Blastr: My favorite TV scientists

By Phil Plait | June 17, 2011 10:25 am

Good news, everyone!

I’ve written a new article for Blastr, the news and opinion web portal for the SyFy channel. This one is "7 TV scientists that even real scientists approve of", and is essentially my Top 6 (with a tie for second place, bringing it to 7) favorite fictional scientists on TV. The picture here may be something of a spoiler for one of them. Whaaaa?

I originally wrote the article as my favorite astronomers on TV, but decided to expand it to all scientists. That didn’t change my list much; it just made it easier to include a couple of folks. The problem with a list like this is, first, keeping it short — there are a lot of potential candidates. I got around that by adding an Honorable Mention at the bottom of each section.

Also, it’s hard to remember everyone! For example, several commenters on the article point out I didn’t include Walter Bishop from Fringe, and I have to cop to that one. I really like Walter, and to be honest the reason I didn’t include him is because of my initial astronomer prejudice, plus I haven’t watched the show in a while! I still haven’t gotten around to seeing the season finale because I’m trying to finish out Stargate Atlantis and the latest Doctor Who episodes.

And, oh yeah, having a life, too. So much TV to watch! But the weather’s nice in Boulder, and my bike gets so lonely…

Anyway, go give it a read and leave a comment there if you love it or hate it, or want to chastise me for leaving off some scientist or another.

And maybe I’ll have to do this same thing for movie scientists, too. After all, Clayton Forrester is top man in nuclear and astrophysics! He knows all about meteors!

Related posts:

Blastr: Other than that, Spock, how was the movie?
Blastr: I Was A Zombie For Science
Big budget movies that got their science right
Master of Blastr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Humor, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (34)

  1. StrangeAgent

    Coolest scientist in movies? No contest: Buckaroo Banzai.

  2. Dutch Railroader

    You will be appalled, but when I was a kid & proto-scientist, the professor on Gilligan’s Island was pretty important for me. He was attractive, calm, rational, and the source of solutions to many of the castaway’s problems. It was a horribly silly show, but yet over and over again it showed the power of a scientific education and approach.

    I would also nominate Dr. McCoy. While always over-looked next to Spock, when you think about it, McCoy cracked a tremendous number of tough nuts under conditions of extreme pressure…

  3. Elmar_M

    Victor Bergman from Space 1999. That is soooo awesome!
    Bergman rules and I had totally forgotten about him!
    My wifes maiden name was Bregman (yes bRE, not BER) and my sons first middle name is Victor. His second middle name is Carl, after Carl Sagan, btw. So two scientists in his name (one real, the other fictional).

  4. davidlpf

    I like McKay and Carter too. Mckay is also a Canadian and his last name is my mothers maiden name, and I grew up with my maternal grandparents so I think that this cool un fortunely no Rodney on that side of the family. Of course the Doctor and Spock should be on the list.

  5. jenn

    Prof. Victor Bergman was always my favourite TV scientist. He seemed have the right balance of all the right elements: knowledge, curiosity, humility, and humanity. And he was warmly dashing, to boot!

    I also have a weakness for McCoy’s crusty, down-to-earth realism, also tempered with an appropriate dose of humanity. He’s the sort of doctor I’d like to have, someone who will tell me to my face if I’m being foolish.

  6. Jamie

    I thought the “Clayton Forrester” link would go somewhere else than it did!

    (And I think I prefer the MST3k Dr. Forrester to the War of the Worlds Dr. Forrester)

  7. He’s a computer scientist, but I nominate Bryce Larkin from Max Headroom. He created an artificial computer personality which should count for something. He falls into the boy genius category, brilliant programmer but frequently didn’t understand the implications of his work. This short lived show took on a lot of issues that we are dealing with almost 25 years later.

  8. Chris Winter

    As I commented on Blastr:

    1. Dr. Zarkov?
    2. Quinn Mallory from Sliders?

  9. Chris Winter

    When you get to movie scientists, I hope you’ll include Richard Carlson (1912-1977) for the following.

    1. It Came from Outer Space (1953): As John Putnam (not a scientist but “a writer and an amateur stargazer”), he approaches the crashed aliens with a true scientific attitude.

