Editors’ Corner

Science and Popular Culture: Part 3

If you had asked me to guess which popular culture works would get covered in the media this last year for their use of science, Back to the Future 2 would not have been on the list. But October 21, 2015 is the date that Doc Brown and Marty McFly visit “in the future”. In honor of the day, Forbes ran a series of articles about the science and technology of BTTF2’s 2015 and how they compare with our reality. My favorite invention—introduced at the end of the first film—was the Mr. Fusion reactor that powered the upgraded DeLorean, so Carmen Drahl’s interview with a specialist in the control of fusion plasmas was a must-read. As Natalie Robehmed pointed out, some of the technology “predictions” of BTTF2 did come true, such as wearable technology and drones. Unfortunately, we willl still have to wait for Mr. Fusion and the flux capacitor.

The movie that would have been at the top of that list was The Martian, not a surprise. There were a lot of articles written last fall and winter; even NASA took the opportunity to show how they are developing the technologies referenced in the film, like generating oxygen and recovering water. A good place to start is Mika McKinnon’s io9 article where she grades (good, bad, fascinating) the film’s science. One of my favorite scenes in the book is how Watney tries to make water for his crops by burning hydrazine. It was also in the film, and I was pleased it was mentioned in Caroline Framke’s Vox piece on the science behind five major plot points. As she did the previous year with Interstellar, astrophysicist Katie Mack also wrote about The Martian from the perspective of both scientist and “space enthusiast.

There were not as many articles about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though I enjoyed Rhett Allain’s article on three ways the new Starkiller base could actually work. But the best Star Wars-related work I read last year was actually about the economic costs to the Empire for those first two Death Stars. I followed Kelsey Atherton’s Popular Science post to Washington University professor Zachary Feinstein’s paper on arXiv. And just so I cannot be accused of bias, here is one about the less-than-appetizing appeal of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s food replicator.

On the tastier side of things, sixth season MasterChef contestant (and biochemistry major) Hetal Vasavada was interviewed by Jyllian Kemsley for C&EN. In it she talked about her love of chemistry and how that informed her culinary skills. I was amazed just watching Vasavada—a vegetarian—cook dishes on the show that she could not taste.

Now we move to the DC and Marvel. Esther Inglis-Arkell reminded us why kryptonite cannot exist. And Wired posted a video about the science and special effects of Agent Carter’s “zero matter” and the devices designed to contain it.

Kyle Hill’s Beyond Science series at The Nerdist continues to investigate the science of your favorite fandoms. Among the more chemistry-focused questions he tried to answer this past year: “What poisons are inside the Joker’s laughing gas?” “What kind of poison is The Princess Bride’s iocane powder?” (I sense a theme here) and “How acidic is the Alien xenomorph’s blood?”

While I am pretty sure moon tea is not mentioned in the Game of Thrones television series, it is does get a mention in the third novel, A Storm of Swords. As part of a recent “Science of Game of Thrones” blog carnival, Raychelle Burks wrote about the chemistry of the compounds behind moon tea.

I will wrap up with one of the more recent films where science plays an important role: Ghostbusters, and Joshua Sokol’s Wired article about the MIT physicists who contributed their expertise in the design of the proton packs and even one of the character’s campus office.

Teri M. Vogel
UC San Diego