my kind of town

Soundjenluc If it's Thursday, it must be Berkeley. That's where I was a couple of nights ago, having driven up from Los Angeles to attend Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's first-ever Science Cafe, featuring Jaime Paglia, co-creator and showrunner for SyFy's hit TV series, Eureka, with a special Skype appearance by Colin Ferguson, who plays Sheriff Jack Carter on the show. Berkeley isn't exactly a small town, with plenty of hip shops and hangouts and excellent restaurants, not to mention loads of students at a major research university, plus a world-class laboratory. But it manages to retain the flavor of one — so much so, that author Michael Pollan (a resident) once teasingly described it as "a town of hall monitors" whose motto should be "Welcome to Berkeley. Now stop doing that." That's kind of the essence of a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business — and more often than not, has an opinion about it that they're just dying to share.

Eureka is an affectionate paean to the small town, with a twist: it's population is made up of brilliant scientists (and their families), all of whom work at a vast, sooper sekrit lab called Global Dynamics that gets a large part of its funding from the Department of Defense, yet is dedicated to curiosity-driven research — at least in principle. The show is a dramedy that combines elements of Northern Exposure and The X-Files, according to Jaime — and I'd throw in a dash of Scrubs and Gilmore Girls to boot. In fact, it reminds me a little of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel without the mystical trappings, both of which combined drama with humor and featured terrific characters and smart, sassy dialogue. (Needless to say, I'm a Eureka fan.) "It's small town trappings with endless possibility," he says, and admits the show's premise is at least partially inspired by places like Los Alamos, Berkeley Lab, Livermore, Bell Labs, even Area 51.

There's definitely an over-arching mythology for Eureka, and among the tidbits Jaime divulged during the discussion is that we will finally get to explore the town's early origins in the upcoming season, which is slated to begin airing in July — although he avoided specifics on exactly how the writers plan to explore that history. He also mentioned plans for a cross-over episode with another SyFy series, Warehouse 13, and I don't know if he was serious or not, but he toyed with the notion of a possible spinoff series focusing on the town's kids at the Tesla School.

I personally would love to see something like Eureka 90210, My So-Called Lab, or Saved by the Quark, because Jaime is right: the kids are some of the best characters, and we only occasionally get a glimpse of their lives. The high school science fairs in a town filled with scientific geniuses alone would make the show. And instead of jocks lording it over the geeks and nerds, being smart is cool, with academic achievement valued far more than athletics. In one episode, Carter's daughter, Zoe, is awaiting her IQ test results, and Carter reveals his own IQ is 111: "more than 100%!" It becomes the trendy high school insult for awhile (as in "That is sooo 111…"), although Zoe turns out to have a much higher IQ, and actually fits in quite well as time goes on.

For his part, Colin stumped the assembled science geeks by asking about Janelia Farm — probably the closest thing to a real-world counterpart to the fictional town of Eureka. It's an interdisciplinary research campus founded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and it opened its doors in October 2006. Located near the town of Ashburn, Virginia, it's an attempt to capture something of the curiosity-driven basic research that typified Bell Labs during its heyday, when researchers could pursue intriguing scientific byways without worrying overmuch about potential payoffs.

The primary focus is neurobiology, and related science, so Janelia Farm isn't quite as free-spirited and open-ended as it claims. But it's still a departure from HHMI's usual modus operandi: supporting researchers at their home institutions. At Janelia Farms, the scientists come from all over the country on six-year contracts and get all their funding internally, bypassing the traditional grant process. They all live nearby and work together in the same building, too, which — in theory — makes it easier to collaborate across specialties.

Janelia Farm sounds like a fascinating experiment, despite the usual chorus of naysayers, but I can't imagine they'll ever grapple with the kinds of complications that routinely plague Eureka: AI attack drones gone rogue, everyone in town sharing each other's dreams, nanobots pervading the lab and taking on the form of the local stray dog, rips in the fabric of spacetime, and Fargo literally turning green. Jaime swears he'll never do killer plants, but he really wanted to have one episode where Carter became pregnant: "I just wanted to write that scene where he looks down and notices he's lactating." The SyFy honchos understandably nixed the idea. (Jaime is a father twice over, and his daughter not only memorizes the dialogue on Eureka, she's begun creating her own 8-year-old versions of spec scripts.)

