Astronomer: 7 TV scientists that even real scientists approve of

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:51 PM EST

Phil Plait is an astronomer and major sci-fi geek. He writes the Bad Astronomy Blog for Discover Magazine and is also the host of the Discovery Channel's science show "Phil Plait's Bad Universe." You can follow him on Twitter at @BadAstronomer.

In previous articles for Blastr, I've mentioned how hard it can be to be a scientist and watch science fiction. It can take years to get over the urge to hurl heavy objects at the TV screen when science is so carelessly trashed on your favorite show. I've gone through my share of TV sets ...

But with summer reruns upon us, there's time to reflect. After all, the good news is we're getting science and scientists shown in these programs. Maybe it's a caricature of scientists and the work they do, sure, but they're there. TV scientists can be pretty one-dimensional, usually either mad or dashing (or, rarely, both), but the scientists I know in real life run the gamut of funny, nerdy, smart, oblivious, socially awkward, socially ambitious, layered, shallow and complex. They are fat, thin, white, black, men, women, and every conceivable mix of all these traits. And sometimes we see that on TV, too.

That's why I thought, as an astronomer myself, I'd list my favorite TV scientists. My criteria for inclusion are not necessarily the science they do, but how they do it. Maybe it's because they influenced me in some way, or they make me laugh, or make me care. You may not agree with me; it's my list after all and there's always some degree of arbitrariness to any list.

But don't disagree too strongly with me, or else I'll drop you into a black hole/supernova/Stargate/antimatter stream/time vortex/parallel universe. If I've learned one thing from TV science, it's that these things are always handy for disposing of irritations.

Oh: *spoilers* ahoy. If you haven't watched all these shows, then be ye fairly warned, says I.

#7 Spock (Star Trek)

Talk about a no-brainer. (Haha! Get it? Because of the terrible season-three episode "Spock's Brain"! Man, I kill me.) He's brilliant in many fields of science ... probably all of them. (When asked in "Court Martial" if he understood computers, he cooly replies, "I know all about them.") If he can include the sun's gravity, luminosity and magnetic field in his calculations for slingshot time travel, then he's in the club.

But he was also more than the sum of his science parts. Even in the original series, Spock showed a layering and depth that fans have gleefully discussed for decades—he was always a scientist, but he was also a fighter, an explorer, a friend—as are many scientists of my acquaintance. Scientists are sometimes accused of being more logical than emotional, but I wonder how much of that was Spock's impact on culture.

Was Spock more human than Vulcan? We know Vulcans aren't emotionless, they just suppress them. The thing is, they suck at it. Most scientists I know do their work out of love of exploration, love of understanding. Vulcans may say they are simply investigating interesting phenomena, but Vulcans are also well-known liars. They love this stuff too.

Honorable mention from Trek: Wesley Crusher, David Marcus, Tom Paris, Seven of Nine (who didn't have a degree in astrophysics but haunted the astrometrics lab; actors Jeri Ryan and Wil Wheaton are also a major science geeks).

#6 Rajesh Koothrappali (The Big Bang Theory)

Sure, all the four main male characters on TBBT are scientists, but only Raj is an astrophysicist, and since that's my main field, he's on the list. He discovered a Kuiper Belt Object, an icy comet nucleus beyond the orbit of Neptune. That's not bad, but naming it "Planet Bollywood" is what secures him in my heart. Given the same circumstances, I'd name it that as well.

When it comes to astronomy, Raj is actually smarter than Sheldon, too. In the episode "The Pirate Solution," Raj and Sheldon argue over what element to use in their dark matter detector; Sheldon wants xenon but Raj favors sodium. Raj was right; if dark matter is made of self-annihilating particles that generate gamma rays, sodium iodide detectors will see it—which is why NASA used them for the orbiting Fermi gamma-ray observatory!

Raj isn't exactly a nuanced character, and his faults are played for humor more than anything else. But he's being used more in the show as time goes on, and I'm hoping in the next couple of seasons he'll come into his own. By the way, TBBT has a scientist, David Saltzberg, who vets their scripts and writes about the science of each episode on The Big Blog Theory.

And if you think I should put Sheldon above Raj on this list, c'mon, be real: Would you actually want to hang out with Sheldon? In an hour, I'd wind up beating him to death with a slide rule.

Honorable mentions: Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, Evil Wil Wheaton (who's not a scientist, but c'mon).

#5 Everyone on Eureka

Perhaps this is a bit of a cheat, since the show is about an entire town filled with scientists. From the kids who build rockets that can fly to the moon to Henry Deacon, who seems to know a little bit about everything, the cast is filled with science and engineering types. I might give astrophysicist Tess Fontana the edge, given her chosen field—my list, my bias—but I think I'll pull a left turn here.

