Science, pop culture: a witch's brew

The Baltimore Sun

Just enough science to make it believable, that's producer Tim Kring's goal. But for some fans of the hit NBC show Heroes, which Kring created and launched last year, he has been missing his mark.

It started in the first episode, when genetics professor Mohinder Suresh repeats an oft-debunked myth as fact - that humans only use 10 percent of their brains - sending sci-fi fan Michael L. Kramer into a fit of self righteousness.

"I thought, 'Do the writers know anything about science?' " said Kramer, who's working on a visual-perception doctorate at Ohio's Miami University. "It completely pulled me out of the [Heroes] universe and takes me out of the story. My [medical student] wife and I just looked at each other and started laughing."

When popular culture borrows from science to make its points and set certain tones, it's supposed to be fun and add a little credibility to story lines. But when the lines between fact and fiction are too fuzzy, audiences can lose interest. And some fear the wrong messages will be sent about important science.

Radioactive spiders make superheroes out of free-lance photographers in comic books. Gene manipulation turns women into super soldiers on television shows. And many of literature's scientists seem to have a mad streak, a la Mary Shelley's grave-robbing Dr. Frankenstein.

While many say such fact-flexing is harmless - and may even be helpful by expanding ideas on what's possible - others are concerned that it perpetuates the stereotype that scientists are power-mad zealots.

"It's just a grotesque kind of caricature that's shameful," said Katherine Pandora, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches a class on the intersection of science and popular culture.

In it, she gives her college students a test typically reserved for elementary-age kids, asking them to draw a picture of a scientist. A full 80 percent of the portraits returned are of an older white man with "crazy hair and creating explosions," Pandora said, "even though many of these students are scientists themselves and women."

Still, some wonder if the more imaginative aspects of science fiction, however wrong for now, are actually a good thing.

Would there be an International Space Station if Konstantin Tsiolkovsky hadn't envisioned one in his 1920 novel Beyond the Planet Earth? Would cell phones flip open if Star Trek's communicators hadn't done it first? Would luxury cars be parking themselves if Knight Rider's K.I.T.T. never had?

Science fiction puts "out into the world a really provocative set of scenarios or set of issues that will, I hope, expand all of our social and scientific questions," said Priscilla Wald, an English professor at Duke University.

While Wald says she has bigger qualms with misrepresentation of science by mainstream media types, she's also writing a book about how genomics is depicted in fiction and often refers to Heroes when speaking on the subject.

One of the show's key premises is based on the Human Genome Project, a real scientific venture that announced a draft map of the human genetic code in 2000. According to Heroes, the project is also keeping track of people with genetic variations that have led them to develop superhero-like powers.

Characters include high school cheerleader Claire Bennet, who heals no matter what's done to her (she's been set on fire, mutilated and shot). Artist Isaac Mendez can paint the future. Japanese office worker Hiro Nakamura can bend space and time. Congressional candidate Nathan Petrelli can fly, while his former hospice nurse brother Peter can supposedly do it all - absorbing powers of those with whom he comes into contact.

There's even an anti-hero to Peter's hero: the infamous Sylar, a one-time watchmaker who's killing off the genetic heroes so he can steal their powers.

Only problem is, the science doesn't fit, said Larry Thompson, a spokesman for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which was founded as an earlier agency to help carry out the Human Genome Project.

"The Human Genome Project found lots of genetic variation, but nothing that makes anybody super," said Thompson, who hadn't seen the show and wasn't consulted on its creation, but was amused by the premise.

It turns out that fiction writers can pretty much hijack reality if they're in the mood. That's what Kring did in creating Heroes, hoping the association would lend credibility to his project.

"In thinking about, well, how would a scientist actually go about finding someone with that sort of special trait, it naturally led me to perhaps using data from the Human Genome Project," Kring said.

"I don't want to get too geeky for anybody who doesn't understand things, and I don't want to shine too bright a light on the fact that we're not really scientifically based. Heroes is about people with superpowers, after all," Kring said.

"We're just trying to sort of thread that needle, give it a fair amount of credence, yet not lean too heavily on [the Human Genome Project] to expose our lack of knowledge about it."

"Often, when you're a writer, you do just enough research to sound like you know what you're talking about," he said.

The show, which will return from a hiatus to begin the season's final episodes tomorrow, has been a break-out success, grabbing thousands of fans. Many have created Web sites devoted to discussing its twists and turns.

United Kingdom blogger Brendon Connelly, however, is not impressed.

"If the general public got their understanding of the theory of evolution from shows like this, it's no wonder that they don't take the theory seriously. Evolution is about tiny variations that accumulate over the course of many generations, not dramatic changes in living examples of species," he wrote on his Web site, "If you go to Hollywood for scientific understanding, you become the blind following the blind."

In an e-mail interview, Connolly, who lives in Oxford, said Heroes' "silliness" turns him off.

"Stories are stories, I appreciate that. But it is insulting, and distancing, when we are obviously being treated like idiots by the storyteller, he wrote.

But bad science hasn't stopped many others, including Miami University's Kramer.

"I don't know if Heroes is going to destroy the world by misrepresenting the Human Genome Project, but I have to feel like it's just another little cog in the wheel of creating a sort of ignorance of what is actually going on in the scientific world," Kramer said.

But, he added, "I'm going to keep watching it. ... Sometimes a television series takes a season to really fall into place. Since the ideas are interesting, I'm willing to give it a little more time."

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