Jaime is well-versed in the culture of science, since his father was a researcher with the UCLA Medical Center for decades, and even spent some time at NASA training to be a medical officer for future manned missions to Mars — the program was scrapped, so Paglia Senior never got to go to space. Yet. Space tourism might still be on the horizon. The Eureka writers also get assistance from their technical consultant, JPL's Kevin Grazier (who also consulted on Battlestar Galactica); the writer's blog, Eureka Unscripted, currently has a two-part interview with Kevin posted that's quite a fun read. (Kevin's a fun guy.)

It's always an interesting dynamic weaving real science into science fiction, and the Eureka writers manage that balance very well — Jaime tries very hard not to resort to the equivalent of "magic," even though the science as depicted on the show is very much fictional (and far more advanced than our own). But the story is always going to come first. Frankly, what Eureka does best is capture the culture of science: the almost childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder about the world, and the endless curiosity that drives scientists to ask questions, test theories, all of which leads to even more questions. They worry about their funding, deal with family crises and lab mix-ups, and above all pursue interesting science. The scientists are also believably diverse (male, female, black, Asian, short, tall, chubby, plain, good-looking, and everything in between). Fargo might be the quintessential nerd, but Nathan Stark is tall, dark, handsome and brooding, and very much a slick "company man." Carter's love interest, Allyson, ends up heading Global Dynamics in Season 2, while Henry is the wacky experimentalist with the high ideas who serves as the town's conscience — perchance even its "soul," if a town can be said to have one.

One of my favorite episodes is in Season 1, where Henry's old girlfriend visits with her husband, a brilliant (supposedly) scientist with a reputation for sweeping in and solving any challenge at the 11th hour. Except it turns out he's not that brilliant — he just has better technology, namely, a mind-wiping device that can "steal" people's memories for a certain period of time… just long enough for them to forget the solution to a problem, so he can sweep in and pretend he solved it. He's done this to his own wife, of all people, stealing her own professional reputation and earning the accolades that should have come her way. The device he uses may be fictional, but the gender dynamic most certainly is not, and academic misconduct, while rare, does indeed happen.

The show does all of this without ever resorting to hidden agendas and overt "messaging," which make for lousy narratives. This being Berkeley, one questioner inevitably asked (a) why the show never deals with climate change, and (b) why there was no public transport system in Eureka. The answer to (b), per Colin, is that this would need to be done with CGI, which would be prohibitively expensive. As for (a), there has been at least one episode dealing with rogue weather patterns (and artificial weather), and c'mon — Zoe tools around in a solar-powered car! Jaime also pointed out that if one looks closely in the pilot, Henry's gas station pumps biofuels. As for why Carter gets the job of sheriff when his female deputy, Jo, is passed over — well, without Carter there wouldn't be a show, would there? And Jo's understandable resentment makes for great dramatic fodder, plus it reflects the kinds of issues that crop up in the real world. Or maybe, as Colin joked, Jaime is just a "sexist world hater." (The large number of strong, capable female characters on the show would belie that label.)

One of Jaime's favorite examples of this natural tension between getting the science right and telling a good story occurred when writing the episode "Blink," Eureka's version of a "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign (and a very effective one). Global Dynamic scientists under pressure to complete their projects by a deadline — or risk losing their funding — turn to a hopped-up form of speed. Jaime wanted to show one such user, having overdosed, moving so fast while running that he literally can run across the surface of Lake Archimedes without sinking. He asked Kevin how fast that would be. Kevin did some calculations and decided it would be around 565 MPH — a speed at which the flesh would likely be flayed from the body, among other inflicted damage, so it was impossible. "Well…. I'm gonna do it," was Jaime's response, so Kevin sighed and gave him the basic outlines for a remotely plausible scenario.

