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Woo in Review: FRINGE PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Alison Smith   
fringe.jpg
  1. Summary by Alison Smith
  2. Pilot Review by Matt Fiore
  3. Same Old Story Review by Lance Nesbit
  4. The Ghost Network Review by Joyce A. Furfaro, Ph.D.
  5. The Arrival Review by Claudia Flores
  6. Power Hungry Review by Jeff Wagg
  7. Final Notes by Alison Smith


Fringe is a science fiction television show created by three ex-writers from the show Alias – most notably, J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost. No matter what else I say about Fringe, it definitely did one thing for me, at least. It quietly and completely removed all hope that Lost is going to be concluded in anything resembling a logical manner.

As an awesome videos game reviewer once said, "This is just all bad all the time, to the degree where it starts getting rather worrying." He wasn't talking about Fringe, but it totally works here as well.

Not to say that Fringe doesn't have its own logic. It does. It has the type of logic one would expect to develop if they took large amounts of LSD and hung out in a sensory deprivation tank like the main character, Special Agent Olivia Dunham, does in the pilot episode.

But before I start nitpicking particulars (like why the other agents follow leads provided by a woman taking hallucinogens), let's take a look at an overview of the storyline and see if maybe it doesn't suck as completely as the opening sequence would lead you to believe.

snotmonster.jpgOlivia Dunham, FBI Agent, is pulled from her comfort zone of normal (sane, believable) investigations when an airplane full of people turns into snot monsters, leading the government to wonder whether an act of terrorism has been committed against the American people, or if there is some kind of strange new snot disease that may, at any moment, make us all extremely unattractive.

Olivia's partner and pseudo-boyfriend, John Scott, catches the snot monster disease when a storage unit full of chemicals explodes, and Olivia must take LSD to find the culprit and the cure.

I'm being totally serious here.

But, Olivia doesn't know about the LSD-for-information solution, and must get the help of the incredibly annoying, sarcastic and yet unfunny Peter Bishop to help her spring his father, Walter Bishop (an ex-fringe science researcher turned committed insane person) from the mental institution that's holding him.

And now I'm getting into the finer points again, and it's totally unintentional. I do this because, so far, the show is entirely without plot. It looks like Fringe tried to stand on the shoulders of The X-files, and yet failed so completely that instead it's standing on The X-files' toes. The humor and wit of the characters are lost in crashing waves of pseudoscientific babble, the points about the paranormal are badly made and unbelievable, the plots are made out of cardboard, and did I mention that it's unbelievable? I don't mean in the same way that The X-files is unbelievable. The X-files was only unbelievable if you didn't believe in the paranormal. Fringe is unbelievable if you have more than fifty I.Q. points.

There is also something about some super top secret paranormal event virus going around called The Pattern, which is reminiscent of X-files creator Chris Carter's other show, Millennium. One almost expects the characters to rush around hissing to one another "This is who we are," the secret Millennium Group code phrase. But no, in this show the secret group is called Massive Dynamic, out of an apparently insatiable urge to make everything sound technological.

To really get across how bad Fringe is, I called on JREF members to help with this review. These members all come from different backgrounds and have experience with the subject matter in particular episodes of the show. If you have not seen Fringe and want to, you may want to stop here as there will be

SPOILERS

Episode 1, Pilot

arkofthecovenant.jpgReviewed by Matt Fiore

The pilot's opening scene takes place on an international flight where an unidentified man injects himself with his diabetes medication. 90 seconds later (in real time mind you), the rest of the passengers are in varying states of screaming liquefaction. Later, one of the rugged hero archetypes is exposed to the raw materials used in the toxin's manufacture. Rather than decomposing into a handsome pile of goo like those on the plane, his flesh becomes increasingly transparent. It becomes so bad, that at one point he resembles a humanoid Jell-O mold. The rest of the episode is spent exploring the nature of the toxin with pseudoscience and word salad. The resulting explanation is so bad that I prefer to believe that the Ark of the Covenant was left open in the overhead compartment.

What could case such an awful transformation? The resident mad scientist says, "The active toxin was a magnesium based ethylene glycol…with an organophosphate trigger." Ethylene glycol is automotive antifreeze. It cannot be "magnesium based" and is in no way associated with organophosphates. This technobabble is akin to saying "The active toxin is a gold based sugar with an insecticide trigger".

Soon after, the cure is revealed: "Calcium gluconate in a thiamine base." In layman's terms this is a "calcium supplement in a vitamin B1 base." Somewhere Bill Maher is smiling.

