Monday, August 29, 2011

Science and television

Let’s take a break from pregnancy and kids and talk for a second about what it can be like to be an engineer watching television. The other day, I saw a commercial for Exxon which started with a shot of gasoline being poured into some sort of container while a sexy female voiceover says something about how Exxon gasoline is special because it “works at the molecular level.” Now I think she went on to claim that the Exxon gas cleans the engine or something, but I can’t be sure because I was too busy mocking the ad to hear what she was saying. It “works at the molecular level,” eh, Exxon? Well that makes YOUR gasoline just incredibly unique! So with Exxon, do the gasoline molecules undergo an extreme exothermic reaction when mixed with oxygen molecules and heat? Funny, because THAT’S HOW GASOLINE WORKS. ON THE MOLECULAR LEVEL.

In fact, I am hard pressed to think of any substance on earth that doesn’t “work” at the molecular level. Take water. Did you know that liquid water flows because the molecules slide over one another, and ice is formed when those very same water molecules stop sliding and crystallize? That’s how it “works.” Take your furniture! You know how you can set something down on the table and it doesn’t fall through? That “works” because the molecules in the wood are tightly covalently bonded.

The Exxon commercial reminded of a news clip I saw years ago, but have never forgotten. The news anchor was talking about a vehicle full of volatile liquid. I forget what the liquid was, exactly, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it was oxygen. We’ll assume she was talking about a fuel tanker full of liquid oxygen. A dangerous thing, no doubt. But that doesn’t make this statement any more true: “But remember, even though the oxygen was in liquid form, it’s still a gas.” Because no. No it’s not. It’s a liquid. That’s why they call it liquid oxygen. Saying that something in the liquid form is “still a gas” is like saying… I don’t know! That two totally different things are the same! It’s like saying you can drown in ice because even though the water is solid, it’s still a liquid!

Argh.

I have one more from year ago, but this one is more forgivable because it was one of those “But wait, there’s more!” commercials, so you expect them to lie a little. It was a commercial schilling some sort of plastic sealant which is “so air-tight, even water can’t get through it!” Riiiiiight. I think the phrase they’re looking for there is “water-tight.”

Andrew would like me to add a note to the writers of Covert Affairs that you don’t get “infected with radiation poisoning.” You can get “poisoned by radiation” or you can “have radiation poisoning,” but not so much “infected.”

18 comments:

Sarah in Ottawa said...

Scientific literacy levels are alarming low, no?

I'm with Andrew on the infuriating use of 'infected with radiation poisoning'. The poison is the toxin causing the problem; infection generally results from the proliferation of something living. I guess there are some 'food poisonings' like E. coli 0157:H7 where the bacteria itself cause the illness rather than producing a toxin that causes it. But I'm hard pressed to come up with any other examples.

In case there's any doubt, I'm a science nerd, too.

Elsha said...

Ah yes, I have a BS in chemical engineering and I've definitely had my fair share of those moments. The one that stands out in my mind is the scene from Panic Room where the bad guys are filling the room with "propane gas" and Jodie Foster proceeds to light it on fire and you watch it burn all across the ceiling and back out the vent it came through. And all I could think was, "Really? You couldn't have at least picked a gas that is lighter than air so MAYBE I could believe that?"

Jessica said...

I think I just may have to add "you can't drown in ice" to my vocabulary for when people/ commercials are saying stupid stuff. I like it.

Heather R said...

Jeff is always feeling this way when they have ridiculous computer stuff on TV....I especially remember this from 24. They would say things about "opening up a socket" and stuff like that....there was always a lot of eye rolling.

Becca said...

Haha, that would have bugged the heck out of me! Once on the news they said that the light should have been yellow for 4 seconds and it was only yellow for 2.5 seconds, then went on to say that it was LESS THAN HALF AS LONG AS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN. Uhh. Hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Arwen said...

I wish Bryan and I could get together with you and Andrew and just watch a bunch of commercials together. I laughed out loud reading this. Several times.

Carmen said...

