Reopening the File
Professor Injects Real Science Into “X-Files” Revivalby Chris Carroll | photo by John T. Consoli
In the back of her lab in the Microbiology Building, Anne Simon chuckles with devilish glee over the fresh horror she’s dreamed up, soon to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
She’s mum on the details, but will say it’s no apocalyptic plague; those have been done to death. She promises only, “It’s nothing anyone has seen before.”
Luckily, Simon, an internationally recognized plant virologist and UMD biology professor, isn’t plotting our collective demise—she’s just helping “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter nail the science for his iconic show on FOX.
The conspiracy-fueled sci-fi drama returns Jan. 24 for a six-episode miniseries 14 years after its cancellation in 2002. Simon is also back, providing science advice as she did during the show’s first run. As for the menacing twist she’s devised—fictional yet within a stone’s throw of feasibility—it punctuates the final episode, earning Simon her first Hollywood story credit.
She was hooked from the show’s beginning in 1993, when she was a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Part of the appeal was the female lead, FBI Agent (and fictional UMD alum) Dana Scully, a scientist dedicated to an evidence-based search for truth who conformed to none of the nerdy, sinister stereotypes.
“She was a very smart, very with-it person,” she says. “I saw myself in her.”
After that first episode, when Carter’s name flashed on the screen, Simon wondered if it was the same guy who’d recently married one of her mother’s friends back home in the Los Angeles area. She asked her mother about it, and before long, Carter was on the phone seeking guidance on alien germs.
What would scientists do, he wanted to know, if they found an otherworldly strain of bacteria? “They’d try to grow more of it so they could study it and not run out,” she responded. The vessel she said they might use—an Erlenmeyer flask—became an episode’s title.
They’d also examine it under a microscope—but not bent over a simple optical scope of the sort found in high school science labs. Instead they’d use an advanced scanning electron microscope.
Simon—who cringes at silly errors in the portrayal of science on television—was thrilled when Carter carefully worked her advice into his screenplay.
“All I ever wanted to do was get the microscopes right,” she laughs.
She began reviewing Carter’s scripts to help the Southern California surfer ground his bizarre plots in reality—well, as much as possible on a show about mutant monsters, alien invaders and invisible men.
“He’s willing to make the extra effort to make what he’s showing on-screen correct because it’s just scarier that way,” Simon says.
Simon inherited a taste for sci-fi, and the belief it needn’t be stupid, from her father, screenwriter and playwright Mayo Simon. As a child, she saw him conduct painstaking research before sitting down to pen movies like “Marooned,” which featured Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna as NASA astronauts stuck aloft in a malfunctioning spacecraft.
Simon, who’s pulling for the show to come back on a regular basis, often mulls ideas with her best friend, Dr. Margaret Fearon, microbiology director for Canadian Blood Services. They met after Fearon emailed to compliment Simon’s 1999 book, “The Real Science Behind ‘The X-Files.’” Soon, Fearon was helping Carter portray medicine more accurately on the show.
Simon is a skilled teacher and a deeply knowledgeable researcher, Fearon says, able to simplify tough concepts for the public and push the boundaries of science fiction.
“The things she has come up with are all based on things that are out there in the science world,” she says. “You look at new technology or new knowledge that comes along, and extrapolate from there into fictional territory.”
Simon loves the fiction. But what makes it worthwhile is the chance to engage people through lectures, Twitter and other forums about concepts like reliance on evidence rather than fear, particularly with heated issues like vaccines and genetic modification of crops (both of which Simon strongly supports).
“If I just talk to people about ‘The X-Files,’ it’s kind of a waste of time,” she says. “I use this as a tool to talk about science.”
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