Science on the 'Fringe'

Sometimes science fact is actually stranger than science fiction.  As the "science guys" behind Fox television's new scientific thriller, FRINGE, Rob Chiappetta and Glen Whitman, know that better than anyone else. 

FRINGE takes viewers on a wild ride using sciences that traditionally lie on the "fringe" of mainstream science, such as mind control or teleportation. But with so much research being done in these fields, many of the show’s ideas are actually ripped from science magazines and journals.

"We start by finding ideas right out of the headlines from a science magazine or the announcement for new research grant and we think, 'what is the next step or how can we push the boundaries?'" said Whitman. "For example, in episode three one of the characters was receiving messages in his brain telepathically and the Monday before the show aired, we saw an article on the CNN website that explained how the U.S. Army was developing a helmet that uses brain waves to help soldiers talk to each other."

Whitman and Chiappetta are "media consultants," not scientists, and while they’ve been advisors on several TV shows, they note their expertise comes from curiosity and researching science journals and the popular press, not formal training. Chiappetta has a law degree from the University of Texas, and Whitman has his PhD in economics from New York University.

"Both of us have consulted for Roberto Orci [one of the co-creators of FRINGE] on various projects over the years, from Alias to Transformers to Star Trek," Whitman said. "For FRINGE, as part of our strategy to get hired on the show, we created an archive of science and technology articles that we thought could inspire story ideas. By the time we were hired, the archive had several hundred articles and we had both become very familiar with recent developments in the world of science. We just naturally fell into the role of ‘science guys.’"

With a show that changes every week, the two never know what they’ll be learning about next.

"One week we are pouring over journals and focusing on the latest neuroscience research and the next week we are learning all about hormones," said Chiappetta. "We have to learn a lot very quickly and a lot of the information isn’t used, but the writers really do appreciate our research which is cool."

"A lot of times we have a scene where something will happen and we have to figure out how this can be justified scientifically, Whitman said. "So we will come up with three ideas and the writers choose."

Even the writer’s for the show are excited about science research. "Of course, we already had an interest in the science topics for the show, but now, the writers have really embraced the concept of the show," Whitman said. "Now, we have Wired, Discover, and Seed magazines on the tables."

One of the writers came to the team to tell them about a scientist who was using rat brain cells to control a rat robot via remote control.  While Whitman’s background may have been in economics, mathematics, and statistics, he discovered a strong affinity for neuroscience. "Glen can tell you what part of the brain regulates what function," said Chiappetta.

On the other hand, Chiappetta said he grew up with Nature, Science, and National Geographic magazines and has focused much of his work on technology and telecommunications. "We find examples everyday, where the fringe sciences on the show are talked about," he said.  "There was this physicist at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on 60 Minutes talking about the Large Hadron Collider, and when they asked him what would be a practical application of LHC research, he said maybe in ten years – teleportation."

While the ideas on the show may go beyond current science research, these ideas still have to be plausible.  "If it hasn’t happened, it still has to be reasonable," Chiappetta said. "As long as we give a bit of explanation about the science and show the possibility."

"We talk a lot about ‘grounding an idea,’" Whitman said. "This means coming up with a real explanation for it."

One of the show’s underlying themes is that science can be used for good or evil and that the scientist has a responsibility with this power. "Science is done by people for people; scientists deal with real problems and come up with real solutions," Whitman said. "Our hope is that we can bring fringe science to the forefront at least in the general public’s minds and get them talking about it around the water cooler."

Chiappetta and Whitman both admit that the job is exciting every day. "We have found that we can do big, crazy ideas," Whitman said. "We love that.

Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics.