National Chemistry Week: Tuning in to science

Haley Bridger, October 20th, 2010 | Filed under
  • Images courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Dmitry Kutlayev
    and ©iStockphoto.com/Sebastian Kaulitzki.
    Image composite by Lauren Solomon, Broad Communications.

If you’re an aspiring chemist, full-fledged scientist, or just someone who likes to think about the chemical structures of the ingredients in shampoo, it’s time to celebrate: this week is National Chemistry Week! There are plenty of places where you can watch and rejoice as chemistry unfolds – in the lab, in your kitchen, and even on your television. This year’s National Chemistry Week theme is “Behind the Scenes with Chemistry,” a phrase that’s meant to remind us that a lot of the magic we see on the silver screen or the tube is thanks to chemistry. Movies and books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone draw inspiration from the world of chemistry, and shows like MythBusters dive right into science, exploring the chemical properties of everything from Alka-Seltzer to liquid nitrogen.

We asked people around the Broad for suggestions of movies or TV shows they’ve seen that feature chemistry or chemists. Their suggestions spanned science fiction, fantasy, cooking, drama, and more and included TV shows from networks as diverse as AMC and Nickelodeon. Here are a few of our favorites:

The Secret World of Alex Mack (TV show): A lot of kids growing up in the 1990s tuned in every week to watch the ongoing adventures Alex Mack – an ordinary girl who gets drenched in the mysterious chemical compound “GC-161.” The scientific integrity of the show’s premise may seem questionable – GC-161 was supposedly being developed as a weight-loss drug whose side effects include telekinesis, morphing into a puddle of liquid, and sometimes glowing golden. But the show’s intentions were pure and it inspired at least one of its viewers: Patrick Charlebois, who grew up watching Alex Mack in Montreal, says he first heard about MIT on the show. It made him want to come to Cambridge, MA, where he now works as a computational biologist for the Broad’s Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program.

CSI (TV show): If you’re an avid fan of this crime drama, you’ve probably heard characters refer to “mass spec” or “mass spectrometry” as they piece together clues. A mass spectrometer is a machine that allows researchers to determine the molecules – proteins, peptides, and metabolites – that a sample of blood or tissue contains. “The Proteomics Platform uses this technology as the foundation of our research,” says Sue Abbatiello, a research scientist for the Broad’s Proteomics Platform, which studies the proteins encoded in the human genome. Sue remembers an episode of CSI: Miami in which a real mass spectrometer (which cost about $300,000) was brought to the set. “The characters on the show have even uttered, ‘mass spec doesn't lie,’” says Sue.

Star Trek (movies and TV show): There are plenty of interesting chemistry moments in this science fiction series – software engineer Jeri Levine recalls Captain Kirk once making gunpowder from minerals available nearby so he could defeat an opponent in combat. As a kid, my favorite Star Trek movie was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In the movie, the crew travels back in time and has to find a way to transport two humpback whales. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott commissions a manufacturer to create a salt water tank out of a material he calls “transparent aluminum” – he even hands over a chemical formula for the substance. I always wondered if there was a real chemical compound that, as Scotty described it, was as transparent as glass with the strength of high-grade aluminum. A substance called aluminum oxynitride almost fits the bill – it’s a transparent ceramic that the US Air Force has considered using in the windows of armored vehicles.

Breaking Bad (TV show): This show stars a fictional chemistry teacher and researcher who begins cooking methamphetamine. The character’s actions may be illegal, but his chemistry is by the book. “He uses his knowledge of chemistry to commit crimes and kill enemies,” says Ethan Heilman, a software engineer at the Broad and fan of the show. “It’s got a Sherlock-Holmes-becomes-a-drug-dealer-and-criminal-mastermind feel to it.” You can find out more about the validity of the show’s chemistry here.

Sherlock Holmes (TV shows and movies): And speaking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes used his chemistry expertise in the course of solving crimes in several movie and TV versions of Doyle’s stories. The BBC’s recent adaptation envisions Sherlock in the 21st century, with modern laboratory trappings at his disposal (the series premieres in the U.S. later this month). Judy McLaughlin, a senior technical writer at the Broad, remembers episodes from the 1980s TV show starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes in which the master detective was seen using his chemistry set. “There's even one episode where ‘a man's life hangs in the balance’ over the results,” she recalls.

Good Eats (TV show): Several people at the Broad suggested Good Eats, the popular FoodNetwork show that explores the science behind cooking. The show has shed light onto the mysteries of pH and pretzels, the process of aging cheese, and the chemical properties of water and salt. (If you’re in the Cambridge area and curious about the chemistry and physics behind the food you eat, you can check out Harvard’s free public lectures on science and cooking now through December.)

As far as we know, the Broad’s Chemical Biology Program and Platform haven’t yet made it into the movies or on to TV, but maybe someday they’ll be the source of inspiration for Hollywood. Until then, you can read about the Broad’s chemistry endeavors on the program and platform pages of our web site. Enjoy the rest of Chemistry Week and good luck spotting more science behind the scenes!
 

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