The non-science of Fringe: Power Hungry

Fringe: Season 1: Episode 5: “Power Hungry”

Olivia investigates one of several suspicious deaths.

Olivia investigates one of several suspicious deaths.

A series of unlikely electrical malfunctions lead our team to conclude that someone is having difficulty keeping his emotions under control. In this post, I’ll be making the usual comments about how much suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the show.

This episode is debunked at Popular Mechanics, and you can read more about it at Fox, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

A long way down

I’m astounded that Popular Mechanics didn’t mention the elevator accident in their review, but perhaps it was a little too obvious. By now, most people know that elevators cannot plummet to the floor in the event of a cable failure, and so the Fringe team came up with a new angle that’s nice in principle but fairly lacking in rigour. We can see from the overhead shot of the car that we’re dealing with a fairly standard roped elevator, and the (overloading) motor therefore does not give much propulsion at all. The motor is there to raise the elevator against gravity (with the help of counterweights), and to lower it against the counterweights (with the help of gravity). The maximum downward velocity attainable is therefore only dependent on the weight of the car plus the occupants, minus the counterweights – which the automatic brakes could easily deal with. If the motor kept going, it would just pay cable out onto the roof of the stationary car.

Homing instinct

I quite liked the idea of using homing pigeons to zero in on a strong magnetic/electric/electromagnetic field (these terms are used interchangeably in the episode) – I thought that they might attempt to dust parts of Boston with iron filings, Indiana Jones-style. However, while various theories have been put forward to explain how pigeons navigate (including smell, the earth’s magnetic field, atmospheric infrasound and roads), nobody is really sure how they know where “home” is. Walter’s theory is just about plausible, though using Tesla coils to reorient their internal compasses is a little flashy. He’s a showman all right.


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