Hollywood Chemistry

Hollywood Chemistry

Author: Neville Compton and ACS

And the Winner for the Most Accurate Science in a Movie or TV series goes to …

Although you are unlikely to hear this being said at the next Oscar or Emmy Award ceremony, Hollywood is striving to get the chemistry and science portrayed in many of its TV series right.

As part of the Presidential Symposia and Events Program at the 241st American Chemical Society National Meeting in Anaheim, California, ACS President Nancy B. Jackson, hosted a session entitled “Hollywood Chemistry”. True to the traditions of the best Hollywood blockbusters, the auditorium was packed and additional seating had to be brought in. The panel of speakers included writers and producers from Top US TV series such Breaking Bad, Eureka, and House M.D., as well as scientific advisors to these shows as well as others. In addition, there were presentations from two popular science authors about the science in movies.

Breaking Bad
Donna Nelson, from the University of Oklahoma, who organized the program with Jackson and who works as a scientific advisor on Breaking Bad said “It’s really important for scientists to work with television and movie producers and writers so that when people watch science-based shows and films they are getting accurate information. The people who make TV shows and films really are interested in getting the science right. They are serious in striving for accuracy and realism.” She illustrated some of the interesting facets to her role as an advisor to the writers and producers of the show such Moira Walley-Beckett, who also provided many entertaining insights into their interaction during her presentation. For example, faced with the question: Using the P2P method how much crystal meth (methamphetamine) could you synthesize with 30 gallons of methylamine? (Not something that normally comes up in most undergraduate courses.) How would you respond? She, as all good chemists should, researched a variety of synthetic methods for the reduction process and forwarded these to the show. However, the final decision on which one to apply was not based on the yield or ease of the work up procedure, but on what was easiest for the actors to say. Incidentally, if you do the calculations using a Na/Al reducing agent it turns you can make 91 kg. In the show, Walter White’s knowledge of chemistry is his superpower, it’s what keeps him alive.

House M.D.
Kath Ligenfelter, who works as a writer and producer on House M.D., said that if something was not right on the show, co-workers, critics and fans would let them know. The series of symptoms, which lead to red herrings in the diagnoses are carefully vetted in consultation with specialists. She also spoke of her delight about how new discoveries and theories such as “mirror neurons” and “somatic markers” had been developed and they would open up exciting possibilities for new storylines.

Eureka co-creator and executive producer, Jaime Paglia, talked about the importance of “the intersection between getting the theoretical science right and telling a good story”. Kevin Grazier, who, in addition to working as a science advisor on Eureka, provides advice on Zula Patrol and Battlestar Galactica, also has a cool day job working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Cassini Mission to Saturn. A combination to whet the appetite of any young budding scientist.

Hollywood Science
Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist from Emory University, and author of the book Hollywood Science, spoke about the portrayal of science and scientists in films. He provocatively commented that even if the science in films is sometimes wrong, does that matter. The power and addiction of filmgoers to science fiction is illustrated by the fact that 22 of the top 60 grossing films of all time are from this genre. Avatar alone has been seen by approximately 300 million people. Yes there is a degree of hype in the science in some films, but that has also had a positive effect in stimulating discussions, for example, on important issues such as climate change and global warming. A little sensationalism in science is nothing new and is certainly not restricted to the big screen. Most scientists are passionate about their research, and will promote it at every opportunity. Perkowitz jokingly revealed that one of his dreams was that in the future the following disclaimer could be applied to movies: “no science concepts were seriously harmed in the making of this film”.

ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies
The power of television and film to influence people is well-known. This is also true for chemistry students. Mark A. Griep from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who together with his wife Majorie Mikasen wrote the book ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies, described how bringing Hollywood to the classroom was an entertaining and stimulating way to teach chemistry to young people – one of the key goals of the International Year of Chemistry IYC (2011).

Movies and television series clearly show that taking science to the public can be fun. However, viewers – like journal editors – have a keen eye for detail, so film makers be warned: Get the chemistry right in every sense!

Anyone interested in The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of The National Academy of Sciences, which looks to connect entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers promotes the program can contact them at www.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org

Other articles from the ACS meeting

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