It was long past 2 on Wednesday morning when Anne Simon finally arrived back at her hotel room in central Vancouver. She had just clocked 15 hours on her feet. Most people in this situation would sleep in. But Simon set her alarm for early — and was awake long before it rang.
Simon was too amped. Too restive. Too ready to talk. The University of Maryland biologist had just watched the fruition of what she considers her greatest act of science. And it didn’t occur in a laboratory or college campus. It went down on a TV set.
Last week, Simon traveled thousands of miles — and even further in terms of cultural evolution — to arrive at the set of “The X-Files,” the 1990s Fox cult classic slated to air a six-episode miniseries in January following a lengthy hiatus. For Simon, it marked something of a reunion. She had long worked in the show’s shadows as its scientific adviser, ensuring that one of the biggest science fiction programs in television history got its facts right.
She dreamed up how a sewer could spawn creatures. She taught writers how scientific methodology could discern whether an organism was extraterrestrial. She drew from scientific literature when she unveiled a fruit fly with legs coming out of its mouth. It was the writer’s job to come up with the ideas — and Simon’s to make them scientifically plausible.
At least, as plausible as possible. Bear in mind, this is a show about two FBI agents, government conspiracies and things that go bump in the night.
Simon says that work — which she balanced with teaching classes, editing the Journal of Virology and conducting her own research — serves only as a prelude to what she hopes will be her greatest contribution to the program’s long, sometimes convoluted story line.
“I’m so good about not sharing spoilers,” Simon said in a phone interview from Vancouver, recalling her recent conversations with “X-Files” writer and creator Chris Carter. “But I can say that the science, I’ve been helping Chris every morning on that and reading what he has so far, and it’s the best science that I have ever come up with.”
That interaction between the writer and the scientist was only the latest in what has been a long partnership trying to undo inaccuracies in the genre.
The life of the scientist who consumes science fiction has historically been one of frustration. “Shows get annoying,” huffed Margaret Fearon, a Canadian microbiologist who has also helped on the scientific end of this “X-Files” reboot, and once had a character named for her. “They don’t consult with people who do know this stuff. It makes it less enjoyable.”
But Simon really wants to enjoy science fiction. For as long as she can remember, it has played a prominent role in her life. She “read books and books and books,” mom Sondra Simon recalled.
Her dad, Mayo Simon, was a Hollywood scriptwriter. He penned some prominent sci-fi offerings — “Marooned,” “Futureworld” and “Man from Atlantis” — when she was a child living in Southern California. “My dad took such care to get it right,” she said. “He spent so much time in Houston at NASA,” to write a movie on space exploration. So imagine her horror years later when, after she had earned her doctorate, she flipped on the TV and saw an episode of “Star Trek.”
“I remember they were talking about this thing that was part virus and part bacteria, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was like saying something is part watermelon and part chair. You can’t say things like that, and it takes so little to get the science right.”
She did not have much hope for “The X-Files” when its pilot aired in 1993. Still, it was a new science fiction show, so Simon, who was then a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts, gave it a watch.
She had never seen anything like it, she said. It was not necessarily the story — it was the portrayal of the female lead, Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, that struck her.
Simon saw herself in the character. Here was this strong, independent, female scientist. “Scully knew science and medicine, but when she didn’t know something she went to other scientists for help,” Simon said.
That separated her, Simon said, from other TV scientists who were somehow experts in everything: “This was the very first time when the public saw scientists how they’re really like.”
Then the credits rolled. A name flashed that she recognized. Chris Carter was the writer and director. Could this be the same Chris Carter who had married her mom’s friend and neighbor? A phone call with her mom confirmed it.
Carter “had a house near mine in the Palisades, and I was over there a lot,” said Sondra Simon. “He wanted to make sure everything was right [in ‘The X-Files’]. I knew he was a stickler for science . . . and I suggested that he call Anne if he had a science question.”
Halfway through the first season, he did. Carter, who had spent years working at a surfing magazine and making pottery, said he had no choice. “My formal science education ended somewhere around college education, and I hadn’t been such a great student,” Carter wrote in the foreword to Simon’s book, “The Real Science Behind the X-Files.” “A large number of [the “X-Files” audience] were college professors, and I was unarmed.” But he “did have an answer, in the name of Anne Simon.” He added: “From Anne, I got the building blocks of the mystery.”
It was an opportunity, Simon said, to dispel popular myths about scientists — that they’re all men, that they’re not trustworthy: “When we drive over the Wilson bridge, we trust that some engineer who has studied this for 30 years has built it [well].” But she said the public doesn’t believe experienced scientists who say genetically modified foods are safe, global warming is happening, vaccines are wise.
And so, over the next decade or so, until the show went off the air amid falling ratings, Carter dispatched scripts to Simon. She would render them scientifically cogent to engender greater trust in the field.
Then, a few months ago, Simon saw a surprising news article: “The X-Files” was coming back to Fox.
She said she “immediately” called Carter, and a few days later he sent her a script, asking her, she said, to “flesh it out. So I wrote a few pages, just having fun . . . and I consider [my ideas] mind-blowing science.”
It was now August. And Simon had just returned from Vancouver after watching that “mind-blowing” science manifest itself on a set. She was talking about how she makes the impossible possible.
“It was my goal to come up with science that could fit the story,” she said. “It’s not my job to say there could never be half-man, half-worm.”
Because it’s “The X-Files,” she said. And the truth is out there.