In works from Faust to Frankenstein to The Fly, scientific wonder quickly morphs into horror, turning desire into revulsion, as the scientist’s beautiful illusion bursts into a nightmarish new reality. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein recalls the transformation:
Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.
Frankenstein did not invent the fear of science; the novel found its audience because it dramatized anxieties that already existed. Although popular entertainment can, over the long run, shape public perceptions, it becomes popular in the first place only if it addresses preexisting hopes, fears, and fascinations.
That makes the extraordinary success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which begins its eighth season this month, all the more remarkable. Unlike its direct spin-offs and numerous imitators, which are more-conventional cop melodramas, the original CSI has at its core an eccentric scientist: obsessive, brilliant, objective, and self-contained. “Oh, I have outlets,” says Gil Grissom. “I read. I study bugs. I sometimes even ride roller coasters.” What a nerd.
CSI has not only remained a top-rated show through seven seasons; it has had real-world consequences. Police and prosecutors complain of a “CSI effect” that leads juries to demand more physical evidence than they used to expect. College officials use the same term to describe spiking enrollment in forensic-science programs.
CSI’s success also fostered a less-probable hit: Numb3rs, beginning its fourth season, the first detective show featuring a math prodigy as hero and algorithms as high-tech weapons. Enthusiastically accepting the pitch for Numb3rs, a studio executive declared, “This show will do for math what CSI has done for science.”
What these shows have done is to make science and math alluring—without invoking an imagined future, an alternative reality, or travel to distant worlds. The characters live and work in recognizable, realistic versions of contemporary Las Vegas and Pasadena. The shows invent no new physics or biology and posit no conspiracies hiding alien invasions or ancient space technologies; they seem to portray science as it really exists.
Of course, the glamour is an illusion. The TV scientists are unusually good-looking and well-dressed, and their techniques and equipment are more varied and efficient than the real world allows. A real Charlie Eppes, the math whiz on Numb3rs, wouldn’t use a different algorithm for every problem, and he’d require more data than the scripts often give him. Real crime-scene investigation is less dramatically lit and much more tedious than the TV version. “My job at the FBI was looking through the microscope for five hours a day or so, five days a week,” says Max Houck, now the director of West Virginia University’s Forensic Science Initiative. He spent the rest of his time on paperwork and phone calls, including two weeks cold-calling manufacturers to track down the origins of a single fiber. Not exactly the stuff of great television.