Hollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment

ImageHollywood Chemistry: When Science Met Entertainment; Nelson, D. J., Grazier, K. R., Paglia, J., Perlowitz, S., Eds.; ACS Symposium Series 1139; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2013.

(Oxford University Press http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780841228245.do)

I’m sure that other scientists are like me, when watching a movie or TV show where science is involved, wondering or even critiquing the science, evaluating its accuracy or even plausibility. This book is the most recent of several describing the relationship of scientist consultants and the producers, directors, and staff of movies and TV shows. A previous example, Lab Coats in Hollywood1, was reviewed by me in CHOICE (2012, 49-4353) and is cited several times in this book. For an ACS Symposium Series this book was actually inspired by two symposia presented as Presidential Events at the 2011 ACS National Meetings in Anaheim and Denver, and then expanded greatly with the number of authors. All of the co-editors (one of them the symposia organizer and a candidate for ACS office) also wrote chapters. Additional authors include other scientist advisors, communication academics, writers, directors, and scientist commentators.

Both the history and the evolution of movie themes and topics and the interaction between experts and artists are covered in the 25 chapters. Chapter one employs the unusual format of a dialogue between the director and a media writer concerning the movie, Creation, a unique biography of Charles Darwin. Both science topics per se and science fiction are discussed and analyzed. In the latter genre, entire chapters cover Star Trek, Breaking Bad, Eureka, Marvels Avengers, and The Big Bang Theory. The tug of war between scientific accuracy and the need for creativity in entertainment and plot is treated in several chapters by contributors from both sides of the table. In the realm of science fiction, the current and future plausibility of science and technology presents its own struggle.

One of the biggest dichotomies concerns alien invaders as described by S. Shostak of SETI Institute (why would they even come?).

Pervading themes also include the educational, inspirational, and even predictive aspects of movies. Both factual and fictional movies can be used in science education. Many scientists of a certain age claim inspiration for pursuing their careers because of movies and TV seen in their youth. R. Wessen of Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes the inspiration of the exploration of space via movies, especially the cooperative efforts of Wernher von Braun and Walt Disney. In general communications, the “CSI Effect” is described in several chapters, not only the resulting public demand for hastened and accurate jurisprudence and forensics, but also the great increase in demand by students for courses and programs in forensics. The evolution of the portrayal of scientists, especially as people, keeps evolving past stereotypes of the mad scientist.

I did find a couple of errors. Methylamine boils at -6.3 C, but in Breaking Bad, utilization of 30 gallon drums of the chemical (not gas tanks) are in key plots. The consultant, a physical organic chemist, does not note the discrepancy. In Chapter 3, on teaching writers science, the author, a physics and astronomy professor, refers to the “period table.”

This book should be of interest to those in science information and education, writers, both in entertainment and journalism, and the general public who enjoy watching TV and movies.

(1) Kirby, D. A. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema; MIT: Cambridge, MA, 2011.

Bob Buntrock, Member, CINF Communications and Publications Committee