Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Midsomer Madness

A meteorite that went nowhere near a black hole
It can be highly entertaining when a drama series attempts to incorporate science into the plot, so last night I watched Midsomer Murders, and the entertainment came thick and fast.

In this particular case, the science in question was astronomy. We started with a dramatic scene. A total eclipse of the Sun. Many folk from kids to serious astronomers are gathering to a witness it. I was a little unhappy with the advice an expert gave a youngster (roughly 'don't look at it through binoculars or a telescope...' so far so good... 'unless you use one of these filters.' Not so good.) But we'll overlook that. What, though, about the eclipse itself? These don't happen randomly, after all.

From the car registrations this clearly wasn't the last eclipse visible in the UK in 1999. Anyway, while the location of Midsomer isn't specified (it's filmed in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire), it clearly isn't Cornwall. And the next... is not until 2090. Hmm.

This falls into the 'irritating but possibly allowable to keep the story going' class. But the next one was a doozie. In a conversation with Inspector Barnaby, an astronomy professor is musing over the meteorite that killed someone during the eclipse. (Don't ask.) I nearly literally rolled on the floor laughing. So wonderful was it that I have gone back on ITVPlayer to get an exact transcript of his words.
There's megatons of metal floating around out there. Carbon compressed to its deepest density, sucked into black holes. Which is probably where our own planet will end its days.
What?!? There are not words to describe the awe I feel at the magnificent incorrectness of that little speech. What black holes? If the carbon was sucked into them, how did it get out again? No, it's not 'probably where our own planet will end its days.' Lovely.

One other example that raised a snigger. One of the amateur astronomers who had supposedly discovered an extra-solar planet (yes, I know) is asked for an alibi during another murder. It was nighttime and, like most astronomers he was observing. Good alibi. But then he has to go and give some detail that spoils it. I haven't bothered finding the exact words but it was approximately 'I was watching the transit of Venus.' Marvellous. Leaving aside the fact that this is a much rarer event than a solar eclipse, there's one big problem. Like eclipses, transits of Venus are one of the few times when astronomers get to work during the day. It's Venus crossing the face of the Sun. It happens in daytime. So not exactly a great nighttime alibi. For one brief moment I thought this might be intentional, a subtle hint that this was the killer. But no. It was just a script error.

On one level, moaning about this kind of thing is nerdy silliness. It's a story, get over it. But on another level it is perfectly legitimate. Making a two hour drama is an expensive business. They could have afforded a few hundred pounds to have someone who knew their science look over the script. (I'm available, TV people!) The eclipse itself we'd let through, because it was fairly central to the plot, and so it's fine to bend the facts. But the dialogue that went horribly wrong could easily have been made accurate without any impact on the storyline. Surely they could have managed that?

Image from Wikipedia

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