The non-science of Fringe: The Road Not Taken

Fringe: Season 1: Episode 19: “The Road Not Taken”

Olivia and Charlie at the latest Pattern occurrence.

Olivia and Charlie at the latest Pattern occurrence.

Someone with the ability to generate and/or control fire was bound to show up in Fringe sooner or later, though this is overshadowed somewhat by Olivia’s dimension-hopping. 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 Polite Dissent, and you can read more about it at Fox, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

Random thoughts

Why dismantle a perfectly good electron microscope and Geiger counter when you could almost certainly just requisition the parts? Broyles did say something along the lines of, “Whatever you want, you can have.”

Peter’s gift to Walter, while sweet, may be a little unnecessary – vinyl doesn’t really get water damage, and can even be cleaned with soap and water.

While the idea that sound waves will deform softened glass is quite neat, surely there wouldn’t be much in the way of temporal information? Peter’s success in “playing” the window borders on the preposterous.



The spray that the FBI use to break the lock on the warehouse door is probably a refrigerant such as 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane (R134a). Due to its low boiling point (around -26 °C), it evaporates instantly on contact with the metal, cools it rapidly and thus makes it brittle enough to be broken.

LP to MP3

Despite Peter making a near-unforgivable breach of laboratory etiquette (taking someone else’s equipment), his vinyl record scanner delights Walter and is completed just in time to help solve a case. He seems to have constructed an environmental scanning electron microscope, which would be able to resolve surface detail down to about 5 nm. Of course, this is far smaller than the bumps in a record groove but software will presumably take care of the smoothing.

The big clanger, aside from the lack of any obvious cooling or vacuum systems for the electron beam, is the gap between the sample (LP or glass window) and the electron emitter. Electron beam intensity decreases exponentially as a function of distance, because the electrons interact with atoms and molecules in the air (this is why most electron microscopes operate at high vacuum). At atmospheric pressure, the sample must be less than 1 mm from the emitter to pick up a reasonable signal. The enormous, open gap in Peter’s device would not only reduce the effective beam intensity to zero, but also irradiate anyone foolish enough to stand nearby (as well as high-energy electrons, electron microscopes give off X-rays).

Mass-energy equivalence

Walter says that the average adult contains enough energy to “explode with the force of five very large hydrogen bombs”. Is this true? Let’s see about that mainstay of casual science, a back-of-the envelope calculation.

The largest hydrogen bomb ever deployed by the USA was Castle Bravo, a 15 megaton Teller-Ulam design (by contrast, the largest device deployed by the Soviet Union was the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba). A megaton (Mt) represents 4.184 x 1015 J, or the energy released by detonating one tonne of TNT. If we take the Castle Bravo test as a “very large” benchmark, five of them might be expected to release 3.138 x 1017 J.

Mass-energy equivalence is dealt with by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, which would be the upper limit of a person’s potential energy. If an “average” adult has a mass of 70 kg, then (the speed of light being about 2.998 x 108 m s-1) they could contain 6.292 x 1018 J (around 1500 Mt), 20 times as much as our group of hydrogen bombs. If we assume that modern weapons are more powerful than those of the Cold War, Walter would be exactly right.


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