Matt Fiore received a Bachelor's in Chemistry from The College of New Jersey and spent five years working as an analytical chemist.

oldbaby.jpgEpisode 2, Same Old Story

Reviewed by Lance Nesbit

The second episode of Fringe begins with a couple in a hotel room. It is evident that the couple have just finished having sex, and within a few minutes the woman becomes pregnant and goes to full term within 45 minutes. The baby is delivered in the hospital and the woman dies. Within a few hours, the newborn grows to an adult and dies of old age.

Before we get into the "how" this could happen, we should consider whether physically the mother could even handle it. First of all, typical human gestation is approximately 260 days. This gives the mother's body plenty of time for the organs to be rearranged and her skin to stretch and grow over her belly. It is not uncommon for women to have stretch marks from the growth, even on a typical pregnancy. However, the skin over the belly of the woman in the show could literally rip from such a rapid growth. It is evident that the woman is in pain, but we don't see any evidence of skin tearing. The basis for gestation is such that a mammalian mother protects her child during the long developmental stages and provides nutrients required for standard metabolism within the infant. The nutrients are passed to the fetus from the mother via blood crossing the placenta. The estimated amount of energy required for a growing fetus over the course of nine months is 78,000 Calories(1). We can reasonably assume that the woman did not eat 78,000 C worth of food before her tryst. Also, it didn't seem like she starved to death, so perhaps J.J. Abrams is not familiar with the conservation of energy.

Now, assuming that this woman could have a child within 45 minutes, is it possible that a person could age from birth to death within a few hours? The eccentric Dr. Bishop from the show mentions that they were doing work on cloning soldiers for the Vietnam War and aging them to an appropriate maturity in a short time in order to train and fight using extracts from the pituitary gland. Well, the pituitary gland is a small gland situated under the brain that releases a number of different hormones that control metabolism. Specifically, growth hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) are secreted by the gland and are directly associated with rapid growth and increased metabolism. Increased growth hormone causes increased growth in individuals, with heights over 7 feet tall in adolescents, but it does not change the rate of maturation within an individual(2). Likewise, increased TSH causes hyperthyroidism, which can lead to increased metabolism, but does not change the rate of maturity within an individual.

Dr. Bishop continues by mentioning a link between progeria (a disease in which individuals age rapidly) and the pituitary. Although there is a suggested link in the medical literature, the disease of progeria is actually two separate syndromes, one identified in individuals around 18-24 months of age, and one that is identified in individuals within their teens. Both syndromes are directly linked through gene mutation and have multiple organ involvement aside from accelerated aging. Nevertheless, individuals don't age in a matter of months, but rather in a matter of years, and often succumb to malignant neoplasms or cardiac arrest(3).

eyeball.jpgApart from involvement of the pituitary, Dr. Bishop talks about cell cycle inhibitors which inhibit cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs). CDKs regulate cell division. Unblocking CDKs would result in increased (and possibly unregulated) cell division, which does not equal rapid aging. However, when cells replicate, the DNA is also replicated on the chromosomes. Although error-checking proteins exist to prevent the replication from incorporating errors in the DNA, they are not fail-proof, and mutations sometimes slip by. The more often the DNA is replicated, the higher the chance that an error is introduced which would have detrimental effects to the cell type. Unregulated growth and loss of cell function are hallmarks of cancer. So, while Dr. Bishop's tinkering with cell division is not likely to lead to rapid aging, it is more likely to lead to cancer. Oncology groups around the world research new ways to control cell division to prevent the occurrence of cancer.

Finally, to catch the killer, they use a fancy imager to project the last image from a victim's optical nerve. The premise is that, since the killer used a muscle relaxer, her neural impulses would be frozen in place and could be examined through a specialized camera. Muscle relaxers do not freeze neurons, rather work by blocking impulses at the neural synapses. Also, the light that hit the retina of the victim would reflect off and scatter. Similarly, the electrical impulse traveling down the optic nerve which interprets the data would dissipate. The impulse would also not be interpretable as an image; it is the brain's job to take the impulse and interpret it as an image. Studies of how the brain does this is still being researched as a manner of treating blindness(5).

All in all, Fringe is a program that is absolutely out on the edge, and then over it. The drama and suspense is only possible through pseudoscience and suspension of any reality.

References:

1. Calorie requirements in human pregnancy.
By A. M. Thomson and F. E. Hytten. Obstetric Medicine Research Unit (Medical Research Council), University of Aberdeen

2. Acromegaly.
By P. Chanson and S. Salenave. Orphanet J Rare Dis. 2008 Jun 25;3:17.

3. Werner and Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndromes: mechanistic basis of human progeroid diseases.
By B. A. Kudlow, B. K. Kennedy, and R.J. Monnat Jr. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2007 May;8(5):394-404.

