Monday, January 18, 2010

(Bio)Chemistry in the Movies

At ScriptPhD Doug Fowler interviews University of Nebraska chemistry professor Mark Griep and artist Marjorie Mikasen, husband and wife co-authors of ReAction!: Chemistry in the Movies.
When Mark taught General Chemistry for the first time, he gave the students a 600-word writing assignment. They were supposed to write about the chemistry in a recent newspaper or news magazine. Such an exercise promotes deep learning because the student has to process the issues and decide what is important. Mark was surprised that only 60% of the students completed the assignment and disappointed that some of them wrote about topics such as vaccines, supernovas, etc. without mentioning their chemical aspects. [...]  The next two times Mark taught General Chemistry, he projected two of these movies and had the students write about one of them. It was a great success; 95% of the students completed the assignment and the quality of writing was vastly superior.
Griep and Mikasen published that finding along with a list of movies with a focus on chemistry in the Journal of Chemical Education*, and that was ultimately expanded into the ReAction!

One of the things that struck me in reading the interview is how many of the chemistry-based movies could also be considered bioscience or at least biochemistry movies as well. Take, for example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Griep spent some time analyzing and is one of the major themes of ReAction!:
Even though Jekyll is shown mixing chemicals, Mark was intrigued that the transformative formula was not described in enough detail to know what it was supposed to represent. Stevenson’s original story describes a contaminant in a white powder that changes color when it is added to a blood-red solution but it doesn’t name the powder or the contaminant. Seeking other avenues to pursue, Mark contacted Stevenson scholar Richard Dury to find out whether any scholarship had been done on this topic. Dury told him that Stevenson’s wife Fanny had written a letter immediately before Stevenson wrote the novella in which she says he suffered from hallucinations after being treated with an ergot extract. This episode appears to have inspired Stevenson to write the story. Mark then discovered that ergot fungus is a pharmacological toolbox containing compounds to constrict arteries but also compounds to cause hallucinations. It seems that Stevenson’s doctor had treated him with the ergot extract to stop the bleeding in his lungs. The hallucinogenic side effect was caused by a minor component of the extract. This led Mark to conclude what Jekyll’s compound might be.
I love technical geekery like that! What Griep discovered was that the story's chemistry was based on a compound found in a fungus extract that has a physiological effect on the human nervous system - so both chemistry and biology.

And as Doug Fowler points out, at least part of the book tackles movie biochemistry even more directly:
And what about the chemistry of the alien microorganism in Andromeda Strain? I’m sad to report that ReAction! reveals that the mass spectral analysis in the film reports an elemental composition that can’t exist. After a bit of tweaking, the authors suggest that perhaps the alien life form could be alkaloid-like, and that the rock-like substance the life form arrived on could be a siloxane. 
It's not surprising that the biological and chemical sciences overlap in the movies, since they do in real life too - there is a lot of specialized chemistry that's required for living organisms to function.

Read the whole interview,  which includes an interesting discussion of the changing depiction of chemists in the movies,  public perception of science, and scientific literacy.

For additional information check out the companion Chemical Movies Blog. It isn't actually very blog-like, considering that each of the ten "posts" are downloadable pdf files, but it does include a list of all the movies discussed in ReAction! and a bit more discussion of some movie chemistry.

* Griep MA and Mikasen ML "Based on a True Story: Using Movies as Source Material for General Chemistry Reports" J. Chem. Educ. 2005 82(10):1501 DOI: 10.1021/ed082p1501

Image: Fredric March as Doctor Jekyll in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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