    2. Creature from the Black Lagoon (maybe; I don’t remember this well enough to be sure it’s not just another kill-the-monster schlockfest.)

    3. The Magnetic Monster (1953): Dr. Jeffrey Stewart

    4. Riders to the Stars (1954): Dr. Jerome ‘Jerry’ Lockwood

    Also worth mention is his part in the Bell Science Series. He paired up with Frank Baxter in the second and third of four episodes: “Hemo the Magnificent” (TV, 20 March 1957) and “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays” (TV, 25 October 1957). Also, there’s a clip from 1959 on YouTube of him and Baxter discussing global warming, but I didn’t find that credited in the IMDB.

  10. Dennis

    Your #1 could also be a contender for best TV sideburns of all time.

  11. jaranath

    I gotta cast a vote for Dr. Stephen Franklin, of B5 fame.

    Yeah, doctors aren’t necessarily qualified as scientists, but Franklin certainly was. I love him for his constant, fierce defense of his principles and the scientific method. And I love his tendency to push too far, to be a bit too harsh and arrogant. I found that believable, and I identify with it somewhat (and while I love Rodney McKay, he’s a bit over the top).

    Best of all, when those traits get him into serious trouble, they also end up saving him. He learns a bit humility and is better for it, but only a bit; he doesn’t radically transform.

  12. mrboma

    I just can’t do TBBT. I tried, but it’s unwatchable. In fact, I can’t watch any show with a laugh track. It is an old crutch that needs to go the way of the dodo. The good news is: maybe it is. Only CBS still has shows with laugh tracks. The bad news: many of them get high ratings.

  13. Phil, we, your loyal peeps love you. BUT… Leaving Gauis Baltar off that list was nothing short of a criminal offence. Oh, sure, the old “And, oh yeah, having a life, too. So much TV to watch! But the weather’s nice in Boulder, and my bike gets so lonely…” may cause some loyal peeps to feel sympathy for the plight of Dr. Plait, but, we the true loyal core peeps expect more and better! Even if you overlooked Dr. Baltar, there was simply no excuse for overlooking “Galactica 1980″‘s iconic ‘Dr. Zee’.

  14. Just to pick a nit, only three of the main characters on TBBT are scientists. Howard in an engineer.

    – Jack

  15. NAW

    Well to throw a name into the “Movie list”, Doc Savage. If you have never seen the movie based off the first book, go watch it if you can find it. And of coarse Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies.

    Nice list, must be a little hard to clear through the many shows out there. May have done some different numbers and names due to different levels of liking of shows, though.

  16. VinceRN

    Good pick for number one, that show sparked my interest in science as a kid. I like that you stressed the importance of “I don’t know” in science. I wish we heard the more from scientists that address the public through mass media. Too often we hear their opinion or their guess reported as fact. I prefer to hear that they don’t know but they have a theory, any why they think they are right.

    Also, I have to point out that at times even the Doctor turns to brute force and cynicism. Not often, but it has happened from time to time over the decades. Especially the brute force part. You own avowed favorite had a “fighting hand” in his first appearance.

  17. Shawn

    Because of that picture and your opening line, I imagined Dr. Farnsworth narrating the entire post. I’ll have to do that more often, especially when I read science journals. Makes it much easier to concentrate for some reason.

    Personally, my own list wouldn’t be complete without Dr. Forrester and Hans Zarkov, both already mentioned earlier.

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    @11. jaranath : “I gotta cast a vote for Dr. Stephen Franklin, of B5 fame.”

    I second that and strongly agree. :-)

    I’d also second the nominations for Hans Zarkov from‘Flash Gordon’ and would like to add Sandor the android scientist from ‘StarBlazers’ otherwise known as ‘SpaceBattlecruiser : Yamato’ – plus “Dr Elephant” (I think he was?) from ‘AstroBoy’ who created and was the father figure to the eponymous hero of that show. Ah, those early memories of childhood cartoons! :-)

    Plus I originally *was* going to say Dr Ellie Arroway from Contact which was shown on TV but I guess counts as a movie instead. Then there are the real scientists who have appeared on Tv from time to time on good doco’s such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and a certain Dr Phil .. whats-his-name .. started with P and ended in ‘t’ I think! 😉

    But then, I guess we’re talking fictional characters rather than real ones so they don’t count right?

