In the Forward to the ACS Symposium Series e-book Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment, Phil Plait, astronomer and Slate Magazine’s “Bad Astronomy” blogger, confessed to “being a jerk” for watching movies simply to “eviscerate” them in his reviews for having bad science, instead of watching them for enjoyment. He reformed after a fellow astronomer […]
In the Forward to the ACS Symposium Series e-book Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment, Phil Plait, astronomer and Slate Magazine’s “Bad Astronomy” blogger, confessed to “being a jerk” for watching movies simply to “eviscerate” them in his reviews for having bad science, instead of watching them for enjoyment. He reformed after a fellow astronomer pointed out that even he, Phil Plait, could miss science that’s been enhanced to better engage audiences in a story.
In the movies and on television, the story is what matters. But, as Hollywood’s creators have found, you can tell a good story without bad science. Science consultants are increasingly being used in science fiction and science-themed productions, from comedies like The Big Bang Theory to dramas like Breaking Bad to movies like Gravity. Additionally, the National Academy of Sciences created the Science and Entertainment Exchange to provide writers and directors access to experts from all the scientific disciplines. The goal is to deliver powerful messages about science.
For example, when chemistry professor Donna J. Nelson, Ph.D., served as consultant for the extremely popular television series Breaking Bad, she found opportunities to highlight the importance of chemistry. In a September 2013 interview with Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), Nelson spoke about her favorite scene when Walter White, mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned nefarious drug lord, fears he is about to be killed by his meth kingpin boss, Gustavo Fring. One of Fring’s deputies thinks he can follow White’s methamphetamine (meth) synthesis, eliminating the need for Walter White.
White asks, “Really? Oh, so please, tell me, catalytic hydrogenation, is it protic or aprotic? Because I forget. And if our reduction is not stereospecific, then how can our product be enantiomerically pure?”
Nelson explains the care she took in making that statement strong and correct. “Walt is saying, ‘I am important to you. I am essential to this because I have this knowledge of chemistry,’ ” Nelson said.
Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, offered to be an unpaid science advisor for Breaking Bad after reading an earlier (2008) C&EN article in which series creator, writer, and producer Vince Gilligan noted that the show didn’t have the budget for a science advisor. But, in the interest of being as accurate as possible, he would welcome input from chemists. Some of Nelson’s colleagues were critical of the show, believing it put chemistry in a bad light and glorified meth production and use. Before jumping in as advisor, Nelson, who had not seen the show, watched some episodes and concluded that it did exactly the opposite.
Because of her involvement, the show’s chemistry is accurate but for two instances. The blue color, Walter White’s signature, could not result from the formula used to produce his high-quality crystal meth. Also, series creator Gilligan didn’t want to give the public the formula for meth, so it is changed just enough to prevent that.
Nelson, who researches and teaches organic chemistry and has also conducted research into ethnic and gender diversity among highly ranked science departments of research universities, is one of four editors of Hollywood Chemistry.
Taking a Closer Look at Hollywood Chemistry
The chapter formats in Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment are equally eclectic: some take the form of academic journal articles, some are written as less formal interviews, and some are narratives. The tones of the offerings range from the purely serious to the comedic.
In addition to Breaking Bad, topics covered in Hollywood Chemistry’s 25 chapters include Star Trek, teaching science to writers, film music, the CSI effect, using movie clips to teach chemistry, and aliens.
Additional editors for Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment are:
- Kevin R. Grazier, Ph.D., is a recovering rocket scientist who spent fifteen years on the Cassini/Huygens mission at JPL. His research areas include numerical method development, and large-scale, long-term simulations of Solar System dynamics, evolution, and chaos. Grazier is the science advisor for TNT’s Falling Skies, Syfy’s Defiance, and the film Gravity, having previously served the same role on Eureka, the Peabody-award-winning Battlestar Galactica, and several other television series and movies.
- Jaime Paglia is a film and television writer/producer/director who has developed projects with New Line Cinema, MTV Films, The Canton Company, Akiva Goldsman’s Weed Road Pictures, Universal Cable Productions, ABC Studios, TNT, and MGM Television, among others. He is also the co-creator of the record-setting Syfy Channel television series, Eureka.
- Sidney Perkowitz, Ph.D., Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus, Emory University, has written or edited over 100 research papers, six research monographs, and six books of popular science including Empire of Light, Universal Foam, and Hollywood Science. He writes and speaks nationally and internationally about science in entertainment, science and art, the science of food, and other popular topics. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.