Science in Pop Culture

An Everyday DNA blog article

Written by: Sarah Sharman, PhD

Illustrated by: Cathleen Shaw 

From in-depth documentaries to your favorite true crime shows, science is a popular topic in movies, books, TV shows, and video games. I understand the fascination because science is amazing, allowing us to cure diseases, explore space, and create life-changing technologies. 

Because pop culture outlets are geared toward entertaining the masses, their creators often turn everyday events into larger-than-life representations. Sometimes, this can blur the line between the reality of science and Hollywood elaborations. Let’s examine some common stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding science and scientists in pop culture and meet some real-life scientists whose stories could one day become the subject of a movie or TV show. 

When factual meets fantastical

Authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers all draw inspiration in part from the world around them. Often, this means incorporating creatures from our natural world, ideas from current events, or other life experiences. Science is all around us, and sometimes it makes starring or supporting roles in movies and TV shows. 

Let’s take one of my favorite sci-fi movies as an example. The Jurassic Park franchise, based on a science fiction book series by Michael Crichton, tells the tale of a billionaire who creates an island theme park whose main attraction is dinosaurs recreated from prehistoric DNA.

In the movie, experts, including paleontologists and mathematicians, are invited for a private tour of the island. While there, they watched a presentation by the cartoon Mr. DNA, which explained how the Jurassic Park dinosaurs came to exist. Briefly, the research team extracted blood from a mosquito preserved in a chunk of amber, collected DNA from the blood, sequenced the DNA, and filled in the gaps using frog DNA as a reference sequence.

Parts of this process are scientifically proven. Take ancient DNA, for example. It is possible to extract DNA from ancient materials, like tissue, bones, fabric, and plant material. However, extracting enough DNA from the blood of a mosquito preserved in amber is a little far-fetched, especially with the technology available in the early 1990s.  

Using a reference genome to infer gaps in a closely related species’ genome sequence is also scientifically sound. But the Jurassic Park geneticists had no idea what dinosaur (if it was a dinosaur at all) the blood in the mosquito came from. Frogs are amphibians, while dinosaurs are reptiles. Therefore, using frog DNA as a reference sequence to fill the gaps of the dinosaur DNA wouldn’t have worked. Using bird or reptile DNA would’ve been more accurate. 

Despite the scientific shortcomings, Jurassic Park did introduce millions of viewers to the basic concept that DNA is the basic building block of all living organisms. It explained that DNA is in blood cells and can be extracted and analyzed by scientists. The incorporation of fundamental scientific concepts into the fantastical world of Jurassic Park encourages viewers to think critically about the scientific process, ask questions about the world around them, and maybe even seek more information about what they’ve just seen.

Unrealistic Depictions of Science Processes

Many films and TV shows take creative liberties when portraying scientific processes, often for dramatic effect or to simplify complex concepts for the audience. We’ve all seen scenes where a forensic scientist pops a DNA sample into a machine and gets a match with a known criminal in minutes when, in reality, it is much more complex and time-consuming than that. 

Representing the day-to-day slog in the laboratory would be a less-than-entertaining plotline in a movie or TV show. I will be the first to admit that sometimes there are weeks when you do no experiments, focusing on ordering supplies, analyzing data, or writing manuscripts. Furthermore, sometimes, you can go months without positive results from experiments. Not exactly blockbuster material!

The need for dramatic pacing often leads to scenes of scientists getting instantaneous results from complex experiments or simulations and exaggerated or implausible breakthroughs. While these inaccuracies might not directly hinder scientific progress, they can contribute to public misunderstanding. The public might get discouraged by the slow pace of real-world research compared to the immediate breakthroughs seen in fiction.  These portrayals can also downplay the crucial aspects of scientific discovery, like critical thinking, iterative experimentation, and the thrill of incremental progress. 

The Allure of the Mad Scientist and Other Stereotypes 

Behind all groundbreaking scientific discoveries are the real stars of the show: the scientists who dedicate their careers to investigating how nature works and asking essential questions about how humanity can best thrive within the natural world.

Scientists are a favorite character in Hollywood, serving as both hero and villain, depending on the storyline. Filmmakers and television producers often use exaggerated stereotypes of scientists for high entertainment value.

The ‘mad scientist’ trope has dominated popular culture for decades, from Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creation to the villainous scientists in countless movies. This scientist stereotype emerged at a time when science was only for the educated, and most scientific discoveries were not shared with the public. This led people to speculate that scientists were holed up working on evil or immoral experiments in their labs.

As science’s role in society grew, so did the diversity of scientists depicted in pop culture. Today, we see a wider range of characters, from the brilliant but socially awkward researcher to the passionate science communicator. While some stereotypes persist, there’s a greater recognition of the teamwork, patience, and varied personalities that drive scientific progress.

How much do these stereotypes reflect the real individuals working in science labs today? Forget the wild hair, beaker explosions, and cackling laughter. Most real scientists are closer to meticulous detectives than maniacal villains. Their days are filled with careful observation, formulating hypotheses, and running experiments to test those ideas.

There are examples we can look at in real life. Take Marie Curie, for example. She discovered radium and polonium and contributed to the discovery of cancer treatments. She spent years meticulously studying radioactive material for the greater good, not locked away in a secret lab researching a questionable energy source.

Scientific discovery is a marathon, not a sprint. This makes scientists the ultimate marathon runners, fueled by curiosity and a passion for discovery.

To learn more about science in pop culture, listen to the new season of Tiny Expeditions Podcast, which explores the representation of genetics and biotechnology in popular movies, TV shows, books, music, and more. 

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