If I had to pick one person on the show as my favorite scientist, it would be ... Sheriff Carter! Yup. Sure, he's not a classical scientist—in fact, he makes fun of most of the scientists on the show—but his job is to employ the scientific method. Science isn't all labs and ray guns and bioengineering gone awry (though that's the fun bit). It's a method, a way of looking at things. It's observing circumstances, gathering evidence, making hypotheses, testing them ... and making mistakes along the way, something Carter does a lot. And he learns from them, which is at the heart of science. I'd claim that's it's very essence.

Honorable mention: Allison Blake, who has two Ph.D.s and an M.D., is a single mom, and still has time to run a gigantic defense contracting company. I could throw in a third Wil Wheaton reference here too, but that would be pandering.

#4 Hubert Farnsworth (Futurama)

Good news, everyone! How could I leave him off? He invented the smelloscope. The Finglonger. The Albino Shouting Gorilla. The What-If Machine. And while he's bent on inventing doomsday weapons—and really, who of us isn't?—he's also saved the world at least once. Even if it rotates backward now.

As a human he may be a terrible person—willing to sacrifice his crew for an important package delivery—but he's one of my favorite characters on television. And he's a better doctor of science than Zoidberg is of medicine.

Honorable Mention: Wernstrom!

#3 The Doctor (Doctor Who)

I grew up watching Tom Baker as the Doctor, and have only had my admiration for this character increased with the recent semi-reboot of the show—my man-crush on David Tennant is a matter of record. His knowledge of science is ridiculously broad and deep; apparently he has the entire universe, even sometimes all possible universes, stored away in his Gallifreyan brain. I'd be happy just being able to identify spectral lines better.

But it's more than that. The Doctor cares. As talk show host and major Whovian Craig Ferguson put it, the Doctor represents "the triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism." I have no snark for that; I truly wish the entire human race strove for that simple ideal.

And if you want to argue him being included ... when was the last time you used a supernova as a last-ditch effort to communicate with the person you love who was trapped in an alternate Universe?

Honorable mention: The Master. Evil, yes, but he knows his science.

#2 (tie) Dr. Samantha Carter/Dr. Rodney McKay (the "Stargate" franchise)

McKay and Carter are actual, bona-fide (if fictional) scientists: classically trained and possessing Ph.D.s. Bonus: They're both astrophysicists! It would've been easy for the writers of Stargate to make them one-dimensional plot devices, but somehow over the years the characters grew. Carter became more confident, more of a leader (literally, in the case of Atlantis), and yet still struggled to maintain a personal life. She didn't always succeed, and it tortured her. I was never happy with her unrequited love for O'Neill (as a plot line, that is), because I thought it leveraged on stereotypes of women, but her ability to actually have relationships that were relatively stable was a plus. She had a balance between strength and vulnerability that I found interesting and charming.

McKay, on the other hand ... well, let's just say I know more than one scientist like him: arrogant, awkward, self-centered and irritatingly possessing the intellect to back all that up. I initially worried when watching Atlantis that McKay would be their Doctor Smith, but like Carter, McKay also had the seemingly contradictory traits of cowardliness and resolve that was fun to watch (no doubt due to the skill of actor David Hewlett, yet another science geek IRL). He also sometimes showed flashes of real humanity (like staying by the bedside of a sick woman he cared for, or his "talk" with Carson Beckett at the end of the episode "Sunday"). I suspect his motivations for studying science were his way of showing his superiority over the rest of humanity, but, in his defense, he is pretty damn smart.

Honorable mention: Daniel Jackson, who dies every single season of the show in the name of science.

And my Number One Pick for Best TV Scientist of All Time: Victor Bergman (Space:1999)

Surprise! Bet you weren't expecting that!

Professor Bergman was the chief scientist on board Moonbase Alpha when it was hurled out of orbit from a nuclear accident (though later in the show it was hinted that alien forces and perhaps even God were involved). It was his quick thinking that time and again allowed the crew to survive at all.

There are two reasons he's in my top scientist slot, actually.

One is that Victor's humanity always shone through. He was jovial, he was thoughtful, he was concerned for his friends, he was worried about everyone's survival. Science was something he did, but not everything he was.

But he was a brilliant scientist. And most importantly, when Victor was asked by Commander Koenig about some phenomenon that he didn't understand, he'd say, "I don't know." I cannot stress enough how much that impressed me when I was a kid. Spock always knew the answer, always knew the odds. That struck me as being too easy. Victor, on the other hand, didn't know everything, but when something came up he didn't know, he'd try to figure it out. Now that I think about it, he was probably the closest thing to Richard Feynman we've ever had on TV. And that's no small compliment.

More than any other fictional character, it was Victor Bergman who inspired me to be a scientist. You can say what you want about Space:1999, but I'll always love it for that reason alone.

Phil Plait is an astronomer and blogger; he frequently professes his love for Doctor Who on his Bad Astronomy Blog in between writing about stars exploding. Got a beef with this list? Leave a comment! But you'd better back it up with hard data or at least a ridiculous series of plot-device- and technobabble-laden reasons.