Ask A Scientist (About Pop Culture): Call for Submissions

Greetings, Earth-People: Against the advice of some, and as many of you may know, I gladly (if not always ably) serve as the Overthinking It staff scientist™.  It’s an odd amalgam of roles, requiring mostly that I be at-the-ready if … Continued

X-Ray gun?  Yes.  Pants?  Not bloody likely.

X-Ray gun? Yes. Pants? Not bloody likely.

Greetings, Earth-People:

Against the advice of some, and as many of you may know, I gladly (if not always ably) serve as the Overthinking It staff scientist™.  It’s an odd amalgam of roles, requiring mostly that I be at-the-ready if one of my fellow overthinkers needs a formula derived, has questions about standard units of measurement, or if something they took a pill for keeps on doing its thing for more time than they wanted/expected it to.

(I’m talking about erections, there.)

(…well, mosly.)

On rare occasion, though, I also get the chance to directly OverThink an aspect of Science in the popular culture.  The last time I did this for any serious length, actually, one of you responded to it by trying to debunk Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

We in the Scientific community hope you get the help you so desperately deserve, Joe Nahhas, anonymous OTI reader.*

Still, if nothing else this may serve as some general indicator of a demand for sciency-type-stuff on our humble website.  Now, said sciencey-goop finds its way into our popular milieu through more venues than that most obvious route of Science Fiction.  As has been beautifully enumerated elsewhere, action movies are particularly adept at taking the kinds of “liberties” with Physics (both stunt- and plot-based) that can only be considered awe-inspiring.  But beyond that, arguably any cultural element for which characters, say, depend on some trendy (if not fictional) electronic devices, or suffer from/receive medical care for a fictional (if not trendy) ailment, evokes the Specter of Science in that work.  Not to mention those pop culture artifacts that, though not ostensibly about science, per se, feature a character who’s a scientist…


This isn't helping things... for anyone.

The thing is, I have my favorite examples of where Pop Culture gets it right, (and wrong), but listening to me gripe about it isn’t much fun, is it?  It’s time to crowd-source it.

SO, dear OTI readers, I’d like you to chime in on a semi-regular piece I’ll write called “Ask A Scientist.”  I’d title it something more creative, but it takes enough self-restraint for me not publish these posts with an abstract and Materials/Methods section.  We’ll worry about the nuances of “clever titles,” “word order,” and “not using swear words to describe other peoples’ work in print” later.

Let’s get the ball rolling.  Got something you’ve seen on TV, in a movie that makes you think, “Is that really how that would work?”  or, “there’s no way a platypus could survive that!” or “can you really tell if it’s human DNA just by looking at a cartoon of it?”**  Sound off in the comments.  Or, you can always send me an email at [email protected] shechner at overthinkingit dot com with your questions/observations regarding science in the popular media.

The lucky ones will get their questions addressed in an OverThought and moderately comic way, by me: Dave Shechner, professional scientist™.  Unlucky ones will be publicly harangued by me: Dave Shechner, semi-professional harague-ist (RM; patent-pending).

Extremely lucky ones will get a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Mr. Peter Fenzel.

And of course, members of the OTI writing staff, or its parent corporation are eligible to enter, and are encouraged to do so.

Nanoo nanoo.

* It was Joe Nahhas.
** Don’t get me started.  Seriously.

9 Comments on “Ask A Scientist (About Pop Culture): Call for Submissions”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    [email protected]

    Oh, Shechner. You know I have no childhood friends.

    Also, I’d like some sciency help with the movie Up. How many balloons would it take to lift your average American suburban house (plus old man plus boy scout)?


  2. Gab #

    Nanoo nanoo? Oh, I haven’t seen that show in ages. But makes me think: would the shape of his ship be efficient for space travel?


  3. Gab #

    Oh, and why Fenzel on the shirt?


  4. Linton #

    Because Fenzel should be on every shirt.


  5. Matthew Wrather #

    Hi, Dave.

    I’ve noticed a trend in popular media — filmed entertainment for sure, but even just casual writing: a tendency to use “evolution” as a metaphor in inappropriate ways.

    Either “evolution” is presented as a goal-directed process or else the product of agency and conscious decision making, or some technology writer will say something merely insipid like “We’re evolving to use cell phones.”

    You’re a biochemist… Care to comment?


  6. shechner OTI Staff #

    @Wrather. Yes. Yes I do care to comment. Keep this up, boy, and you’ll win yourself a Fenzel T-shirt.

    @Shana – that is an awesome calculation to do; it’s been a while since I had to deal with fluid mechanics (at least, as a *scientist*, wink-wink…). Believe it or not, this is a fluid-mechanics problem. Lemme jot a bit and I’ll get back to you.

    @Gab – Spaceship shape’s a great question; might take a bit of research on my part, but it’s worthwhile. Thanks! Regarding your second question, please see Mssr. Linton’s response.

    Science bless us, every one,


  7. D #

    Hmm. What do I want to ask a scientist about? How about the belief that sucking on/ingesting activated charcoal can allow someone to beat a breathalyzer? They talked about it on an episode of House and I have hear it elsewhere.


  8. D #

    Make that heard it elsewhere.


  9. Erin #

    Lots of questions spring to mind, but I will keep it short.
    1. Have you considered doing a Helicopter Montage? (example: Die Hard, The Matrix and True Lies)
    2. Could Oddjob’s metal bowler hat actually work? It looks unbearably uncomfortable and dangerous to wear.

    Gab asked a question regarding spaceship shape, may I add the Romulan mining ship from Star Trek to list? It certainly looked menacing, but not efficient or practical.


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