4. Cell cycle machinery: links with genesis and treatment of breast cancer.
By A. J. Butt, C. E. Caldon, C. M. McNeil, A. Swarbrick, E. A. Musgrove, and R. L. Sutherland. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2008;630:189-205.

5. C-sight visual prostheses for the blind.
X.Chai, L. Li, K. Wu, C. Zhou, P. Cao, and Q. Ren. IEEE Eng Med Biol Mag. 2008 Sep-Oct;27(5):20-8.


Lance Nesbit obtained a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from Texas Tech University, and is currently a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Immunobiology from the University of Arizona. He has done research on many infectious diseases, such as caused by C. dificile , HIV, and C.immitis. He has also worked on immunological responses to breast cancer. His current work is studying the immune response to C. immitis and preliminary vaccine development for this organism.

Episode 3, The Ghost Network

Reviewed by Joyce A. Furfaro, Ph.D.


Alison asked me for my trained opinion on the neuroscience component of The Ghost Network episode of the TV show Fringe. Although I’d been avoiding this show in general, I was only too happy to help out SWIFT and Alison. After suffering through the entire episode, my overall opinion is that the writers of this show might want to invest in a better science consultant.

In brief overview – this episode is about a secret experiment originally conducted by Walter Bishop many years ago, that left the guest character Roy with a permanently implanted iridium-based organo-metallic receiver in the occipital lobe of his brain. This receiver is suddenly picking up the frequencies it was intended to intercept in the first place, but the coded messages are being sent by “the bad guys”, and lives are at stake (oh no!). Roy doesn’t know that he has this receiver in his skull; he simply sees visions of mayhem and murder when the bad guys communicate via this secret frequency about their diabolical plans. Luckily, Walter realizes what is going on, and successfully relocates the receiver from the visual cortex of the occipital lobe of Roy’s brain to the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe, somehow passing through gustatory cortex on the way. Interestingly, Roy’s gustatory cortex (as Walter referred to this area, based on Roy’s description of the sensations) can discriminate gasoline and dirt on this show. These aren’t normally thought of as ‘tastes’ in the neuroscience world, and I doubt that any stimulation of true gustatory cortex would yield a taste sensation of gasoline or dirt. Regardless, when the receiver is finally placed in the auditory cortex, Roy is able to repeat the verbal messages he is receiving (in latin of course), and order is once again attained. I’m sure it’s only temporary.

The following 5 points are from my notes about the actual science they attempted to portray in the show. 

halo.jpg1. HALO BRACE - The halo brace that Walter had Roy wear for surgery is actually a device that is used for cervical fractures (AKA: broken neck), to stabilize the neck and allow it to heal; it isn’t used for surgery. IF something like it were to be used for neurosurgery, it would need to be attached to something external (the operating table, some equipment, etc) to prevent the head from moving during the surgery. In actual neurosurgery, however, a stereotaxic device is often used to allow for exact coordinates of where the brain regions are that they are trying to reach surgically. This device only slightly resembles a halo brace. I found this picture of a typical halo brace. The holes in a properly used brace are not designed to insert a drill bit, as Walter does on Fringe. For further visual reference, pictures of a typical neurosurgery sterotaxic tool can be seen here

2. THIS WON'T HURT - They tell Roy that "this won't hurt" as they get ready to drill through his scalp and bone. In actual brain neurosurgery, the patient is anesthetized for this part of the procedure, and then is often returned to consciousness after the surgeons have accessed the brain. The brain itself has no pain receptors - but the scalp certainly does. And I'm told that drilling into ANY bone is extremely painful, although I know nothing about the receptors that sense this pain.

3. NEUROANATOMY - The primary visual regions of the brain are located at the back of the head, while the brain that sits behind the forehead is about the last place you'd want to tamper with if you’re looking for any specific brain regions for the 5 senses. Nevertheless, this is where Walter inserts his drill, just above the right eye. But that’s not the worst of it. I can’t fathom how this implanted iridium-based organo-metallic compound that was placed in Roy’s head could be relocated without tearing apart the brain tissue it passes through. This would undoubtedly cause massive swelling, not to mention bleeding throughout the brain regions involved; the patient would be unlikely to survive. Not to mention that if you connected the dots from vision, to gustation, to auditory, it would not be a straight line. For an idea of where these regions are, see http://www.lanzbom.org/brain.jpg and note vision in the back, and auditory on the side of the brain. And the reason you don't see gustatory cortex is that there seem to be many areas involved, and no single area is known to be THE gustatory center. Most gustatory regions are located sort of in the middle of the brain, for lack of a better way to describe these regions.

