The Sceptical Chymist | ACS: The magic of the movies

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A session that will stand out in my memory from this year’s ACS spring meeting was the presidential symposium on “Hollywood chemistry”. I attended both the early press conference which is well worth viewing, and the full event later in the day.

This event was perfectly themed for the location of the meeting, and also ties in nicely with the many International Year of Chemistry public outreach events. If you don’t work in or study science, then TV shows and movies might be the only place that you are exposed to science, so how realistic is it? And how do they achieve this?

The ACS gathered together Moira Walley-Beckett, writer-producer for the TV show Breaking Bad; Kath Lingenfelter writer-producer for House MD; Jaime Paglia writer-producer of Eureka. Also present were science advisors: Kevin Gazier, Donna Nelson, and Sidney Perkowitz. Finally Mark Griep who uses movie clips in his teaching and is author of the book Reaction: Chemistry in the movies which was reviewed in Nature Chemistry here (subscription required).

The common theme in all the TV shows mentioned is that without science, there would be no story but the shows discussed do span a broad range from factual shows through medical procedural drama to science fiction. Even in science fiction, Perkowitz notes, there may be one big suspension of disbelief, but beyond that, the science is as accurate as is possible within the confines of writing an interesting story. Paglia points out that the big difference is that “this is science fiction and not magic” – illustrating this with the difference between Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and the cloaking device used by Klingon warships in Star Trek – one just works, and the other diverts electromagnetic radiation around the ship.

Breaking Bad is a show that I haven’t yet watched, but plan to having been at this meeting. The misguided hero is a high school chemistry teacher, who turns his skills to illegal drug manufacture in order to provide for his family when he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. While we might disapprove of what he chooses to do, it’s hard not to like a character that throughout the series uses his chemistry knowledge to get himself out of one fix or another. I wonder, however, what the British Home office would make of the character though and would like to remind them that this is fiction. I also note that the science in Breaking Bad is taken so seriously that the show’s writers have, in the past, been advised by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Not surprisingly, when the show does describe illicit drug synthesis there are some key steps left out.

Beyond their descriptions of the shows, and revealing just how much they do rely on their science advisors, a wealth of fascinating stories and anecdotes were on offer. It’s tough to do them justice in a blog post – but I’ll leave you with this one – Kath Lingenfelter gave up her ambition to be a medic because she “just didn’t get organic chemistry” – she won’t be the only person out there to feel like that, but she is now involved in some of the most widely watched science related TV….


Stephen Davey (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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