The non-science of Fringe: Earthling

Fringe: Season 2: Episode 6: “Earthling”

The cosmonaut's final journey.

The cosmonaut's final journey.

Monsters! From outer space! And Cold War references! Typically poor alien logic aside, this episode was refreshingly easy to watch.

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

The “dust” that our victims are turned into appears to be vacuum cleaner lint, which may be why Walter requested a Dust Devil. If a body had indeed been reduced to its “elemental components”, it would be much smaller as the gases (most of the human body being hydrogen and oxygen) would have dispersed.

Once again, the slightest shock will incapacitate women – even professional nurses – by causing uncontrollable screaming.

If the space shadow needed to feed on radiation, it seems odd that it’d go around killing people when it could just go hang out inside an X-ray machine or PET scanner.

The chemical code

At first glance, the formula puzzle that Tomas sent to Broyles all those years ago appears to be some kind of porphyrin. Porphyrins are quite common in nature and biochemistry, one of the better known derivatives being haem B (found in blood). Peter was right in recognising it as a “complex organic compound”, though it’s more strictly an organometallic and the term “molecular model” is generally reserved for 3D representations (either physical or computer-generated).

The puzzle molecule and porphine, a simple porphyrin.

The puzzle molecule and porphine, a simple porphyrin.

Of course, we don’t know what all the Russian notes and Greek letters mean – though we may speculate that Tomas’s γ key doesn’t work given the use of α, β, “C” and δ to label the pyrrole rings. Also, the molecular diagram as shown in the episode has double bonds between every atom in the α ring – this structure cannot exist, and so I’ve left it out of the diagram above. The Φ should represent a metal of some kind – in haem, this is iron (Fe).

The groups linking the pyrrole rings together are less easy to interpret, as four of them (CHα-, CHHHβ, HHα and HHδH) cannot exist. CHα- and CHHHβ have carbon exceeding its maximum valency (i.e. the atoms have more than four bonds), and HHα and HHδH make no sense (I suspect that HHδH is a typo, and that it should be CHδH – though this still cannot exist). Similarly, the CO2H groups – normally representing carboxylic acids – cannot exist as drawn.

Moving on to the functional groups, the “M” in CMα and CMδ can be used to represent a metal. However, direct carbon-metal bonds usually form only under very specific conditions and are highly unstable. M may therefore be a reference to another molecule, such as another organometallic.

Finally, the [αβ], [αα], [ββ] and [βα] again make little sense without further information. We can, however, see the Roman numerals I, II, III and IV, which Walter seems to think represent four nucleobase-like molecules. They aren’t the bases that make up human DNA, but they have very similar shapes and so might be considered nucleic acid analogues (and therefore space creature DNA). Later on, Walter starts drawing what look like polysaccharides – large polymeric molecules used for storing energy in living systems.

Walter also mentions titanium tetrachloride (TiCl4), which is not shown directly in the diagram. Instead, we see a dimeric form of titanium trichloride (Ti2Cl6 = 2 x TiCl3), which can react at high temperature to form TiCl2 and TiCl4.

The gigantic molecular model that Walter and Peter build towards the end of their research looks like a small protein, or possibly a Theo Jansen piece. Presumably the linking bond means that human and alien parts are irreversibly entwined – but this should also have been clear from the 2D diagrams.

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One Response to The non-science of Fringe: Earthling

  1. XB says:

    Hell yeah, just watched this episode and it was quite dumb to say the least! I recognized it as a porphyrine right away, since I used to synthesize their analogues – phthalocyanines…

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