Environmental Almanac: UI students sound off on TV entomologists
If you've ever seen your own job portrayed on television, you know scriptwriters work with a great deal of creative license. The day-to-day work of real teachers, doctors, police officers, lawyers and others generally bears little resemblance to that of their small screen counterparts, be they sexy, heroic, antic or other.
The same is true for scientists.
This year's Insect Fear Film Festival, which will be held at the University of Illinois on Saturday, draws attention to some of the ways people who study insects suffer at the hands of scriptwriters.
In advance of that, I learned what some members of the Entomology Graduate Student Association had to say about the good and bad of how entomologists are portrayed in a couple of popular current shows.
They started with "Bones," the long-running crime drama on Fox.
They said, "Oh, 'Bones,' we do love that you feature Dr. Jack Hodgins, a handsome man with a personality as an entomologist — what a contrast to the nerdy anti-social entomologists living in a museum basement in 'Silence of the Lambs.'
"But sometimes your entomological errors are atrocious.
"Exhibit A, 'The Twist in the Plot,' which aired just a few weeks ago. In this episode, the crew investigates a burial site containing two corpses, one of which is covered in beetles. It's hard to say for sure which of the beetles are CGI and which of them are real, but one thing is certain — they're from the ground beetle family, Carabidae.
"Why does Dr. Hodgins identify them as rove beetles?
"Ground beetles and rove beetles look nothing alike to us! This guy is supposed to have a Ph.D. in entomology; you'd think he would know the difference."
The young scientists also had mixed feelings about the entomology of the "The Big Bang Theory."
They wrote, "TV-land has finally decided the life of a scientist can be exciting and zany enough for a network sitcom — hooray!
"While the physicists on the show have faaar more free time than most working scientists, many of us have embraced it. One entomologist has even named an orchid bee Euglossa bazinga in honor of Dr. Sheldon Cooper's catchphrase.
"Really, though, the episode called 'The Jiminy Conjecture' makes us wonder.
"That's the one where Sheldon and Howard fight over whether the cricket found in Sheldon's apartment is a snowy tree cricket or a field cricket.
"How do they settle the question?
"By consulting one Professor Crawley, played by the continuously furious comedian Lewis Black. In true Black fashion, Crawley is irritable and enraged, here because his research program on dung beetles has just been slashed and he is being forced to move in with his daughter.
"Near the end of the scene in which Sheldon and Howard meet him, Dr. Crawley shows them a creature he has supposedly discovered, 'Crawley's Dung Beetle.' But it's really just a Madagascar hissing cockroach squirming on its back in a plastic cage.
"If Dr. Crawley can't tell the difference between a cockroach and a beetle, maybe there's good reason his program is being cut."
Of course, the mother of all campy portrayals of entomologists on television is an episode of the X-Files that first aired in 1996, one that will be screened at this year's Festival. It's "War of the Coprophages," featuring a character called "Bambi Berenbaum," said to be inspired by UI Department of Entomology Chair, May Berenbaum.
As an added bonus, X-Files creator/writer/producer/director Chris Carter will be the special guest at the Insect Fear Film Festival, which will take place in Foellinger Auditorium. Admission is free, and doors open at 6 p.m. Further details are available at http://www.life.illinois.edu/entomology/egsa/ifff.html.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.