The X-Files Scientific Advisor on Why It's More Accurate Than Other Sci-Fi Shows

Monday, 10 August 2015 - 3:05PM
Weird Science
Monday, 10 August 2015 - 3:05PM
The X-Files Scientific Advisor on Why It's More Accurate Than Other Sci-Fi Shows
Anne Simon, a virologist in the University of Maryland's Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, has been consulting on The X-Files since the very first season, helping Chris Carter portray everything from cloning to alien viruses in the most scientifically plausible way possible. And although there are necessarily exaggerations for the sake of drama, Simon insists that much of the science in the show was actually based in reality. And, as she will once again consult on the X-Files revival, we can expect the same level of (almost) plausibility in the miniseries.

Opening quote
"I think when the science is real, it comes across as real," Anne Simon says. "… I think it's always best when we hear the truth."
Closing quote


Simon, who wrote the book The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants, has been a sci-fi enthusiast ever since she was a child, but is at times horrified by the egregious lack of scientific accuracy. She recalls turning on an episode of Star Trek after earning her doctorate degree:

Opening quote
"I remember they were talking about this thing that was part virus and part bacteria, and I couldn't believe it," Simon told The Washington Post. "It was like saying something is part watermelon and part chair. You can't say things like that, and it takes so little to get the science right."
Closing quote


When she began consulting for The X-Files, the first step was getting the characters right. Simon claimed that the X-Files was the first to portray scientists as they behave in real life, especially Scully's tendency to consult with other scientists when a topic is outside of her expertise. Simon weighed in on why Scully has generally become an inspiration to women in STEM:

Opening quote
"I loved the character of Dana Scully," Simon told Washington's Top News. "She was a scientist. She was being realistically portrayed. She was gorgeous. She didn't know everything about everything. She knew medical science and infectious diseases. She was a skeptic. She was a terrific role model for women and for young scientists."
Closing quote


But the actual science in the show was often rooted in real-life science as well. The first episode Simon ever consulted on was the first season finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask. In this episode, Scully examines a type of bacteria that may be extraterrestrial. Simon shed light on how a scientist would determine if an organism were extraterrestrial in real life:

Opening quote
"What does every cell on the planet - all of our cells, bacterial cells - what do we all share? I had to think of one of these things and make it different. We talked about DNA; all of the DNA on the planet has the same four constituents. So for this alien, we made it six. That would instantly tell you it was not of this planet."
Closing quote


Although humans have never been infected with an alien bacteria or virus (as far as we know), Simon claims that the idea has basis in reality, in the sense that if an extraterrestrial virus were to reach Earth, it could easily infect humans:

Opening quote
"We're always worried about infectious agents – especially viruses," said Simon. "There are a lot of viruses that we don't know about that are still hidden. They're hidden in animals that are located in very remote regions and that are just now coming in contact with humans. The opportunity for viruses in one species to actually infect another species is real and it happens."
Closing quote


This example is illustrative of the kind of "science" Simon performed while working on The X-Files. While she usually couldn't make the plots plausible in the sense that they could actually happen in real life (because then it wouldn't be speculative fiction), she could take the dramatic constraints given and determine how it would most realistically occur:

Opening quote
"One of the things that I always use as an example is the flukeman episode ["The Host"]," Simon told Motherboard. "You're never going to get a half-worm, half-man. It's not scientifically possible. But if Chris wants a flukeman, he's going to have a flukeman. So given that there will be a flukeman, how do we get him? That's the kind of thing I can really help with, coming up with something that sounds correct even though there's no chance of it ever happening."
Closing quote


According to Simon, the most common inaccuracy on The X-Files involves the timing of the scientific experiments. Tests that would take days often took hours on the show, simply for plot purposes, but the procedures themselves were always performed accurately. She also stated that they would sometimes hold themselves back from putting real-life science in the show that could potentially harm people:

Opening quote
"We're grounding it in real science but we're also very careful that it can't be anything that could actually be done. We really do think about that. If I'm coming up with something extremely scary, I don't want to give anybody ideas. It's real enough-but then again, it requires the paranormal.
Closing quote


Simon recently returned from Vancouver after consulting on the set of The X-Files revival series, and she promises that we won't be disappointed by the scripts:


Opening quote
"People who watched and loved the earlier episodes of 'The X-Files' will find that these six episodes are really following what happened before and will answer a lot of questions. I've read one script and it was a real page-turner. I thought it was terrific and I am so excited. I can't wait to see the next five scripts."
Closing quote


But what about the science? Simon obviously couldn't reveal many details, but she promises "mind-blowing science" in the first six episodes of the miniseries:

Opening quote
"I'm so good about not sharing spoilers," Simon said. "But I can say that the science, I've been helping Chris every morning on that and reading what he has so far, and it's the best science that I have ever come up with."
Closing quote


The X-Files revival premieres on January 24, 2016 on Fox.
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