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SCI-FI IN HOLLYWOOD

A scientific discovery

Characters who excel in physics, mathematics and observation are proving that knowledge is power in today's prime time.

December 07, 2008|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

In the beginning, there was the Professor.

Though he never could figure out how to repair the S.S. Minnow, Russell Johnson's high school science teacher, stranded with the other castaways on "Gilligan's Island," was so ingenious he could re-charge a battery using only bamboo and coconuts, so morbidly cerebral it never occurred to him that he was the most likely mate for Ginger and Mary Ann.

Now, there's Walter Bishop (John Noble), a psychiatrically challenged scientist so ingenious he can take a few wires, some ice cubes and a big battery and talk to the dead on Fox's "Fringe." Or Dr. Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell), who's too busy deconstructing experiments in cloning and mind manipulation at the "Eleventh Hour" (CBS) to notice that the agent protecting him (Marley Shelton) is pretty hot.

Over at "Bones," also on Fox, it's the same situation in reverse -- Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) would rather be performing her miraculous autopsies on the ancient dead but reluctantly solves more modern crimes with the emotionally irrepressible Det. Booth (David Boreanaz).

Flip through prime time on any night, and along with the requisite numbers of cops and docs and lawyers you'll find an astonishing number of scientists. On CBS alone, there are the adorable physics geeks (played by Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons) of "The Big Bang Theory" and Charles Epps (David Krumholtz), the mathematician turned detective of "Numb3rs," and the former fake psychic (Simon Baker) of "The Mentalist," who uses the power of informed observation to unravel mysteries.

More than 40 years after the Professor talked Gilligan out of some ridiculous scrape or another while rigging up an irrigation system, rational thought has taken over television. As medical shows find themselves butting against an increasingly over-informed public, not to mention one another (has every medical show in existence now done a patient-who-feels-no-pain episode?) writers are broadening their horizons. Fox's "House" served as the perfect bridge -- it may be a medical drama, but it celebrates the cerebellum over surgical, or curative, prowess. The titular genius (Hugh Laurie) is less concerned with saving the patient than he is with solving the problem. "Trust me," House says, giving voice to the scientific creed in episode after episode, "it's much better when you know."

Science goes mainstream

Taking cues from the success of "House" and before that "CSI," television is revisiting the lure of evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are all right there, if only you know how to put them together. Science is the new medicine, physics has gone mainstream.

"My husband, who's a physicist at CalTech, says, 'Physics is the new black,' " says Jennifer Ouellette, who regularly blogs about the subject on cocktailpartyphysics.com. The author of such science-friendly books as "The Physics of the Buffyverse," in which she deconstructed the science of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Ouellette is also the new director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new program developed by the National Academy of Science to help Hollywood understand scientists and visa versa.

For years, the scientific community has longed for the same sort of setup the medical community has with USC's Norman Lear Center, which, through its Hollywood, Health & Society Project, provides a clearing house of medical information and expertise for the entertainment industry.

Now, it seems, they've got it. Ouellette and the Exchange are already open for business at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. There she will help television and filmmakers find the experts and research they need, but more important, she hopes to bring the groups into the same room more regularly.

"Most people in the entertainment industry don't know a scientist," she says. "Or even someone who knows a scientist. I know lots of scientists."

And she's happy to share. Last month, Seth MacFarlane hosted the group's first symposium, inviting writers, producers and other industry types to listen to and chat with experts in fields including astophysics, genetics, robotics, neuroscience and marine biology, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

For many scientists, "CSI" was a watershed, offering a cop drama based on investigation rather than hunches, on cold, hard facts rather than emotional trickery and induced confessions. But the last few years have been rather remarkable in showcasing the rational and the skeptical.

"At a time when the presidential administration bashes science, there has definitely been a resurgence on television," Ouellette says. Whether this is because of the increased profile of issues like global warming or just a return to a still-vivid fascination with Sherlock Holmes, she will not hazard a guess (she is a science writer, after all). "Who knows what causes these trends? Science was big in the '60s and '70s because of the space program before it got marginalized."

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