"Fringe" Science

  • Posted 07.28.11
  • NOVA

From Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov, science fiction writers have had a long tradition of inspiring future generations of scientists. As researchers and writers for the sci-fi television series Fringe, Robert Chiappetta and Glen Whitman hope to continue that tradition. No doubt, their series—now heading into its fourth season—is helping to shape today's pop-culture image of what it means to be a scientist. Here, Chiappetta and Whitman talk about why science fiction often paints a negative picture of science and technology, why it's tricky to work time travel into a storyline, and more.

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Watched by a science-savvy audience, the writers of Fringe have to worry about not just character development and storylines but also making the science credible. Enlarge Photo credit: Fox


NOVA: How did you initially get involved with Fringe?

ROBERT CHIAPPETTA: We were good friends with two of the creators, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the pilot with J. J. Abrams. From the very beginning, Bob was calling on us and asking us about scientific concepts and big new ideas that we could infuse into the show. We also then helped to write what's called a show bible, which sort of sells the show to the network.

I've seen you referred to as "the science guys." Was that an official title?

GLEN WHITMAN: That wasn't our official title, but informally everybody knew that we were going to help with this science role.

In addition to having done background research on cutting-edge science that we would use on the show, both of us come from quasi-academic backgrounds. Robert's father is a professor of science education at the University of Houston, and my dad is a chemical engineer. Robert's background is that he's a lawyer. My background is that I'm a professor of economics.

All of that combined meant that we were very happy to delve into often difficult-to-understand material, and then try to figure out a way to translate it in a way that we can use it on the show.

CHIAPPETTA: Exactly. [The other writers] come to us with questions: Is this possible? Where can we go with this? Then we go and read the very technical articles, or talk with scientists, and then translate that into the storytelling medium of our show.

WHITMAN: We're also writers on the show, so we have an interest in narrative and story. We understand the needs of the show. [The science] can't be too complicated. It can't be an entire scene of nothing but science gibberish. You need a way of coming up with a human connection.

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To communicate between parallel universes, Fringe's characters use retro typewriters that harness the power of quantum entanglement. Enlarge Photo credit: Fox

How do you define "fringe" science?

WHITMAN: We like to leave it a little bit vague. Certainly the idea is that the fringe is something that is at the edge. In a typical episode, you'll see some familiar science concepts mentioned—things that are happening right now—but connected to some stuff that we really don't know how to do yet—perhaps never will know how to do—but we're playing with the idea that it could be possible.

CHIAPPETTA: I like the tagline "science next."

WHITMAN: We're always imagining something five minutes, ten minutes in the future, metaphorically.

CHIAPPETTA: Like, in one of our episodes, we had hybridizing of different animals through genetic manipulation...

WHITMAN: Transgenics.

CHIAPPETTA: Transgenics exists now. [Scientists have] put jellyfish DNA into monkeys and pigs and rabbits to act as markers...

WHITMAN: ...to let us know that they have successfully been implanted with [the genes for] Huntington's, and the side effect is that they glow in the dark. Real, that's absolutely real. And the episode just takes that to a crazy extreme that may or may not be possible.

It's the great tradition of science fiction, isn't it? Predicting the future in some ways.

WHITMAN: Exactly. But one of the conceits of Fringe that distinguishes it from many of the great sci-fi classics, like Star Trek and Star Wars, is that Fringe is set in the present day. So, to a greater extent, we draw on things that people are familiar with. People who watch the news are aware of the fact that science is doing some pretty amazing and mind-blowing things right now.


It seems that from the get-go, the series was conceived with the idea that your characters would inhabit parallel universes. Where did that idea come from?

WHITMAN: Everybody was sort of aware of the science—if you're paying attention to the science literature, you know the idea of parallel universes. But the idea of using it came from character [development].

I don't remember who proposed it, but the idea was that at the age of seven [the character] Peter Bishop died, and his father, Walter Bishop, an amazing, groundbreaking scientist, realized that there was a parallel universe with people very, very, very similar to us. And in that world, Peter Bishop was still alive. So Walter went over to that world and effectively kidnapped that child in the context of trying to save him. Bringing that kid over to our universe set in motion a ripple effect that was going to lead to terrible consequences in the present day.

So it all goes back to a character point of a father trying desperately to save his own son. That was the origin.

Also, as a show, we really wanted to explore the idea of choices—the ways that different choices can lead to different outcomes and consequences that we can't possibly expect. Having a parallel universe allows you to do that in a really fun way, because you get to see an alternate version that could have turned out differently.

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Parallel universes provide fodder for the writers as well as opportunities for Fringe's actors. Anna Torv plays both the heroic special agent Olivia Dunham and her sinister red-headed doppelgí¤nger, Fauxlivia. Enlarge Photo credit: Fox

With movement between the universes and through time—that allows a lot of interesting twists with the story.

CHIAPPETTA: Exactly. Also, from the very beginning, we had this concept of an observer, a person out of time. Their code, their instruction, is that they're not really supposed to intervene. So there's an omniscient point of view...

WHITMAN: ...that sees the whole time line.

Are there strict rules, based on science, that govern how the parallel worlds relate to one another?

WHITMAN: Parallel universes, while it's a concept that's taken very seriously by real scientists, it's also extremely embryonic. It's very speculative. So that gives us a certain freedom in setting the rules for how it's actually going to work—how you can cross over from one universe to the other, how they can affect each other, and so forth.

That doesn't mean that we have no rules. We definitely have an internal set of rules that we try to abide by. If we're going to break from those rules, then it's a big deal and it often ends up being a story point that a way has been found to break those rules.

Is the same true for time travel?

CHIAPPETTA: Yeah. We try to limit time travel as much as possible on the show.

