Microscopes in Popular Media

I don’t watch much television, but when I do I enjoy yelling at the screen. -K

I’m constantly amazed by the inability of popular media to understand the basics of microscopy, or of actors to appear competent at the eyepiece. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect programs which insist that forensic investigators serve as the entire criminal justice system get something as simple as the sort of microscope to use correct, but a man can dream.

The television program Fringe loved to show its protagonists at the microscope but like every popular depiction of a laboratory they seem to exist for ambiance. Something about a low oxygen Bunsen burner flame and an improperly assembled distillation apparatus appeals to set designers. At least they never imply to what end the microscope is being employed, so one can assume that the correct type is being used. Usually one sees a binocular compound light microscope but the objectives are always much much to far from the specimens, and they must be employing oculars with impossibly high eye points as the operator is without question to far away to see anything. At least the program isn’t as bad as, for example, Sherlock.

The fellow playing Sherlock on the popular British series should be required to take an introductory course in light microscopy at the very least. They give him a dissecting microscope for absolutely everything. Whether it’s a blood smear or a chemical analysis they put the actor behind a dissecting microscope, its infuriating. The worst is when they throw up some color shifted video of fluorescence microscopy images, usually a replicating bacillus, and shout about how the sample contained copper and could have only come from whatever old warehouse. They obviously have quite the budget but seem unable to spring for a petrographic scope or even a polarizing apparatus, anything that would permit even basic chemical analysis. At least the actor manipulates the dissecting microscope approximately correct and appears to actually be looking at something that is in focus.

Finally, let me just mention that I have yet to see a proper slide of blood composed on screen, large or small. Plenty of movies and television shows depict blood being examined, but in each case it is always drop of blood, coverglass, revelation. That murderous chap on Dexter made a slide of every victim or some such thing, without making a smear or even fixing the sample. Ah well, maybe it was his “dark passenger.” If one has ever attempted to examine blood by that method one knows how disappointing their view must be. It’s not as if the time required to construct a smear is excessive, in fact it might look quite nice on screen, seem very purposeful, so it’s odd to say the least that none of the technical advisors or scientific consultants bother to correct the actors.

There certainly are enough well educated people in the entertainment industry, quite a number of biologists in fact, so for microscopes to be so uniformly misrepresented on screen… well it’s upsetting. One shouldn’t be as put off by such things I suppose, particularly from the sort of programs that delight in having people eat in the lab, but it is unfortunate seemingly no effort goes into getting things right. Oh well, time for a nightcap and something productive tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Microscopes in Popular Media

  1. Ha ha! I noticed Sherlock’s stereomicroscopes too. I didn’t shout at the TV though, I save my yelling for those scenes where someone pops a bit of slime into an eppendorf tube, adds some unknown solution (preferably green), vortex mixes it, puts a drop of the solution into a mass spectrometer or GC and gets a picture of the suspect on their computer screen.

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