It is just as frustrating being a biologist watching TV or reading the newspaper. I remember during the Winter Olympics one year, there was a Russian skier that was prevented from competing in a race because her hematocrit was too high (she had too many red blood cells to safely race; they test all the skiers before each race, apparently). Later in the week, her RBC count dropped so she could compete again. The news reports? "She tested negative for hemoglobin." Really? REALLY? Then get her to the lab forthwith, because I'm pretty damn sure she's a freaking medical miracle!

Hair product companies also like to play fast and loose with biological terminology. Amino acids is one that they mangle on a regular basis.

TV shows that deal with forensics also drive me batty. When I run protein samples on the mass spec, I don't get a little print-out come squirting out of the machine 10 minutes after sample loading that tells me exactly what the sample was composed of and what year it was manufactured! If only!

Katie K said...

Oh, the scientist in me loves this post and all of the comments so much. What a great way to start my day. :)

Rah said...

It is a longstanding form of entertainment in our family to critique such errors in commercials and television shows. For example, in a sit com one night, "You'll catch frostbite." Really? I thought they had a vaccine for that.

Christy said...

Love this so much. Like when the car salesman told me that the aluminum alloy wheels were stronger than steel wheels. "Because it's an alloy, you see." Hmmm, how silly of me! All along I was thinking that steel (ALSO an alloy, jerkface) must be stronger than aluminum, you know, since I don't see any aluminum alloy bridges around here.

Anyway, love the post.

Maggie said...

The Cheung version of this is to scoff at how they use computers and/or technology in TV shows/movies. There's a lot of "ORLY?" going on.

As for science in commercials, I'm just glad I have a smartie friend like you to point me to The Truth. Also, I have not read the word "covalent" since high school. And of COURSE I have no idea what it means. Can we still be friends anyway?

Kelsey said...

While frustrating for you, this just makes me happy. Thank you for the laugh!

Lauren said...

Oh, don't even get me started on being a lawyer and watching legal shows. And every time I watch a medical show, I think about how any doctors who watch must be screaming at the TV over the inaccuracies.

Thanks for the laugh!

Dr. Maureen said...

@Carmen: That kills me. She had no hemoglobin! AND YET SHE LIVED!

@Maggie: A covalent bond is one where two atoms share electrons. OK? OK! (It is secretly blowing my mind that you haven't seen that word since high school. Different lives!)

@Lauren: Sometimes I catch myself speaking authoritatively about how and why such-and-such criminal would be prosecuted for such-and-such crime and what exactly the charge would be, and then I realize that I learned all of my law from _Law & Order_.

Dr. Maureen said...

@Lauren Oh, and apparently _Grey's Anatomy_ is the worst offender in terms of getting things wrong at the hospital, according to my medical friends. This is no surprise, really, as even I can see it is utterly ludicrous in so very many ways. But med student friend of mine practically started sputtering while talking about how the SURGEONS do not TREAT people. He actually said that _Scrubs_ is probably the most accurate show!

Kate said...

I'm with Lauren on watching legal shows. I can't even watch the new one on USA ("Suits") because the premise is about as possible as liquid oxygen being both a liquid and a gas. I mean, really, dude with photographic memory earns money taking the bar exam for people (which, hi, there were armed guards and police dogs at the entrance to the exam in Boston -- they take verifying identity kinda seriously), then *accidentally* stumbles into a big law firm interview and winds up with a job as an associate, despite the wee complicating factor of having neither attended law school nor been admitted to the bar (different than just the exam! which he only took for other people!). I just do not possess the ability to suspend this level of disbelief. My husband LOVES watching tv with me, as you might imagine.

Anonymous said...

So I too just saw this Exxon commercial and had to open my laptop and see if anyone else was shocked by the ignorance of the people that made it; “Gas working at the molecular level” wow. What a relief it is to see I’m not the last thinking person on earth. P.S. don’t let them know we get energy from the nuclear level, they might stone you for being a witch!

Anonymous said...

My pet peeve is when women on tv shows are in labor with their first child have contractions and then they see the baby's head and a few minutes later the baby pops out. We could see the top of my son's head for 3 hours before the rest of him decided to make an entrance.