I never watched Fringe when it was on the air, but I’m catching up now. After a first season that struggled to find footing, Fringe grew into a show with a compelling voice and a whole lot of damn cool science. Much of what happens in Fringe lives firmly outside the realm of possibility — given the world as we currently understand it — but a lot of what we see in the show is rooted in fundamental principles that are proven or, at least, theoretically sound.
Sure, there’s some TV magic at work, but let’s remember that when blending science and entertainment, the objective is, often, to include an element of reality, not to shoe-horn stories into restrained, strictly scientifically accurate boxes.
We’re going to look at some of that science, starting with the amber quarantines featured in the show’s alternate universe, circa Season 3.
“Amber 31422” & The Alternate Universe
The show’s third season explored some of the alternate universe that Walter (John Noble) discovered (and subsequently stole his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) from). This universe is, in some ways, very similar to ours. But it’s also remarkably different.
We know this universe is more technologically advanced than our own. It features hyperbaric chambers, sophisticated all-in-one ID’s called “Show Me”s and the widespread use of a substance called amber, which characters use to quarantine large areas. The substance starts as a gas and hardens into a mineral similar to amber, preserving its contents. That said, it also kills everything inside of it because, as you might imagine, being surrounded by amber makes things like breathing difficult.
The idea of this amber substance comes from a very real and natural substance by the same name. Amber, as you may know, is a fossilized resin which comes from trees.
The University of California Museum of Paleontology describes amber as a “biologically inert environment” — a concept which certainly holds up in the context of our Fringe amber quarantines. Removed from the elements and outside interference, things within amber are perfectly preserved, albeit in a dead way.
When small organisms, like insects, become trapped in the resin as it seeps from a tree, they often die there. Because of its “biologically inert environment,” many incredibly well-preserved organisms have appeared in amber fossils.
Resin isn’t amber when it leaves the tree, though, and the journey from resin to amber is a long one. As resin hardens it becomes copal, which, eventually, may become amber through process of oxidization and polymerization that takes millions of years. Not every dead insect in resin becomes a fossil, but the harder the resin is before Mother Nature tampers with it, the more likely it is to end up in a museum millions of years later.
And on that note, we do have some truly remarkable examples of amber fossils.
As Seen On Jurassic Park
Undoubtedly one of the most iconic uses of amber fossils is in Jurassic Park, in which John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) InGen team extracts dinosaur DNA from a mosquito preserved in amber and uses said DNA to reverse-engineer dino genomes. It’s a nice idea, and it certainly gets points for creativity and use of a dead cool fossilization technique, but it’s definitely the stuff of fiction.
Amber fossils, while fantastic for preserving skeletal remains and the structures of organisms, isn’t great for preserving organic tissues. By the time the scientists at InGen got to the mosquito in the amber, it’s essential structure would’ve remained, but the dino DNA almost definitely would’ve been long gone.
The amber substance in Fringe was created by Walternate and isn’t a natural substance, but it does garner some of its traits from the real world science of resin and fossilization. When dealing in matters of science fiction, the point is not to tell the absolute truth, but to provide just enough truth that your fake reality feels reals. Nailing that balance was part of what made Fringe so compelling.