The non-science of Fringe: What Lies Below

Fringe: Season 2: Episode : “What Lies Below”

Walter pays attention to health and safety for once.

Walter pays attention to health and safety for once.

The plot of this week’s episode could have been lifted from any number of films, books, or even board games – a killer infection is on the loose, with some of the team infected and some not. Can they find a cure in time? Of course they can. 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



As other posters have pointed out, you can’t see viruses using optical microscopes. This is the latest in a very long list of misunderstandings, leading me to recommend that the writing team at least review what a virus is.

I’m not an expert on immunoassays (the usual procedure for antibody/antigen screening), but I don’t think the colour changes are reversible.

For some reason, the infected secretary could jump out of a window to try and spread the virus but the other infected people could not.

Fentanyl isn’t a gas, but it can presumably be delivered as a solid aerosol. Even so, trying to disable a building full of people with a universal agent is generally a bad idea as not everybody will react to it in the same way. The FBI could just have easily stormed the building with those tranquiliser darts they use in other episodes, or run a sulfur-containing gas through the ventilation system.

Geology for people with common sense

Ten miles down? The oil company involved (Massive Dynamic, perhaps) must have developed some superb new drilling technology, as the current deepest human-drilled hole is the Kola Superdeep Borehole at about 7.5 miles.

Walter estimates the age of the core sample to be 75,000 years, based on the depth at which it was retrieved. If this were true, then there must have been a very large flood event depositing several miles of sediment or some serious tectonic shifts, as otherwise the bedrock would have been building up at a ridiculous rate of around 21 cm per year (around 4 mm per week). Given that the earth was in the grip of an ice age at the time, this is highly unlikely. In the real world you only need to look at a cliff or dig down a few hundred metres to go back 75,000 years (a mere blip on the geological timescale).

Walter also references the Toba catastrophe theory, but in a neat twist makes it humanity’s saviour instead of its nemesis. The Toba catastrophe theory holds that a supervolcano at Lake Toba (in present-day Indonesia) blew its top around 75,000 years ago and brought mammals (including early humans) to the brink of extinction. In the Fringe version of events, the virus had already wiped out most life and was serendipitously killed off by the eruption.

The sulfur will save us

It is a rather large leap to assume that because the virus died out at the same time as the Toba explosion, the virus is vulnerable to sulfur. More plausible would be the sharp change in rain pH, caused by sulfuric acid (H2SO4) from the volcano.

Allyl isothiocyanate

Allyl isothiocyanate

Some horseradish glycosides do contain sulfur (notably sinigrin and gluconasturtiin), but the sulfur is probably more available in the mustard oil (allyl isothiocyanate) form. However, if the virus is so vulnerable to sulfur as to die when exposed to sulfur-containing glycosides then it would not survive very well in the human body, what with all the sulfur-containing amino acids around.


One Response to The non-science of Fringe: What Lies Below

  1. […] The non-science of Fringe: What Lies Below « weak interactions […]

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