WHITMAN: Or at least we have.

CHIAPPETTA: This next season we'll see how time shifting, time travel, new time lines play into our storytelling. We're working through that right now.

WHITMAN: If you've ever tried to write a story in the world of time travel, you know it's easy to tie yourself into knots. You have to commit yourself: Okay, what kind of time-travel physics am I working with? Do we allow feedback loops? If you have feedback loops, does that imply a kind of fate-driven universe where what happened in the future causes what happens in the past, which causes what happens in the future, and there's no escaping it? The original Terminator movie is the classic example of this.

Or, instead, are you working with time physics that allows you to change the past in a way that will allow you to change the future. For instance, the original Back to the Future movie was built on that concept.

There are some other ways to conceive of time travel as well. But it's very easy to get confused and to drift from talking in terms of one set of rules into a different set of rules. On Fringe, we're definitely trying to come up with a set of rules that we feel are sufficiently consistent and yet don't prevent us from telling stories we want to tell.

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Fringe's writers concocted ways to allow characters to travel between universes. Olivia Dunham can manage such trips because she was treated with the fictitious drug Cortexiphan. Enlarge Photo credit: Fox

I would think, given how fanatical many of your fans are, you have to be extra careful in staying consistent, or they'll catch you.

WHITMAN: They will!

CHIAPPETTA: The bottom line is that all the rules on our show are governed and really start with what's best for our characters. What's best for telling a story about human beings who are engaging in this crazy adventure and trying to learn something about themselves, protect each other, and stop big cataclysmic events.

Any time that we say, okay, we want to do something new with time or with parallel universes or change some crazy rule of physics, it always goes back to, how does that affect the people that we love?

WHITMAN: Ultimately, story is king. On the other hand, if you're constantly creating rules and then breaking them, the audience will feel like you're cheating. Any time that you break a rule that you've established yourself, you really have to justify it and earn it.


How do you try to incorporate cutting-edge science into the shows?

WHITMAN: It happens in a couple of ways. We look to science for inspiration, so a lot of us will spend time just reading periodicals, whether it's New Scientist magazine or Science News or Wired or whatever, and then use that as an inspiration for a wild idea that provides a jumping point for the plot.

The other direction is, we already have a story that we want to tell, and we essentially have little blank spots in the story where we know we're going to need some kind of a science explanation. That's where Robert and I often come in—we get tasked with trying to come up with the best possible explanation.

CHIAPPETTA: The two things that we usually need in every episode, outside of just the big arc, are, first, What are the bad guys doing? Are they doing some experiments or using some piece of new scientific technology to achieve some evil end? So, we go looking for how science can do bad things. Then the flip side of that is, how does our mad scientist in his laboratory fight back or solve these problems?

That's another theme of the show: Science is neutral. It's how you choose to use it that puts a moral spin on whether it's good or bad.

WHITMAN: Right. If you look at a lot of science fiction, sometimes you find that the perspective on science and technology ends up being inadvertently pessimistic or negative. I say inadvertently because I don't think the people who write science fiction are often anti-science. But if you're going to tell a good story—with conflict and danger—a natural place to go is where the science is being used for evil ends.

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Gene Wilder took the mad-scientist stereotype to comic heights in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Enlarge

On balance, do you think that Fringe shows more of the dark side of science and technology than the positive?

WHITMAN: I think the way that Fringe succeeds in not having an overall negative view of science is, as Robert indicated, trying to make sure that we don't just show science as the problem but also science as the solution. We show the dark side and the light side. I think, ultimately, if you look at the show as a whole, it's a story about hope. I think you'll come to see that in the upcoming season.

CHIAPPETTA: Also, everyone who's a recurring character is a really, really smart person. What we're showing is that smart people asking really smart questions and coming up with complex answers is not something to be afraid of. It's something to be embraced.

WHITMAN: Yeah, something that I love about the show—and you can probably tell that we love our show—

That's a good thing.

WHITMAN: Yeah. One of the things that I really love about it is, I just can't think of many other things that I've watched on TV or film where you have a scientist as your hero. The one other example that comes to mind is Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies. I just love that we have this really central character who's a scientist, and who's not just a cartoon. I think he is the character who, in many ways, is the center of the show in terms of being the most sympathetic, and the character that you most feel sorry for, and the character that you most want to see redeemed.

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Australian actor John Noble plays Fringe's sympathetic scientist, Walter Bishop, who, despite this publicity shot, often appears sans white lab coat. Enlarge Photo credit: Fox

Well, here's a test: Given that both of you have fathers who are in science or science education, do they think that the show paints science in an overly dark way?

CHIAPPETTA: No, I don't think so. One, they're just happy that we start at a place that's real. You can go to Wikipedia or open up a textbook and go, "Wow, that concept, that phrase, that does exist, and I can learn more about it."

Also, again, our heroes are scientists, and we show that science isn't just limited to a laboratory or to some very boring controlled experiment. It's dynamic. It's people asking big questions and wanting to go on that adventure. Science is a form of adventure. It's a form of discovery. I think they love that.

WHITMAN: Something that we've heard a lot from Robert's father, and also from science advisors that we've talked to, is that the current generation of working scientists, many of them were inspired by science fiction, shows like Star Trek. It was seeing those possibilities that made them want to become scientists themselves.

We really hope that Fringe has the same kind of impact. It's not that everything that you see on Fringe is going to be scientifically accurate—far from it. But what you are seeing is the excitement and wonder associated with science. You see scientists as real people and potentially heroes. And that might be something that inspires a new generation of scientists.

Interview of Robert Chiappetta and Glen Whitman conducted on June 15, 2011 and edited by Susan K. Lewis, senior editor of NOVA Online

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