Interaction between scientists and film makers could consign the mad scientist to history.
Hollywood has a huge influence over how the public views chemists. Scientists in films, old and new, generally fall into three categories: the mad scientist, the bumbling scientist and the hopeless nerd. They are typically male, work in labs and wear white coats.
But there are signs that the film industry is changing. Chemists are making their mark behind the scenes, despite competition from computer graphics. Remember the muddy water masquerading as a chocolate river in the original Charlie and the chocolate factory? Well, chemists at Vickers Laboratories have developed a mixture that looks and flows like liquid chocolate for the Warner Bros remake. Apparently, director Tim Burton wanted a real liquid, rather than a computer graphic. Warner Bros took the undertaking seriously and built a chemical plant at Pinewood Studios to manufacture the mixture on site.
Warner Bros also used chemists for another blockbuster - Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. Tom Welton and colleagues at Imperial College, London, made a red, green and purple three-layered mixture with an ionic liquid at the bottom, then water, then hexane with dyes that where preferentially soluble in each layer. Hopefully, it will make it into the final cut but we’ll have to wait until the film’s release on 18 November to find out.
It’s encouraging to see chemistry being used in films but it still doesn’t help the image of chemists themselves.
Some recent films have portrayed scientists reasonably realistically, such as Contact, which one reviewer said was believable ’because it doesn’t replace true science with vague terms and gobbledygook’, and The day after tomorrow, in which the planet is threatened by a possible climatic disaster. However, others, such as Spiderman IIand Sky captain and the world of tomorrow, are doing little to challenge stereotypes.
Work is under way to change this. The Alfred P Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic institution in the US, has been working in this area for some time. It runs a programme for film schools to influence the next generation of filmmakers to create more realistic and dramatic stories about science and technology and challenge stereotypes.
With support from the foundation, prizes are awarded to stimulate top students to write and produce films and television shows about scientists and engineers.
For instance, at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the foundation awarded a Sundance/Sloan feature film prize for science and technology to Primer, a film about a group of engineers in a garage start-up who stumble on a major discovery. The film also won the festival’s main prize.
The US military is also getting involved. It has sent scientists on a film course, according to The Scientist, with the hope that they can become involved in script writing. The workshop is part of a three-year, $300000 project to improve the presentation of science in films, it reports.
With more interaction between scientists and the film industry, unhelpful stereotypes could become a thing of the past.
Karen Harries-Rees, editor