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Reality vs. Hollywood: Chemistry

by Melissa T. Miller

Picture your favorite crime show’s forensic laboratory or a Bond villain’s secret lair. There are likely to be glass vials of all shapes and sizes that contain a rainbow of colored liquids. Some are probably bubbling, perhaps even smoking. The camera navigates around whiteboards covered in scrawled equations with a boggling combination of letters and numbers. How mysterious—they must be doing (gasp!)…chemistry!

This is something you’ve likely seen a dozen times on TV shows or in movies. You may not have noticed that Hollywood has gotten many details wrong (or, at least, only partially right!), but those who spend a lot of time in chemistry laboratories, notice it right away. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the on-screen depiction of chemistry is generic and over-simplified.

That’s not to say that some chemistry labs don’t look like this. You likely saw much of the same equipment if, like most Americans, your chemistry experience began and ended in a high school classroom. Bunsen burners, Mentos in a soda bottle and using pH paper may be as far as most people delve into the world of chemistry. But for those who still spend time there, Hollywood’s version can induce cringes and eye-rolls.

Obviously, in most popular media, there’s not a lot of time to introduce characters and settings. Screenwriters and set-dressers have mere seconds to convey the idea that you are now in a chemistry lab. But what they show is not the whole story. Chemistry is not as foreign a concept as you might think it is, nor are laboratories as intimidating as they’re portrayed.

You—yes, you!—do chemistry in your everyday life. One example is food preparation. Baking is stoichiometry, the term for balancing chemical equations so that there are the same ingredients on each side.

Fe2O3 + 2Al → 2Fe + Al2Omay look like a bit of a jumble, but it’s no more complicated than this: 1 cup of mix + 1 egg + 3 tablespoons vegetable oil → 4 waffles. That little arrow (→ ) can show that any number of things have happened—mixing, heating, rising—but the sum of the elements is the same on both sides.

You also likely know some chemistry terms and concepts, like what H2O is and that it can be solid (ice), liquid (water) or gas (steam). You’ve probably heard of CO2 and the ozone layer and that Gatorade has electrolytes. And (hopefully) you know that some medications shouldn’t be mixed or taken with alcohol (C2H5OH). Maybe you watched Breaking Bad and know some not-so-legal chemical reactions. But it could also be that NCIS has given you the impression that forensic scientists can have DNA test results in mere minutes (guess again!).

While we’re on the topic of the scientists themselves, what are you picturing? Hollywood would have you believe that chemists are all a bit odd. Whether it’s the dyed hair, antisocial behavior or some other trope, there’s rarely a scientist portrayed that’s not on the verge of being a bit “mad.” And the uniform—they’re always in their lab coat, right? While lab coats and other personal protective equipment are prevalent, they’re usually only worn in the lab itself. Not in the office, not to meetings and never to meals. And they serve little purpose if they’re left unbuttoned or paired with a short skirt.

While screenwriting requires an economy of characters, real life science is crowded. There are some articles published that have dozens—or even hundreds!—of authors. And those projects took time, sometimes the length of an entire career.

We can’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t notice these details, or even Hollywood for their over-simplification. But hopefully you enjoy knowing a bit more about what chemistry labs are really like. We all have our sphere of knowledge, our profession, our passion. Plenty of us would not notice a 1960 Corvette in a movie that’s set during the Korean War. But there are plenty of people who would. And hopefully if one was sitting next to you, they would lean over to tell you, and you could exchange glances and say, “Boy, I wonder what else Hollywood gets wrong?”