in-chief Russ Swan has discovered, there are still a few rules even they need to abide by…
I don’t know about you, but I love to see laboratories and scientists on television. It makes the rather mundane reality of our day-to-day existence seem so much more bearable, and I hope also makes what we do look a bit more glamorous to the rest of the world.
Of course, there are some bad things about it. The people I meet in real laboratories – and I hope you won’t mind me saying this – well, just aren’t as physically attractive as those on TV. I mean, you’re all lovely really, but I don’t see many Scarlett Johanssons at the real-life lab bench.
Then there is the science. You and I both know that what we see on the screen bears little relation to what goes on in real life, but this shouldn’t really matter. It may give our mothers, and our mates, a distorted view of our daily existence – but it at least saves us the chore of trying to explain to dear old Aunt Agatha what it is we really do.
One downside has become known in legal circles as the ‘CSI Effect’ – where jurors and perhaps even judges have come to expect unrealistic precision in forensic reports, based on what they have seen in popular television series. In one case from the USA, a jury member was heard to comment that the forensics team had clearly done a poor job, because they hadn’t even dusted the lawn for fingerprints.
In television circles, the genre of programme that includes CSI (which stands for Crime Scene Investigation and not, as I once heard, Can’t Stand It), Silent Witness, and others based loosely on actual working methods, is known as the ‘procedural’. This is not to be confused with the soap opera, even if you do work for Procter & Gamble, the game show, or even the sitcom – although there are plenty of times when those might seem the better description.
As part of my mission to improve communication of science, I’ve compiled the following list: the ten rules of TV laboratories:
1. Attire. Appropriate clothing in the laboratory includes a white lab coat, acrylic safety goggles, purple nitrile gloves, and high heels. When on a regular jaunt outside the lab, to a crime scene or just to collect pizza, the white coat can be swapped for a gun and holster.
2. Eagle Eyes. The investigator is blessed with exceptional visual acuity and is able to notice a tiny detail at a crime scene that has been overlooked by everybody else. Usually this happens just before a dramatic twist, giving them barely enough time to secure a sample before the bomb detonates or the suspect is located.
3. Instruments. These never need to be calibrated, or even dusted. They are always available for immediate use, and are housed in dramatically-lit high-tech buildings. The number of LEDs on the display is directly proportional to their role in the plot or the time of their appearance in the screenplay (a later appearance means more LEDs).
5. Fluorescence. Everything of interest to the analyst will fluoresce under UV light, both at the crime scene and in the lab. This applies to blood, saliva, footprints, and probably the residual shadows left by the criminals. All the investigator has to do is shine a special torch and wear special goggles, or peer through an orange screen.
5. Identification. Everything that exists has already been analysed and its ‘fingerprint’ stored in a database. When a sample is brought to the lab for analysis, whether by spectroscopy, chromatography, or Tarot card reading, the ultimate aim is to compare the output graph with one that already exists. And when this happens…
6. Perfect Match. The comparison of the sample under investigation with the database will produce a perfect match, which means not only that the peaks of the output trace are in exactly the same position, but they are precisely the same height and shape as well. All laboratories, using any instruments, will always produce identical results.
7. Analysis Time. This will be anything from a few seconds to overnight, depending on the dramatic potential for delay. There is never a queue of samples building up in the lab, and the good-natured lab technician can always be persuaded to run an analysis immediately if the attractive lead actor smiles nicely at them. These interactions are always heterosexually gender-appropriate.
8. Fluids. In any TV laboratory, regardless of the nature of the analyses undertaken, fluids will be transparent and brightly-coloured. Cloudy or milky fluids may only be seen outside of the confines of the laboratory.
9. Scientists. Always look slightly too young to have gained the experience and expertise they so effortlessly display. Each and every one of them was top of their class at university – unless they were actually bottom of the class, in which case they are known as a maverick. Either way they are also…
10. Gregarious. Not content with being exceptionally physically attractive, well-dressed, and intelligent, scientists also maintain a wide circle of powerful friends. These can be prevailed upon at any time to provide a highly specialised item of equipment or otherwise repay a favour.
So, labs on TV: they may not be particularly realistic, but on the whole the portrayal of our world is pretty positive – and makes us look positively glamorous. This is a big improvement on the situation just a few years ago, when the typical scientist was a slightly sinister dweeb with dubious motivations and even more dubious personal hygiene. Long live CSI, I say!
By Russ Swan