6Chemistry in Video, in Movies, and on the Radio

Publication Details

“Although they enjoy explosions and things like that, we get nearly as good a response from the audience in videos that show nothing but me sitting in my office.”

–Martyn Poliakoff

As pointed out in the report Learning Science in Informal Environments,1 informal or everyday science education “is the constellation of everyday activities and routines through which people often learn things related to science.” Watching short videos on the web, watching movies in a theatre or on television, or listening to radio or audio podcasts, all present venues for everyday science learning. In these venues, the author and audience do not have an explicit agenda to engage in science education; rather, this happens by way of a desire to entertain or be entertained. In this session, workshop participants heard about three examples of informal science learning, which included an introduction of significant chemistry content in video on the web, on traditional and Internet-based radio, and in cinematic movies. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham described how he and his team created the very successful Periodic Table of Videos on the Internet. Jorge Salazar of EarthSky Communications described his organization’s efforts to provide a commercial-free way for scientists to communicate. Mark Griep from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discussed his analysis of chemistry content in films.

THE PERIODIC TABLE OF VIDEOS

The first speaker of the day, via webcast, was Martyn Poliakoff, who presented from his office with his video journalist collaborator on Periodic Videos,2 Brady Haran. Haran was also videoing Poliakoff during the presentation, which was later posted on the Periodic Videos YouTube channel.3

Poliakoff explained that his research interests are mainly in green chemistry—cleaner approaches for making chemicals and materials, particularly cleaner solvents. He has carried out a lot of research in the area of supercritical fluids, highly compressed carbon dioxide, which can be used as solvents for chemical reactions. Because green chemistry has direct impacts for the public, Poliakoff and his research group have long engaged in public outreach. Dr. Sam Tang is a public awareness scientist, whose job it is to help Poliakoff and his colleagues present science to the public. For example, he showed Tang in the Victoria Shopping Centre in the center of Nottingham demonstrating supercritical fluids just before Christmas. A video of Poliakoff demonstrating supercritical fluids on YouTube was recorded by Brady Haran (Figure 6-1) on his YouTube channel called “TestTube.” It had been watched by nearly 50,000 people at the time of this workshop.

Head and shoulders photograph of Martyn Poliakoff sitting at his desk during the filming of PeriodicVideos

FIGURE 6-1

Martin Poliakoff being recorded for PeriodicVideos by collaborator Brady Haran. SOURCE: Martyn Poliakoff, University of Nottingham. ©All rights reserved by Periodic Videos.

As a result of the success of that video (Haran and Poliakoff received an award for the website), Haran got the idea of making a periodic table of videos—a website where every element would have its own video. “I told him he was completely mad,” Poliakoff said, but after some discussion Haran persuaded him it would be a good idea, and they were able to raise the funds to make the videos.

Poliakoff demonstrated how to navigate the website and YouTube channels. They began filming on June 9, 2008, and recorded the first 36 elements (at least his part of them) in 2 hours in his office. The website was completed on July 17, in slightly less than 6 weeks, because money was limited and had to be spent before the end of July. They made 120 videos, including 118 elements, a trailer, and an introductory video, with a total running time of 4 hours, 7 minutes.

Before they were finished producing the videos, they had more than a half-million hits and a lot of publicity. At the time of this workshop, they had had at least 11 million hits, but the number is not totally accurate, because it doesn’t account for instances where a class of schoolchildren have all watched at once.

They can also track the many countries in which the videos were being viewed, and many viewers provide comments. For example, one said, “I love your videos and from watching these videos I have learned more than [in] a full term of college,” and another, “Videos like these [are] what makes me interested in school and better improving myself. Thank you.” Haran actually downloaded all the comments for all the videos about 2 weeks before Poliakoff’s presentation and analyzed the words. The top 100 words in frequency they found included chemistry, element, and love, “which is quite encouraging,” Poliakoff said. Other words he mentioned were awesome, cool, and interesting, which he said “are not words that are normally associated with chemistry.”

Poliakoff showed some of the early press coverage of the website, as well as a mention of the project in an international review of UK chemistry research (by the EPSRC [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council], the UK equivalent of the National Science Foundation [NSF]). The review said, “Particularly impressive was the presentation describing online outreach, including a YouTube video on the periodic table of elements that has already received greater than a million hits worldwide.” The importance of this is that, in general, chemistry outreach is being appreciated more and more—“much more than people understand, than the researchers understand.”