4. PERCEPTION - Even IF they could safely move some organo-metallic receiver from visual cortex to gustatory cortex - it would be extremely unlikely that the person would perceive a taste such as gasoline, as Roy does, simply by seeing a drawing of an automobile. Putting aside the previously mentioned problem with gasoline not being a gustatory experience, the implanted receiver shouldn't be picking up actual info from Roy’s eyes anyway. Wasn't it intended to intercept some frequency that isn't related to frequencies that we normally use for sensory perception by any of the common 5 senses? If so, why would moving this receiver from vision to gustation (and later to auditory) cortex have the effect they show in the episode when they show Roy drawings? It makes no sense to me.

5. NEUROSTIMULATOR - Walter said that he needed his old magnetic neurostimulator for the purpose of moving the receiver in Roy’s brain from the visual cortex to the auditory cortex? How would a stimulator of any sort move something in the brain? As I understand neurostimulators, they are designed to stimulate focal regions of the brain (excite certain clusters of cells) - often for the purpose of alleviating pain or to treat such diseases as Parkinson's.

As a neuroscientist, I was unable to suspend disbelief sufficiently to enjoy this episode. I have a feeling that it doesn’t take a degree in neuroscience to question much of the logic behind this show in general.

Joyce Furfaro received a Ph.D. in Integrative Biosciences, Neuroscience focus, from the Penn State College of Medicine in 2003. She completed a postdoc at Stanford University School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in 2005, and was recently conducting research at The Pennsylvania State University as a Research Associate in the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Currently, Joyce is a Grants Specialist for Penn State.

Episode 4, The Arrival

Reviewed by Claudia Flores

If you enjoy suspension of reality and enjoy seeing drama with a sprinkling of action and science fiction, then the Fringe could fit the bill despite the vagueness on the details in the science. The show opens with a scene of a construction site in which suddenly the whole block is shaking and then an explosion occurs leaving a crater and "a strange object." Although many real situations exist where the ground would shake as a result such as earthquakes, landslides, or massive underground explosions, the show implies a tiny metal object of questionable origins is the cause.

Very few things are revealed about this object but the few facts that do come out don't make a whole lot of sense... except for the Aluminum Foil reference... more on that later. First, the technicians studying the object observe it emitting vibrations at 2 MHz and again at 4 MHz (MHz= megahertz = 1,000,000 Hz). Later in the show, you "hear" these vibrations when a tuning fork is hit and placed on the object.


probe.jpgOkay so what's wrong? The human range of hearing is from 20 - 20,000 Hertz... yeah 2MHz and 4MHz is WAY beyond the range of human hearing. As a matter of fact, they are in the range of frequencies in which radio signals are broadcast. Another problem with this, is that earthquake signals are WAY below the range of human hearing. Any object broadcasting inside the ground emitting energy at 2MHz to 4 MHz is so attenuated that we can't detect it. There's a reason why radio waves are broadcast in the air. Anyhow, that's where the Aluminum Foil comment made me laugh so hard.

The design of the object is cute, but it's not clear how the self propulsion of this object works. More suspension of disbelief needed there. Realistically, the deepest hole we've been able to drill is 15 kilometers into the ground, and the earth is 6370 kilometers in radius (the crust is estimated to be 20-35 kilometers alone). The reason why it's so hard is because 1) the pressure along the sides of the drill hole increases and cracks and you have to fight lateral collapse and 2) the temperature of the hole increases as you go deeper (300 degrees Celsius in the case for the deepest drill hole).

The only last science reference I heard on this show was "Project Thor" related to research to make a torpedo to the core. Although the government has done serious research into the penetration of missiles into the ground to destroy underground bunkers, a secret project to make an earth-torpedo with all it's engineering challenges is not a likely endeavor. The only known proposal on how to send a probe to the center of the earth was written by David Stevenson of CalTech in an article in Nature, "Mission to Earth's Core - a modest proposal" (15 May 2003). It involves molten iron, a few megatons of TNT and a probe to survive the molten iron as it travels into the earth via crack propagation. Evidence someone has thought about it, but nobody has taken up the challenge... yet.

In conclusion, this episode of Fringe requires that the regular skeptic shut down their brain and not ask too many questions to enjoy the show.

