Thursday, March 7, 2013

Zero Hour: Zero Credibility

A Bad Science on TV post by David Zaslavsky
(Check out his awesome physics blog here)

There's a new TV show on ABC, Zero Hour, whose previews really piqued my interest earlier this year. Highly skilled assassin, greatest conspiracy in the history of the world, something about clocks. Seems like good clean utterly ridiculous fun. I like horrible disaster movies, so I figured this should fit right in.

But only three episodes in, Zero Hour has already managed to butcher the science so badly I'm not sure I can stand it anymore. Let me set the stage: the main character, Hank, is searching for his wife, who has been kidnapped, and to find her he has to locate a series of clocks, each of which has clues leading to the next location. Clock number 2's clue was a map of the constellation Cepheus. Combined with the time and date on the clock (the hands were frozen in place), this supposedly led Hank to the exact location you'd have to be to view the constellation at that time: Chennai, India. But maybe you can see the problem here: a constellation is not visible from only a single location! By their criteria, Hank could be looking for any place in that entire hemisphere of the Earth. Sure, maybe the clue was supposed to identify where Cepheus would be seen directly overhead, but that's not anywhere close to India. Cepheus is a northern hemisphere constellation, very close to the north celestial pole, so the only places it appears directly overhead are in the Arctic. On the other hand, here's the view from Chennai at 8:15 AM on March 8, 1938, the date and time named in the show:

Cepheus is almost right on the horizon. The constellation that was directly overhead at the time was Aquila, which they could just as easily have named. To be fair, I guess that wouldn't make for very good TV because it's basically a nondescript rhombus, but then again, Cepheus is just a square with a hat, so you can't be too picky.

But that snafu with the constellation, which I could have lived with, pales in comparison to the next (and most recent) episode. The clue from the third clock leads Hank, after some floundering on the acronym IAS (which anyone as smart as he is should instantly recognize), to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Let's just bypass the fact that they managed to get almost every location in Princeton wildly wrong — I mean, if you've never been there, you probably wouldn't care. (For the record, the Princeton Public Library looks like an entirely normal public library, not a stuffy university library as it's shown in the show.)

What really irks me is the equation they found on Einstein's blackboard at the end. In the show, Einstein erased something from the blackboard he was working on just before he died, which was rumored to be the formula for a new power source that he considered too dangerous for humankind to control.
  • Real power sources come from engineers tinkering in workshops, not from equations on a blackboard.
In the show, the erased formula turns out to be a key to a coded message Einstein left on the rest of his blackboard.
  • Real physics formulas are neither keys nor coded messages.
In reality, you might recognize this formula:

Yep, that's the time-independent Schrödinger equation, an entirely mundane equation that forms the basis for nonrelativistic quantum mechanics. It would have had relatively little to do with what Einstein was working on at the time, and certainly there's no way it could have been turned into the key for a coded message which would also make sense as a physics formula.

Anyway, it's kind of a moot point by now. The latest news from the "TV gods" is that Zero Hour has been canceled after just these three episodes. Honestly, I'm not surprised. I only wish the lesson to take away from this would be that you can't get away with terrible science on television, and not just that sucky TV is sucky.