Monday, August 1, 2011

Science-y Facts Bubble to the Surface

There are a lot of TV shows out there. No, really! Take a look. There's a lot of stuff that has been made, much of it short lived. Almost all of them, rather shockingly, have little bits and pieces that bear some passing resemblance to reality, and some even include topics that touch on science or scientific ideas. The good ones may stretch imagination a bit and force us to suspend disbelief, but we're okay with that; the story is intriguing, the logic internally consistent (mostly). Then there are those that make no sense whatsoever. They have plot holes big enough to sail a cruise ship through.

For whatever reason, I watched a show that fell into the latter category. It only lasted one season before being canceled, and I watched every single episode. Why do this to myself? Why put myself through such mind-boggling nonsense? Well, one, because I have Netflix and I could stream it; two, because there was an intriguing element to the storyline, wondering how things might end; and finally, because I just couldn't believe that they could get simple scientific ideas so completely wrong. The writers just had to redeem themselves.

So what is this show that threatened to cause my neurons to vaporize in a blaze of burning stupid? A 15-episode series called Surface:

At first, I thought that watching the show might make for a good drinking game: every time there's a plot hole, drink; but upon further consideration, I realized that would very quickly lead to alcohol poisoning and either a coma or death. Instead, I will educate all of you ignorant fools who thought that you knew a thing or two about reality and show you just how wrong you are. Without further ado, I present to you:

Science I Learned from Watching Surface
  1. Large reptilian creatures that lay eggs and lack mammary glands are actually mammals! Now, you may argue that there are similar animals that are considered mammals like the platypus. Yes, platypuses (platypi? platypodes?) lay eggs, but they have mammary glands. That has been the predominating feature that defines mammals: mammary glands. Well, no more! According to Dr. Laura Daughtery, a marine biologist, upon catching a fleeting glance of one of these behemoth amphibians, says that it is a mammal. This is reinforced by another character, Dr. Aleksander Cirko, who discovers the carcass of one washed up on shore. Defying all classification schemes, this creature is not a reptile or amphibian. It is, in fact, a mammal.
  2. To find the depth of the ocean floor or find objects underwater, scientists use radar instead of sonar. Some among you may have learned that water, especially seawater, absorbs microwaves, which includes radio waves. Not so. Once again, Dr. Laura Daughtery gives us this bit of wisdom, asking her friend to use radar to find out how far down the ocean floor is. So the next time you are going out on a boat, if you want to find out the distance through water of some object, do not use sonar, use radar.
  3. This next one is more about engineering than strictly science knowledge, but apparently it is possible to build a submersible, with working air scrubber, sonar (or maybe radar), portholes, lights and other electronics and so on in less than a week. Okay, willing suspension of disbelief. No one wants to see months and months of building and testing the rig to make sure it works, so I suppose I can let this one slide. Besides, Dr. Laura and her crazy buddy Rich (whose brother was dragged into the depths after spearing one of the big mammals during a dive) are on a schedule. They managed to figure out the migration pattern of the creatures, and the critters are only going to be at a spot for observation for one day!
  4. Which brings us to the next bit. When large aquatic animals, like whales or mammalian amphibians that lack mammary glands and happen to have a connection to electric eels, migrate, contrary to popular belief, they don't hang around an area for days or weeks. They only like to hang out for a day, two tops. So if you want to see them, you need to find the exact spot they migrate to and get there on exactly the right day. Do that, and you'll be sure to catch a glimpse of them. If not, you'll just have to hang around somewhere to see the migratory creatures that didn't actually migrate, 'cause of course, a migratory species doesn't actually migrate unless there's a time-sensitive plot point to achieve.
  5. Remember that homemade submersible? Well, if you choose to build one, remember to install an inflatable life raft on the outside, just in case the cable breaks. You see, I also learned a little about buoyancy from this show. A life raft big enough to hold two comfortably or four cramped, if inflated around 7,000 feet underwater, will happily lift your several ton tin can and many more tons of steel cable up to the surface. Not only that, but when your air scrubber fails and you only have minutes of oxygen left to breathe, don't worry. The life raft will get you to the surface in no time at all, so you won't pass out or suffer any ill effects of oxygen deprivation and CO2 intoxication. And because you're in a submersible, you won't have to worry about the bends.
  6. Remember how I mentioned the creatures are related to electric eels? That's because they are able to emit an electromagnetic pulse that stuns or kills their prey and shorts out any electrical equipment within a rather large radius. This show taught me how to protect my precious electronics, like a digital video camera, from high bursts of EM radiation: duct tape. Now, I already knew that this was some pretty amazing stuff. You can use it to fix just about anything. You can fix a leaky boat or build a working sailboat out of it. You can even use it to make a cannon! Duct tape, I had been taught many years ago, is like the Force. It has a light side and a dark side and binds the galaxy together. Thanks to this show, I have learned that it can also be used to block EM radiation! Just a thin layer wrapped around your electronic equipment will protect it from an electromagnetic pulse that, lacking a few millimeters of fabric and adhesive, would otherwise fry it like an egg. If only Morpheus knew about this wonder material, he wouldn't have had to shut down the Nebuchadnezzar:

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There are a number of other things that I either forgot or about which my brain has rebelled and refuses to recall. I did, however, find a review of the show from 2009, courtesy of a blogger named Amanda. She pretty much nails the feel of the show and the plots holes I hinted at earlier.

Hopefully if the writers of Surface ever make another show, they'll consult The Science & Entertainment Exchange first.

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