With that one caveat (which applies to all science fiction, and fictional science), I think the science depicted on Eureka is pretty darn good. For instance, in one episode, the plot hinges on a prototype teleportation device that Global Dynamics abandoned due to complicated high-risk factors — namely, that in order to teleport an object, one must destroy the original and rebuild it from scratch out of entirely new atoms in the new location. That's an aspect of quantum teleportation that rarely gets any prime-time play: people think it's as straightforward as what they see on Star Trek, but the quantum world is never simple, and the jargon in the series is generally pretty spot on, thanks not just to Kevin Grazier, but also Colin and co-star Joe Morton, who plays Henry. Both men are science buffs, and have been known to take issue with draft scripts where they felt the science was a bit too implausible.

Who wouldn't want to live in a smart house like S.A.R.A.H.? The acronym stands for Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat, a literal "smart house" built inside an abandoned fallout shelter that serves as the residence of Sheriff Jack Carter. S.A.R.A.H. is an AI that can open and close the hermetically sealed doors, control internal lights and temperature, and make sure Jack has a nice cold beer on tap and a tape of the latest baseball game when he gets home from a hard day's work. In a pinch, she can diagnose injuries and compare current DNA samples against samples on file.

Jaime recalled that when he was first developing the series, he looked into the capabilities of a future "smart home" — and discovered they already exist, sans the highly advanced AI. For instance, Georgia Tech has the Aware Home, an ordinary-looking two-story house tricked out with all the latest sensing equipment: cameras in the ceiling, microphones in the walls, and invisible trip wires in the doorways. And now there's even a "smart dollhouse", part of project called InterHome. Per a recent article in New Scientist:

Developed at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, the house is fitted with a network of infrared sensors connected to a central computer. By working out which rooms we tend to occupy at different times, software algorithms learn when we need the lights, heating or air conditioning systems turned on and, perhaps more importantly, when we don't, says Johann Siau, the project's coordinator. …

InterHome also aims to boost home security. By connecting door and window lock sensors to the computer, it can send a text message to the homeowner if they have forgotten to lock the front door, for instance. Texting back will lock any doors or windows in question.

Before smart homes become ubiquitous, however, we might want to make sure the AIs behind them don't have S.A.R.A.H.'s rather mercurial temperament. She once locked Carter out when he forgot to call to tell her he'd be late, and when Carter considered leaving the town of Eureka, her abandonment issues kicked into high gear and she locked everyone inside — using her laser defense system to zap the pizza delivery boy when he tried to escape. Keep your Smart Home happy, people… or else.

4 thoughts on “my kind of town”

  1. On the other hand, I have a real problem with one of Eureka’s fundamental concepts (this may have changed; I gave up during the first season). As noted above, the sheriff is *not* one of the geniuses. But, since he’s the star of the show, more often than not he ends up solving the problem(s) created by the geniuses using good ‘ol common sense or the like. Which, to me, came across as fundamentally anti-intellectual.
    Me, I was really hoping Eureka would’ve been “Real Genius: The Postgraduate Years/Real World”, but that’s not the direction the show went in.

  2. @Tom: I don't think it's even remotely anti-intellectual — anything but.  Carter does NOT "solve all the town's problems" by a long shot. He adds a certain practical-minded element — because it would be equally unfair to just make him the Big Dumb Buffoon, wouldn't it? But he absolutely needs the scientists to help resolve issues as well. The show might not deify scientists enough for your tastes, and that's your prerogative, but to accuse it of anti-intellectualism is simply not a valid critique. As for Real Genius, I was a fan of the film, but it was a tad sophomoric and one-note. The characters in Eureka are far more well-developed and complex. 

  3. Partially Deflected

    Another real-world counterpart would be Oak Ridge, TN during the Manhattan Project – including the fact that the entire town was essentially hidden.

  4. I believe that the universe was constructed in a day using time dilation, when all the matter and energy came through a black hole almost half its size today. Then it closed up, and the remaining black holes are merely remnants, like swirls in a pond. The key to this theory lies in prime numbers and all the mathematics that exists, found or not. It doesn’t lie in the many particles, or unified theories. They are like studying the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. The mathematics holds the key. But, then I’m strange. I look at things differently. I have taken my ideas and converted them to poetry, hiding my 40 years of research in them, for few to find, a way of getting even with the world for hiding its mysteries so innate and yet so precise. You can read one at my website.

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