Labs on TV

One of my [many] pet peeves is the portrayal of science labs on television. It turns out that there are some universal rules that TV follows in the construction of a lab. For a variety of reasons I can’t stand these shows, but I do get a kick out of some of the things I’ve noticed, especially labs on “hip” shows.

Rule #1. All labs must have brightly colored liquids, especially red and blue ones, preferrably kept in a backlit cabinet or shelf.

This rule is illustrated in the above picture from one of the bajillion CSI series (not sure which one). Notice how few of the “chemicals” are clear, how few need to be labeled (calling Health Physics), how many aren’t even capped! This rule transcends different television shows, all labs must have multicolored liquids prominently displayed, that means science. Either that Kool-Aid plays a much larger role in other sciences that it does in geology. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked my assistant to “hand me that green liquid, you know, the one we keep unlabeled in the uncapped erlenmeyer flask from the backlit glass cabinet,” must happen 30 times a day.

Rule #2. Labs must be poorly lit.
Again, let’s place some spotlights on things in the background, but why bother to have overhead lighting? Kind of messes up the dramatics. I will buy that most real labs might not have windows, OK, but really, no one remembers to turn on the lights? My real belief is that this saves the set designers boatloads of time, all they need to do is turn a flashlight on a few test tubes or a microscope and boom, instant lab! To be fair, overhead fluorescent lights are probably bad for clear bottles of red liquid, they most likely need to be kept in the dark. Maybe my experiments will actually work better with mood lighting, don’t knock it before you try it.

Rule #3. Blue background light means science.

The lighting goal of any lab on TV is to mimic that of an aquarium at night. Notice in all of these shots what an eerie bluish aqua lighting is in the background. Then again, to be fair, perhaps they are surrounded by aquariums.

Rule #4. To really look at things in your dark, bluish lab, you must use a light table.

As any geologist with a 35mm slide collection will tell you, light tables are very useful, they really do help when looking at transparent images. Why they help with actual photographs, I have no idea. Granted, this is some of the only light available, so perhaps they need to take what they can get. According to TV, light tables are the best way to view almost anything, pictures, physical evidence, perhaps even bottles of red “chemicals.”

Rule #5. All scientists are young, fashionable, and very attractive. I won’t argue with this one, because it is true, especially in the world of thermochronology.

I am sure there are more rules, but these are so far my big 5. Any ideas?

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7 Responses to Labs on TV

  1. Brian says:

    Hilarious…I was just talking about this with someone the other day.

    I wonder if the lighting is some filming standard…if you notice, even in documetaries with actual scientists, the lights tend to be low. I don’t know…maybe it looks really crappy in full on light.

    Besides, the “flaws” of the pretty people are hidden in the low light.

  2. CJR says:

    You forgot the ‘look, they’re doing science!’ music which accompanies any ludicrously fast DNA extraction, or reconstruction of a murderer’s face from their footprints, or whatever.

    And they’re all young, fashionable and attractive except the lead guy, who clearly has trouble relating to normal people and has strange obsessive hobbies (or, if he’s that guy from CSI Miami, spends the entire episode removing and putting on his sunglasses).

    Bizarrely, we were actually discussing the mechanics of a CSI drinking game in the pub last night..

  3. Ha! I love the oddball older guy character, I think that could hold true for medical dramas as well. After seeing CSI Miami I have to say, thank god all murderers happen to have a rug or a piece of furniture with very rare and specific fibers that only one person in Florida owns. Whew.

  4. Brian says:

    I think it’s time for some photos of Thermochronic’s lab and photos of Thermochronic himself for comparision…

    What does science really look like?

  5. Lab Lemming says:

    Rule number six:
    Never, ever, ever label any of your brightly colored solutions in bottles or test tubes.

  6. I am sure they can tell what they are by the color.

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