Poliakoff explained more about the features of the periodicvideos website; how people can view and watch videos on the periodicvideos website, and they can also look at them on YouTube. One of the added values of YouTube is the ability to track the number of views and numbers of subscribers. About an hour before his workshop presentation, Poliakoff found that the periodicvideos YouTube channel had 25,307 subscribers. To put that number in context, he compared it to the video channel for the Kelsey Football (soccer) Club, which he said is one of the leading clubs in the United Kingdom. He noted that the soccer club had about 4,000 fewer subscribers than periodicvideos. He said, “Chemistry, at least in this context, is considerably more popular than soccer.”

In addition to the videos about the elements, the group has done special features—for example, on the medals of the Olympic games. “When the large Hadron Collider leaked helium and closed down we made the video to explain why,” Poliakoff said. For the Nobel Prize in 2008, they had nearly 40,000 hits in one week, describing what the prize was about, which was more than the official Nobel Prize video got for that week. One of the most popular videos they made was called “Candles at Halloween.”

Poliakoff discussed how they also put subtitles on video. In addition to ones in English and Spanish, he said they have more than a hundred videos subtitled in Portuguese, some in Turkish, and now even in Indonesian. Once a YouTube video is subtitled, it can be translated to other languages automatically with reasonable satisfaction. He said they are now trying to subtitle all of their videos.

Poliakoff’s team has also made an effort to go on the road and visit famous laboratories. For example, one trip was to Darmstadt, where element 111 was discovered. They also make trips to schools and conferences, and they have even collaborated with the Broadway Cinema, which is the leading private independent cinema in Nottingham. They once did a live performance at the cinema. He showed a picture of Sam Tang demonstrating dry ice on the stage at the Broadway Cinema. Because of the success of that event, they have plans to do a similar performance at other venues. They also have been involved in exhibitions, where viewing stations have been set up at a science expo or museum and people can watch the periodic videos online. Polikoff suggested that perhaps in the future the videos could be available for in-flight entertainment on airplanes.

Poliakoff highlighted the periodic videos team (Figure 6-2), and ended by saying “these videos are unique. As far as we know there is nothing else like it. There is obviously good publicity for Nottingham [but] . . . I think the most important thing of all is they make chemistry fun.”

Photograph of Martyn Poliakoff with the other members of his group who are featured in PeriodicVideos

FIGURE 6-2

Martyn Poliakoff and the Periodic Table of Videos team. SOURCE: Martyn Poliakoff, University of Nottingham. ©All rights reserved by Periodic Videos.

EARTHSKY: A CLEAR VOICE FOR SCIENCE— CHEMISTRY ON THE RADIO DIAL AND ONLINE

Jorge Salazar talked about the role that media can play in helping get the word out from scientists, and chemists especially, to a broader audience. Salazar explained that EarthSky is a Science Media Company, which started off as a radio program founded by Deborah Byrd in 1991. Byrd is also the founder of the radio program StarDate, an astronomy program, which she started in 1978. After running 5,000 episodes of StarDate, Byrd decided to branch off from astronomy.

The basic idea of what EarthSky does is to interview scientists and let them describe their research in their own words. The program is listened to in all different formats, on commercial and public radio. Salazar explained, “People who might catch a clip of our EarthSky are not necessarily listening for science, are not necessarily wanting to listen to some science, it will just kind of sneak up on them and before they know it they will have heard a little bit of EarthSky.” EarthSky was awarded the first ever award from the National Science Board for talking about research and making it relevant to people’s everyday lives.

EarthSky creates what it calls “impressions,” which refers to every encounter someone has with the program, “basically every time you hear or you see or you access” through the radio or Internet. Each month, EarthSky produces about 80 new podcasts. In addition, it produces both 90-second and 60-second radio spots to meet the needs of different radio stations. It also just started producing pieces in Spanish called “Cielo y Tierra.” Overall, EarthSky has produced close to 7,000 broadcasts, and they are all available at EarthSky. org. In addition to interviews (all podcasts are archived), EarthSky has a blogging section, which includes posts from EarthSky as well as contributing scientists. Figure 6-3 shows a screen shot of the www.earthsky.org website.

Screenshot of EarthSky website showing multiple stores about scientists, including one about a chemist titled fiKaren Goldberg trying to make natural gas more accessible fuel option

FIGURE 6-3

Screen shot of EarthSky.org. SOURCE: Jorge Salazar, EarthSky.

