The Sceptical Chymist | Putting the chemistry into sci-fi: Episode 3

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Yesterday I suggested a few book titles and short stories for those interested in chemistry-themed science fiction. In this final entry, I’ll dig up some film and TV suggestions.

In the written word at least, several authors have used chemical concepts as the basis of smart sci-fi. This is much less the case on TV and at the movies. I think this is because books have space to develop themes, and to provide any necessary background information. Sci-fi readers in general are also more receptive to taking on fairly abstract scientific concepts — it is, after all, part of the attraction of the genre. But films and TV need to have an immediate impact on the widest possible audience, and so difficult concepts are often ignored in favour of whizz-bang pyrotechnics and special effects. Not much room for chemistry, then (apart from in the pyrotechnics).

But examples do exist. David Katz’s online list of chemistry-related sci-fi includes a section on films, and I recommend that you take a look. From his selection, a special mention goes to The Man in the White Suit, a British satirical comedy from 1951 about a man who invents a dirt-repellent polymeric fibre. The properties of the fibre and its ramifications for the textile industry drive the entire plot.

Chemistry in television sci-fi is also uncommon, and tends to crop up as an aside, and/or as a bad thing. MacGyver obviously wasn’t science fiction, but chemistry did at least come to the rescue on several occasions — such as when our hero breaks open a lock with ice cubes and a light bulb, makes nylon (!) and extracts vanadium from a poison (I have no idea why or how he does this). I also enjoyed a spoof educational movie that appeared in an episode of The Simpsons: “You said you wanted to live in a world without zinc, Jimmy. Well, now your car has no battery.”

But there’s only one TV sci-fi series that I know of (feel free to correct me) that truly used chemistry as the lynchpin of a plot: Dr Who. In the 1968 story, The Krotons, a race of people known as the Gonds were enslaved by the eponymous aliens. The Krotons prevented the Gonds from learning about chemistry, mostly because the aliens’ Achilles heel was sulphuric acid. But the Doctor teaches the Gonds how to make the acid, which they then use to destroy their overlords. Fanciful and simplistic, I agree, but at least the programme makers attempted to show the importance of chemistry in a sci-fi setting.

So that’s it for my round-up of chemical sci-fi. It’s certainly a fun topic, but I genuinely think that the lack of chemistry in science fiction is a missed opportunity. Perhaps if there was more, it would generate a greater interest and understanding of chemistry in the real world.


Andrew Mitchinson (Senior Editor, Nature)

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