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    Sandor Wise see :

    and for Hans Zarkov :

    gives the introductory link. 😉

    Off topic, sorry, but this :

    may be of interest for you, BA. Gandhi’s face (or one of the Caesar’s?) found on Mars -pareidolia natch. 😉

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    add Sandor the android scientist from ‘StarBlazers’ otherwise known as ‘SpaceBattlecruiser : Yamato’

    Ack! Make that :

    Spacebattleship : Yamato actually.

    Oh and that’s supposed to read “Sandor~wise” too. Gosh-durned dang-nabbed typos! :-(

  21. Gary Ansorge

    Good list. MY favorites were CArter and McKay.

    ,,,and while SOME engineers are scientists, we must recall that Roman engineers built roads and bridges by the “brute force” method, ie, if it falls down, double everything and build it again,,,which is why we STILL have Roman roads and bridges around. Not very cost effective but, hey, slaves were cheap in those days.

    Gary 7

  22. Old Rockin' Dave

    I also think that Professor Roy Hinckley from “Gilligan’s Island” should have made the list, but there is a more glaring omission: Springfield’s own Professor Frink (“The Simpsons”).
    And while “Star Cops” never lived past it’s ninth episode, Drs. Ana Shoun and Alexander Krivenko deserve at least an honorable mention each.

  23. Sili

    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!

    Yes indeed. Iodide – which you’ll notice is right next to Xenon in the periodic table, but easier to work with.

    Sodium, as a light element, would be a stupid stupid stupid choice for a DM detector.

  24. 12. mrboma Says: “I just can’t do TBBT. I tried, but it’s unwatchable. In fact, I can’t watch any show with a laugh track. It is an old crutch that needs to go the way of the dodo.”

    I can’t speak for other shows, but TBBT is filmed in front of a live audience. Some of the special features on the DVD’s (my son has them all) show the audience and how they even use it to fine-tune the jokes. I believe when NGT was on the show a year or so ago he mentioned the audience as well.

    Is there any other reason you find it unwatchable? Sheldon maybe? (he’s supposed to be that way)

    – Jack

  25. Dr. Phlox, the Denobulan MD should at least get an honorable mention. Enterprise doesn’t get much love in the SF community and I don’t know why.

  26. Anders

    Professor Farnsworth never actually invented the finglonger, he just wish he had, so he invented the What-if machine to see what would have happened if he had.

  27. Anders

    Damnit, I was wrong, it seems he did invent it in the next season.. hmm I cant remember that episode..

  28. Christopher Shoup

    Er, TECHNICALLY it was Amy Wong, Ph.D. that saved the Earth but made it spin backwards, not Prof. Farnsworth. . .

  29. CR

    Hooray for Victor Bergman, my all-time fave, too! (For the same reasons you listed, by the way, and of course for Barry Morse’s portrayal.)

  30. Wzrd1

    Bert, there is a simple reason, too current political in some areas, too utopian overall, as we ALL expect far less of refined chimps and too militaristic in too many ways. 😉
    Christopher, saw that episode tonight, you’re correct. :)
    As for scientists in the mass media, I’ve not found one I really like as more like REAL scientists. As I’ve known quite a few over the decades, that’s saying something.
    The mass media tend all too often to make their scientist one that knows ALL fields.
    On second thought, there IS one. Doctor Who, as he’s lived long enough to BECOME an expert in all fields.
    Though I wonder WHO was the good man gone to war, the Doctor or Rory…
    I have some suspicions for the upcoming season and I’m one that is infrequently surprised, either in fiction OR reality.

  31. Tommy

    Gaius Baltar in BSG would have been at the top of my list if it wasn’t for the religious spin in the last season(s). Great acting and a wonderfully complex character…

    Instead my favorite is Walter Bishop/Walternet in Fringe. Two separate (but equaly great) portrayals by John Noble. The Mad Scientist at its best!

    Honorable mention to Dr Bunsen Honeydew of The Muppet Show!

  32. Aubri

    Thanks a lot, I heard this ENTIRE POST in Farnsworth’s voice.


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