Salazar described the effort EarthSky makes to build networks and figure out new ways to get the voices of scientists out to the public. They have one partnership with Google, in which they have a dedicated layer on the Google Sky.4 The layer includes EarthSky audio podcasts. EarthSky links the interviews with astronomers, and the stellar object they discuss, with the coordinates for the object in Google Sky. They also want to expand to work with the Google Earth application. Other EarthSky partners that Salazar mentioned include the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the United States, many Spanish stations carry “Cielo y Tierra.” There are also satellite networks that broadcast EarthSky, such as the Voice of America and American Voices Radio. The EarthSky distribution network now includes about 2,000 affiliates worldwide, after basically starting from nothing. Salazar said, “I have been thinking about a lot of the ideas that have been presented at this workshop, and as Dr. Poliakoff has demonstrated, there is a lot of opportunity right now if you get in early before things get too structured.”

“The challenge that media face is a public that really doesn’t quite get what science is about,” Salazar said. For example, more than 100 million Americans believe that astrology is a “sort of science,”5 and 46 million Americans believe that the ocean is a source of fresh water.6 The other challenge is that the media landscape is pretty noisy. It is difficult to make a connection with people, because there are so many different organizations and companies vying for the public’s attention. At the same time, there are studies that show the public trusts scientists. Salazar mentioned a study which found that 85 percent of people surveyed think that scientific research is important.7 He said it makes sense that scientists are looked to for guidance on difficult, complicated issues such as global warming and stem cell research.8

Salazar talked about one of the series that EarthSky did, with funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, focused on scientists’ green chemistry and sustainability. The American Chemical Society helped find the right people to interview. Four researchers were asked to talk about their work, which resulted in approximately 58,000,000 radio and Internet impressions of the scientists talking about green chemistry.

Salazar described the EarthSky audience. Many listeners are from Voice of America around the world, including many listeners in China. One-third of them are via U.S. satellite, and the terrestrial stations, but a large chunk of its audience is international.

Another example of a chemistry-related series EarthSky produced with Oregon Public Broadcasting is called the Power of Small, which looked at the promise and pitfalls of nanotechnology. EarthSky interviewed scientists who were on this televised program and developed these small radio clips as well as extended interviews where people could listen to some of the issues that were being discussed in a little more depth. Salazar explained how EarthSky is constantly looking for a relevancy factor. “I think it is really important when chemists want to tell their story to be able to connect it to something that people are really interested in.”

“Radio is still relevant,” Salazar explained. Media are constantly changing, but a lot of people still listen to the radio. For example, in one week EarthSky generates about 32 million impressions, which is more people than watch American Idol. “This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, but that there are different ways to do it, and EarthSky can reach a lot of people with the messages that scientists want to give,” Salazar added.

Looking to the future, social media are where a lot of focus will be for EarthSky. This includes ways to be able to get information through mobile devices, such as iPads and iPhones. Salazar said, “Our goal is to reach more people. . . . We are looking at this new media, social media, and we are jumping headfirst.” The reasons for doing this are pretty obvious, given the growth and reach of Facebook and other media platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter. More importantly, he said, is “the people who use this media a lot tend to be well-educated and what media people call ‘influencers,’ people who influence a lot of other people. So when you can get to these people, your message can really spread quickly.”

Questions and Answers

Steve Lyons asked Salazar to estimate how many scientists interviewed by EarthSky are chemists, compared to other sciences. Salazar said he didn’t have that count, but chemistry is probably a pretty small chunk of what EarthSky has done.

Pat Thiel, Iowa State University, asked about coverage of basic versus applied research, with basic research being where the practical application is not always immediately obvious. She noted that some of the examples Salazar showed seemed to feature mostly applied research. She wondered if basic research would be “left in the dust” when it comes to communicating with new media.

Salazar replied that they don’t neglect basic research advances in science, but that one of the challenges they face is looking for relevance. He said, “You need that, otherwise people stop listening.” He mentioned one clip in a series of programs they did at Cornell University, called “Chronicles of a Science Experiment.” Over the course of a year and a half, EarthSky followed a postdoctorate chemist, Aaron Strickland, in 8-minute podcasts based on 45-minute interviews. He said the point of the podcast wasn’t to talk about any discovery or to talk about how this new thing that chemists are doing is relevant to people.” The aim was to try to show scientists as real people struggling with these really fascinating problems over a long period of time. “It was kind of a human story, but it was challenging, being able to present basic research like that,” he added.

