Fringe: The Ghost Network

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(Episode 3) Before I begin my review, I must apologize for the delay. It’s been a very hard couple of days in the lab. It seems being a scientist by day and a writer by night is harder than I had initially thought. I’m also going to change how this review is written by focusing on plot points first and then on the science.

What we learned:

We’re seeing some positive developments in Dr. Bishop and his son’s relationship, which is nice. They’re enjoying a pleasant meal together in the opening scenes of the episode. This is not to say that they’ve made their peace, Dr. Bishop continues to be critical of Peter, which implies that he still thinks that Peter needs his help. Peter doesn’t really heed his dad’s advice because Dr. Bishop’s been an absentee father and Peter’s sorting through his issues with that. It’s okay, I’ve got hope that the Bishops will patch things up.

Speaking of parental relationships, it seems that Agent Broyles is preparing Agent Dunham for something bigger; he’s being very protective. Olivia does seem to be doing her investigating with some aplomb which has garnered her attention from Massive Dynamic, but I see her sticking with the FBI. Olivia does need to get over her relationship with John. She’s visibly shaken at his funeral, which is understandable, but she lets Grant Davidson take a crucial piece of evidence from the dead Agent Mendoza because she thinks that they had a romantic relationship. What may look like grieving can always be a double agent extracting information from a dead body, I guess.

A few tidbits that were scattered throughout the episode are worth mentioning. Dr. Bishop is medicating himself, that’s fantastic! He also sings about his time in the mental institution. Who was the man in the restaurant that Peter confronted? On a related note, Dr. Bishop noticed the altercation and I think he knows more than he lets on about his son. Drug cartels know about “The Pattern”? That’s intriguing. The final point I want to mention is that Roy McComb, the supposed psychic, has the time to make pretty intricate dioramas and models of his visions. Who has the time to make dioramas?

The Science:

There were two scientific principles that were introduced in this episode: suspended animation and using the brain as a receiver. I’ll deal with this supposed suspended animation first. Suspended animation is the slowing of life processes without termination. What happened in the bus, isn’t exactly that. The passengers are exposed to a gas that hardens to a solid when exposed to the nitrogen in the air. So this is more akin in embedding. It’s definitely possible to embed entire organisms and tissues in plastic, the method I’m most familiar with, uses methyl methacrylate. Methyl methacrylate is an organic compound that forms the basis for Plexiglas. When embedding tissues in methyl methacrylate you can go from a liquid to a solid, but I’ve never heard of embedding that uses a substance that goes from a gas phase to a solid phase. Transitioning from a gas phase to a solid phase is called deposition. Researchers have had success in using chemical vapor deposition at atmospheric pressure to form thin films1. To accomplish this type of transition from a gas to a bulk solid would require a gaseous material that undergoes rapid nitrogen-catalyzed living polymerization under atmospheric conditions. Overall it would be a pretty horrendous way to go, you would be solidified from the inside out.

Now for the good stuff. We’re introduced to Roy McComb, a man who’s been receiving psychic images for the past nine months. Fringe wouldn’t be much of a show if they didn’t try to explain this phenomenon rationally. The entire explanation hinges on iridium in Roy’s bloodstream acting like an antenna tuned to the “Ghost Network,” a communications array used by those behind “The Pattern.” The idea doesn’t seem that out there, right? The iridium picks up the signals and then the brain decodes the information into discernible images; that’s just wrong and I’ll explain why. Iridium is a non-reactive metal that’s known for it’s biocompatibility, so it’s not like the metal’s going to kill Roy. My main concern with this theory is that if a metal passes the blood brain barrier, will it interact with the neurons in the brain in a meaningful way? Without interaction the received signals can’t get interpreted. Scientists have used iridium-based microelectrodes as a diagnostic tool after brain trauma2. To make this theory work the information received, via the iridium, would have to be treated as a type of visual sensory input for the brain. This sensory input would then be processed by the parts of the cerebral cortex involved in vision. Metal in the brain can not account for this type of interface between received signals and neurons. I also take issue with the transcranial magnetic stimulator that Dr. Bishop uses on the show, these devices are now hand-held and look far less garish than that in his lab. The stimulation that Dr. Bishop uses to illicit speech that relates to what Roy sees is not possible, generally such stimulation results is very general descriptions that are no where near the level of detail depicted on Fringe3.

Inconsistencies:

The information Roy initially receives is visual and that’s why he draws pictures. JJ clearly forgets this when Roy starts repeating communications that are occurring over the phone. Unless now Roy is also receiving auditory input from the “Ghost Network.” When we see the metal in Roy’s blood being pulled to the surface during his MRI, I think his recovery was far too fast. Also if there was metal in his brain he would be dead. The creators of the show definitely took some liberties here. This isn’t really inconsistent, but it is funny and deserves a mention, Dr. Bishop at one point mentions that with the proper modulation Roy’s brain could receive satellite TV. Now would this be Dish Network or DirecTV? My final inconsistency to point out is that the tape recovered from the bus would not work after being embedded, the process to recover materials after they’ve been embedded would result in the destruction of the tape.

Well those are my thoughts, happy watching!

Further Reading:

  1. L Ressier, et al. Control of micro- and nanopatterns of octadecyltrimethoxysilane monolayers using nanoimprint lithography and atmospheric chemical vapor deposition. J Vac Sci Technol B. 25 (1): 17–20, 2007
  2. MD Johnson, et al. Neural Interface Dynamics Following Insertion of Hydrous Iridium Oxide Microelectrode Arrays. Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, 2006. EMBS ’06. 28th Annual International Conference of the IEEE. Aug. 30 2006–Sept. 3 2006: 3178–3181
  3. K Schweitzer. Fringe’s Brain Science Flirts with Facts in 3rd Episode: Hollywood Fact vs. Fiction. Popular Mechanics. September 24, 2008
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About Dapper Alchemist

The Dapper Alchemist is an amalgam of my interests in science, design and (men's) fashion.

One comment

  1. “I also take issue with the transcranial magnetic stimulator that Dr. Bishop uses on the show, these devices are now hand-held and look far less garish than that in his lab.”

    The TMS Dr. Bishop uses is 17 years old, DIY and dug out from the wall of his old house. So i’d imagine that yes, it SHOULD be looking pretty far from what they look today 😉

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