It’s a phrase connected with scientific discovery. Roughly meaning, “I have found it!” the story goes that Archimedes proclaimed it down the streets while running naked after realizing that his volume displaced an equal volume of water from his bathtub. (Streaking, part of the scientific legacy. Tell your friends.) It is also the name of a TV series on the SciFi (that’s its true name dammit) Channel. I’ve started watching it as part of my Netflix rotation, and have just finished season 1. (You can also find all of season 1, and part of the most recent season 3, on Hulu in the US.)
“Eureka” is a cute story, though with a sometimes dark, shadowy undercurrent, about a town where the best and brightest scientific minds work to advance science, technology, and the nation’s defenses. The kooky antics of the brilliant townspeople are juxtaposed with the serious, business-like, and sometimes morally ambiguous goals of the defense research. The story is told from the viewpoint of the sheriff, a former US Marshall who was assigned to the town after coming across it by accident and helping a bizarre investigation.
Most of the story lines stretch the reality of science, but in a way that is too cute and fun to get all riled up about. After all, it’s just good story-telling. Some of the lines and stories, however, do touch scientific reality. In the second to last episode of season 1, two of the characters argue between the pure goal of research versus the harsh realities of producing results to get funding. Who is the better scientist, the purist, or the pragmatist? No balance point is decided on, and it is a topic that funding agencies struggle with all the time.
In an earlier episode, one character explains Occam’s Razor to the sheriff.
Carter: Henry, please tell me you don’t believe in aliens.
Henry: No, I believe in Occam’s Razor. It’s the basis for methodological reductionism.
Carter: Oh yeah, so… still dizzy.
Henry: Okay, so, given two equally predictive theories, you choose the one that has fewer assumptions. So, a tree has fallen in a forest after a storm. The first hypothesis holds that the tree was blown over by the storm. The second rival hypothesis claims that the storm forced an alien spacecraft to crash into the tree. See?
Sheriff Carter may not get it, but I squealed with delight. Finally, an explanation of Occam’s Razor in pop culture that is not simply “the simplest explanation is the best.” That definition is misused by, for example, creationists who claim that “God did it” is simpler than evolutionary biology and is thus favored by Occam’s Razor. It is the complexity of the assumptions that makes one explanation more favored than the other. Henry also properly uses the term “hypothesis” rather than “theory” in his example, and implies that alien visitations on this planet to date are extremely unlikely. Makes a girl smile.
Of course, one of the last episodes of the season, to my ear, misuses light-years as a unit of time. But I’ll even overlook that, though I cringed. Overall, it’s cute, entertaining, and relevant, so I recommend this show!
Speaking of science, Carnival of Space #101 is up at Robot Explorers.