Assistant Editor’s Column

Science and Popular Culture

July in San Diego means one thing: Comic-Con, more than 130,000 people and five days of pop culture, fun, craziness, and long lines. And among the many sessions scheduled is Science of Science Fiction. With scientists and screenwriters among the panelists, it should be a lively discussion about how recent films and television shows have gotten the science right, and maybe not so right. There will also be a second, similar session moderated by the Nerdist science editor, one on the psychology, kinesiology, and neuroscience of Batman, and two panels on the robots, androids and artificial intelligence in entertainment and what we can expect to see in our near future.

Inspired by my favorite event of the year, here are some fun and informative resources that celebrate science and popular culture. 

When you think of chemistry and entertainment, one of the first examples to come to mind is probably Breaking Bad. Jyllian Kemsley at Chemical & Engineering News interviewed the show’s creator Vince Gilligan for an article in 2008. When the finale aired in September 2013, she interviewed their science advisor, organic chemist Donna J. Nelson, and in tribute compiled a list of some of her favorite articles, interviews and blog posts about the series. 

Analytical chemist Raychelle Burks (aka @DrRubidium) wrote about zombie repellent chemistry and The Walking Dead, and worked with ACS to produce a video based on that blog post: Zombie Apocalypse Survival Chemistry: Death Cologne

(Spoilers for season 4 of Game of Thrones)
When a character was murdered in season four of Game of Thrones, several people speculated on the possible poison involved, including Burks (blog post and ACS Reactions video), forensic toxicologist Justin Brower at Nature’s Poisons, and science journalist Rachel Nuwer at Boing Boing

The Zombie Research Society has a section on zombie science, with articles on infectious sources and physiology. Neuroscientists Bradley Voytek (University of California San Diego) and Timothy Verstynen (Carnegie Mellon University) have given talks about zombie brains and spoken to Neurology Today and Wired about their work, which also went into this infographic

Orphan Black, BBCA’s series about a group of women who have discovered they are clones, just completed its second season. Kyle Hill at The Nerdist praised the show for how it deals with cloning and genetics, while ThinkProgress interviewed the show’s science consultant, Cosima Herter. 

With the slogan “We come from the future,” the io9 blog has long been one of my daily reads for news about science as well as science fiction. Sometimes they intersect, whether it’s news of using water waves to create a tractor beam, or NASA’s JPL Ops Lab founder answering questions about holodecks and videogame technology.

Jon Spaihts, who was one of the Prometheus screenwriters is currently working on scripts for The Black Hole and Doctor Strange, recently spoke with Alex Jackson for Nature’s Soapbox Science blog. In the interview he discusses the importance of science in filmmaking and his scripts in particular, and the tradeoffs that sometimes have to made to preserve the drama of the story. Also from Jackson for the Nature blogs: Behind the Science of Hollywood, which touches on the work of the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange and it’s role connecting entertainers with scientists and engineers.

A group of science writers recently participated in a blog carnival about the Science of Tatooine, with posts about its water, plant and animal life, and environment. You can read the Tatooine Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, a naturalist’s piece about the biology of the sarlacc, or an article suggesting that the overhunting of Krayt dragons may have led to the planet’s desertification.

And finally, there is Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment, published in 2013 by the American Chemical Society. You’ll find chapters on particular shows and films from Breaking Bad to The Avengers, and how the public’s understanding of science is influenced by what we see on the large and small screens. The book is available online as part of the ACS Symposium Series, but it can also be purchased in print for a third of what titles in this series typically cost.

Teri Vogel, Assistant Editor
tmvogel@uscd.edu