(Episode 1) Well here we are, the first episode of Fringe, JJ Abrams’ new “science”-based show. I’ll say that I was pretty excited about the program before it even aired, and that I was going to write a smashing review on the first episode. But as I started watching the show I started to feel something come over me, it wasn’t pleasure, it wasn’t revulsion, it was a sense that I had to bring the “science” presented in this show, or as the creator of this show calls it fringe science, back down to earth. To put it simply, this will be a scientific review of the show, that aims to put all the science fiction in the show in a more realistic context.
The show starts off with an airplane full of passengers being exposed to a flesh-eating agent and a resultant face-melting that would make Indiana Jones proud. The first thought that pops into my head is that this must be a case of rapid necrotizing fasciitis, I know I’m a total nerd. But I’m a nerd who needs answers. This seems like a plausible explanation, you have an entire plane full of people whose flesh starts to fall off. So I’m going to stick to this hypothesis. We then follow agents Dunham and Scott to a public storage facility where they discover, a lab with hairless rats and hairless ferrets. Hairless rats, for the uninitiated, do exist and are used in experiments, believe me I’ve used them. Hairless ferrets on the other hand, I’m not familiar with and I was about to call PETA to report some illegal ferret shaving; I’ve done some digging and apparently they do exist and suffer from an adrenal condition. No major science breakthroughs happen in this scene except for a serious explosion. I know, explosions aren’t really science, they are cool though.
The next scene finds us in the local hospital where agent Dunham wakes up, with minor injuries, to discover that agent Scott has survived the explosion and has been exposed “to some synthetic chemical compounds.” Well that doesn’t sound too bad, except for the fact that the chemical is eating away at his flesh. So it seems that my earlier hypothesis is incorrect, damn! Alright, so lets get to the bottom of this, what chemicals can dissolve tissue? Based off of a search of Google Scholar sodium hypochlorite (NaClO)1 seems to be the leading contender. For those of you in the know, sodium hypochlorite is another name for bleach. So are we to believe that all this hubbub is about some Clorox? Probably not, so I won’t be making my second hypothesis without further clues. Back to the episode! Agent Olivia Dunham finds, through the use of an FBI database, the name of Dr. Walter Bishop, a former scientist who might be able to cure Agent Scott. Unofortunately, Dr. Bishop is currently in a mental institution, where he can only be released by his estranged son Peter Bishop. I’ll cut to the chase, agent Dunham manages to get the younger Bishop back into the states using some cunning and duplicity. Luckily all this ends with a tête-à-tête between Olivia and Dr. Bishop, where we find out that agent Scott’s skin has gone transparent and that Dr. Bishop has previously been able to treat this horrendous condition. The special effects people did a pretty good job rendering the transparent skin. What would cause transparent skin? If I had to guess, I would say some sort of MMP (matrix metalloprotineases)2 upregulation or T-cell mediated keratinocyte apoptosis3.
After examining agent Scott, Dr. Bishop with the help of Olivia and the US government, reclaims his old laboratory, and I do emphasize old. There are a few inconsistencies in this scene, but a few telling ones are the presence of fairly new computers beneath dust covers and Dr. Bishop’s demand of a two-year old cow, due to it’s genetic similarity with humans. Scientists would request a pig, not a cow, if they’re going to use a farm animal to replicate human testing, but I suppose JJ decided to use a cow for some dramatic flair. The most ridiculous scientific proposition of the episode comes in the form of the “shared dream state4,” which allows for the sharing of information between two brains in the unconscious state. This imagined procedure hinges on synchronizing the brain states of the two participants and simultaneously connecting their brains. In the real world this would involve controlling neural firing rates and two brain-computer interfaces. In terms of controlling neural firing rates, there has been some success in using transcranial magnetic stimulation5, but those effects are highly localized. To extend these concepts to sharing information subconsciously is dubious. The most salacious portion of this procedure is that the subject, in this case agent Dunham, has to be submerged in a tank in very little clothing. No one said that JJ doesn’t know sexy.
I appreciate how Fringe juxtaposes the more believable against fairly unbelievable technology. Most of the believable technologies are introduced in the Massive Dynamic‘s bulding. Here the audience witnesses LCDs embedded in the walls and an advanced prosthetic arm which isn’t too far off from current prototypes. However Fringe loses credibility in the final science-based scenes where agent Scott is being cured. The cure is based on a mixture of magnesium-ethylene glycol and organophosphates mixed in a blood transfusion. I can definitely call bullshit on this because ethylene glycol is the primary ingredient in antifreeze and organophosphates are poisonous. I’m no doctor, but this “cure” would certainly kill any patient to which it was administered. Also the “cure” works entirely too fast, it’s just not believable.
Overall I can recommend this show, as long as you suspend your belief in science for about an hour. I’ll be back next week with another scientific review of Fringe.
M Andersen, A Lund, JO Andreasen and FM Andreasen. In vitro solubility of human pulp tissue in calcium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite. Dental Traumatology. 8(3): 104–108, 2006 [abstract]
Skin Matrix Metalloprontineases. The Doctor’s Doctor. 2004 [link]
D Raj, DE Brash and D Grossman. Keratinocyte Apoptosis in Epidermal Development and Disease. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 126: 243–257, 2006 [abstract]
L Naccache. Visual phenomenal consciousness: a neurological guided tour. Progress in Brain Reseach. 150: 185–195, 2005 [abstract]
M Hallett. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and the human brain. Nature. 406: 147–150, 2000 [full text]