The Chemical Formula: Successfully Combining Chemistry, Science, and the Media

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It’s hard to know what some 500 chemists were expecting when they filed into a ballroom for an event called Hollywood Chemistry this past March 27, at the big annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Anaheim, California. What they got may have been a surprise: a 2-hour session that indeed covered some traditional chemistry, but mainly presented more drama, special effects, and laughs than the standard ACS scientific session, while making important points about chemistry and science in the media.

That’s because Hollywood Chemistry featured a panel that combined writers for popular science- or medicine-focused TV series, with scientists who deal with science as it is treated in TV and film. The panelists showed clips, which provided the drama and special effects; spoke entertainingly about the tribulations of merging science with entertainment, which got the laughs; yet also explored serious themes: what’s the right mix of story and science to generate a compelling narrative while still getting the science (mostly) right? Can science onscreen be used to teach science and inspire would-be scientists? 

This event had roots in a similar Science & Entertainment Exchange panel at the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. During the audience Q&A, Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University ofOklahoma (currently a visiting professor at MIT) revealed that she advises the AMC show Breaking Bad. This is the Emmy-winning saga about a cancer-ridden high school chemistry teacher who manufactures and sells methamphetamine so he can leave his family in good financial shape. Donna was inspired to organize a panel with a chemistry theme. I helped her connect with The Exchange and her idea got a favorable response from Nancy B. Jackson, ACS president for 2011, who designated it a special Presidential Event and helped plan it.

Watch the Hollywood Chemistry press conference!

The resulting panel included Moira Walley-Beckett, writer/producer for Breaking Bad; Kath Lingenfelter, writer/producer for Fox’s House, whose lead character Dr. Gregory House is a brilliant but controversial medical diagnostician; Jaime Paglia, co-creator/executive producer for the SyFy channel’s Eureka, about the sheriff of Eureka, Oregon, and its population of scientific geniuses; Kevin Grazier, who worked on the Cassini mission and consults forEureka, Battlestar Galactica, and other shows; me, Sidney, a physics professor at Emory University who wrote the bookHollywood Science about science in the movies and teaches the course Science in Film; and Mark Griep, a chemist at the University of Nebraska who teaches chemistry through film clips, as presented in his book ReAction!

The panelists illustrated different ways to deal with science on screen. Moira explained that Breaking Bad is a drama that involves real science and so must get it right to be convincing — as seconded by Donna, who showed how much research it took for her to back up just one critical line of dialogue with valid chemistry. Kath, a would-be neuroscientist who instead became a science groupie after encountering organic chemistry, similarly discussed the extensive research she does to create the medical mysteries seen on House. Both emphasized that correct science or medicine alone is not enough; their writing has to integrate believable emotion, motivation, and action for the characters (as Moira put it, what it takes to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface) — or there’s no drama, no story, and no interest.

Jaime, on the other hand, pointed out that Eureka is science fiction and so can engage in speculative science like human cloning and time travel. But there is a line, the scientific equivalent of jumping the shark, that the show does not cross. It’s the line between a world where things happen because of pure, inexplicable magic, and a world where they happen because of explainable — if only potential — science. Jaime noted that science consultants like Kevin help to keep the two separate. Kevin went on to explain that he’s an enabler, not a traffic cop. When asked about a scientific point, he doesn’t say “You can’t do that!”, thus bringing the story to a screeching halt; rather, he says “That won’t work, but this will” and sometimes finds real science that even exceeds what the writers imagined. And whether the science is completely or only mostly right, he added, science fiction has benefits like encouraging innovation.

My talk noted that science-fiction films like Avatar (2009) are powerful cultural forces that present science with a Hollywood spin. To illustrate, the audience and I had fun with tongue-in-cheek questions like “Where do incoming asteroids always hit?” Hollywood’s answer is “Manhattan!” Still, Hollywood science can provide outreach, as when I discussed the science behind the alien bugs in Starship Troopers (1997). But maybe someday films will carry a Good Science Seal guaranteeing that “No scientific concepts were harmed in making this film.” The last speaker, Mark, also dealt with teaching through film. Movie scenes with chemists and chemistry, he finds, magnetically draw students’ attention to the science. He tracked down more than 100 films containing good chemical teaching moments. Many, such as Apollo 13 (1995) are no surprise, but Mark also unearthed some unlikely gems — the most unexpected, Clambake (1967), in which Elvis Presley is a chemist who develops a super hard varnish called GOOP.

All the panelists spoke and answered questions with verve, and the audience clearly enjoyed the entire event. They applauded enthusiastically, a chemistry club from theUniversity of Michigan presented Moira with a T-shirt that said “We do in class what would be a felony if you did it in your garage,” and people flooded the speaker’s dais at the end. Like all scientists, chemists love what they do, and the attendees undoubtedly got a lot out of the regular scientific ACS sessions; but I’ll bet they had the most fun at Hollywood Chemistry, while learning some important lessons about science in entertainment and in society.

Watch video of the panel.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.