Claudia Flores was born, raised and educated in El Paso TX. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree in Physics (2000) with double minors in Math and Geology and a Master's of Science in Geophysics (2003). Both degrees were earned at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is currently employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. All opinions are solely of the author and do not reflect views of either the USGS or the U.S. Government.

Episode 5, Power Hungry

Review by Jeff Wagg

Having been a technician at a 2-way radio shop and having wired my own home for AC power, I have a basic understanding of electricity and electronics.

In this episode, many things happen that are explained by a "power surge." Let's look at a few examples of why this wouldn't work the way described, even given the paranormal ability of this story's subject.

The elevator "drives itself into the floor" due to, what is described as three times the voltage of the normal system. Ok, let's accept that somehow this guy could generate that much power. We know the power was not focussed, because he electrocuted the people around him. So we have a large burst of electricity, much like a lightning strike.

elevator.jpgThe readout for the floors is electronic. Electronics operate with very small voltages and amperages, and that panel would have instantly blown and ceased functioning just as the device did in the first scene. Also, all the lights on the floor buttons would have lit up, and probably popped like fuses (incandescent light bulbs and fuses are nearly the same thing, but with different metals) and the fluorescent lights on the ceiling would have almost certainly stopping working as their ballasts boiled. Finally, applying more voltage to the motor probably wouldn't increase the elevators descent. Elevator speed is regulated by governors, floor levelers, and other safety measures. The truth is, should something like a lightning strike happen inside an elevator car, the elevator car would likely just stop (or catch fire.)

As for the medal floating, I have seen metal foil float on ionized air under high voltage conditions, but one must ask.. what was the power source for the floating medal once the paranormal man left? And.. why didn't the chain float? It would have to be made of a very unusual metal for jewelry to be non-conductive. If it was a magnetic effect, that again is unusual as most jewelry is non-magnetic by design as magnetic metals tend to corrode when in contact with human skin. If it was nickel-plated steel, what exactly was charged with that much magnetic power to make the medal float 4 or five feet off the ground? Magnetic force generally declines at an inverse cube, with the power at 2 inches being 1/8th the power at 1 inch. At four feet.. you'd need an incredible amount of magnetism, and it would have to be balanced by an opposite force in order to make the object float. There would certainly be other debris floating in a layer there as anything in the elevator would be attracted to that level. Also, once it floated.. you couldn't move it as the opposing forces would hold there very tightly.

pigeon.jpgHe walks by cars in the garage.. they start, the lights go on.. but why only the low beams? Why not the high beams and the fog lights, dome lights, and the wipers.. which actually operate on a simple DC motor and could possibly start in the presence of spurious electricity? Cars hit by lightning have had their wipers operate with the switch off. Perhaps the explanation is shown in the following scenes.

Later in the episode, we see the power act differently.. in a focused way. He causes a machine to clamp on his boss's arm and his mother's heart to stop beating (I guess by affecting the av node). Intelligence would be required to control a focused force. He would have to subconsciously direct a beam of electricity to just the motor or servo or switch that controlled just that particular part of the machine. I know of no mechanism that could direct energy in this way.

The pigeon scene is interesting. Pigeons do have the ability to detect magnetic fields, and it's thought that they use this ability to navigate. There are magnetic particles in their heads that they can use to sense the Earth's magnetic fluctuations. However, it's one thing to detect variations in the massive electromagnetic fields that surround the Earth, and a completely different thing to detect a person's "electromagnetic signature," if such a thing actually exists. We are bathed in electromagnetism all the time.. and it's not as though the birds can detect a single relatively weak source miles away. I'll ignore the programming of the birds completely.

And finally.. where are these massive amounts of electricity coming from? Conservation of energy states that if he's sending out bursts of electricity, some energy source somewhere is being depleted. The show doesn't address this at all.

So yes, we're dealing with a fictional show where impossible things are happening, but even given the premise, the results are ridiculous. And there's really no reason for it.. a little research into the nature of electricity could have made the episode much more compelling.

References:
Elevators: http://www.answers.com/topic/elevator
Metal Floating With Electricity: http://community.livejournal.com/infinityproject/9731.html
Pigeons: http://www.pigeonnavigation.com/

Jeff Wagg is the Communication and Outreach Manager for the James Randi Educational Foundation.



Maybe Fringe would be good if, before watching every episode, you had a lot of alcohol. I'm not sure. I'd guess that's what J.J. Abrams was doing when he created the concept. It's crap masquerading as science.


FRINGE: 0.5 out of 5 stars.

SKEPTICAL FURTHER READING: The Best American Science Writing, 2007

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