CHEMISTRY IN THE MOVIES

Mark Griep discussed how he, in collaboration with his wife Marjorie Mikasen, wrote the book called ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies published by Oxford University Press in 2009. The research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Griep explained, “We like movies, we watch a lot of movies.” They took a list of more than 1,000 movies, watched about 400 of them, and then chose 110 movies to examine in detail for the chemical, psychological, historical, and social context. Griep also considered how a chemistry instructor might use Hollywood feature films in the classroom to teach chemistry.

“It’s Called GOOP. The Real Name Is a Foot Long”

The basis of the approach Griep took is that movies are mediators of public understanding of everything, not just science. Filmmakers create movies for different reasons, with the ultimate goal of creating something that people want to see. They might want to tell a particular story or just want to make a lot of money. He explained that movies are great at placing any theme within a social context, because movies are mostly about people. Movies show how society views and understands chemistry, because filmmakers are going to choose stereotypes that are going to be useful for driving the story forward.

The movie that got Griep and Mikasen started on their project was watching an Elvis Presley film from 1967, called Clambake. Griep described it as a generic Elvis movie, except in this case Elvis happened to be a chemist. In the movie, Elvis states, “I am an engineer,” which Griep explained means he is a chemical engineer because there are a lot of bubbling apparatuses in back of him. Elvis tries to develop a superhard, superfast drying varnish that he plans to put on a boat to win a race, which will win over his love interest and his father’s respect. “Now, this is chemistry at its finest,” Griep said.

At some point earlier in the movie Elvis says the varnish is called “GOOP, the real name is a foot long.” Elvis sings a song at one point, surrounded by beautiful women, and within the song he names the molecule, “glycol oxonic phosphate is the latest scoop, but that’s all right, girls, you can call it GOOP.”

Griep said that caught his attention. He stopped and rewound the movie to listen to the word again and then tried to draw the molecule—but could not do it. The thought of the chemical name haunted him for months. One day, he had the idea that maybe “glycol oxonic phosphate” is a special inside word that they use in the varnish industry. He did some research on varnishes and found out that one of the oldest varnishes is linseed oil, which is rich in linoleic triglyceride. He said the way that linseed oil works is you paint it on and then, slowly, oxygen from the atmosphere reacts with the double bonds to cross-link the molecules together, resulting in a hard surface. “Okay, great, I learned a little bit about varnishes because of Elvis,” he said. They then watched the movie again to see if there might be another character in this movie or maybe a prop that would provide more clues. Eventually, Griep and Mikasen came across other clues that allowed Griep to come up with the structure of an omega-3 fatty acid type epoxy, when combined together could make GOOP (Figure 6-4).

Computer drawings real chemical structures and the fictitious fiGOOPfl molecule

FIGURE 6-4

Comparison of real chemicals with the fictional “GOOP” molecule in the Elvis Presley movie Clambake. SOURCE: Mark Griep, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That experience, watching and analyzing the chemistry in Clambake, led Griep and Mikasen to start watching more movies where they thought they might find chemistry. Griep said, “By the time we had 30 movies on our list, I thought okay we are going to collect 60 total movies, that is all there is going to be in the whole world, and I am going to write this paper for the Journal of Chemical Education, and I would be done. Well, 1,500 movies are now on my list.”

Chemistry in Movies

“So what qualifies as chemistry in the movies?” asked Griep. He said that they set the bar low; there may be a character identified as a chemist or sometimes a chemical engineer. A character might mention an element, isotope, compound, or anything simple. “But you need rules for exclusion,” Griep said “because some things are so ubiquitous,” such as gold, diamonds, and water. However, he said that sometimes gold is interesting. For example, Iron Man is a gold-titanium alloy.

To select what to include in the book, Griep and Mikasen made a list of movies they watched that might be interesting and then considered the criteria, “Is it recent? Is there enough chemistry to talk about? Is it a pretty good movie? Are there other elements in this movie?” Using these criteria, they whittled the list down to about 70 movies and then grouped them according to some main themes represented in the movies.

Griep and Mikasen grouped the movies they watched into a dark side and a bright side and according to chemical theme, as shown in Table 6-1. Roughly, about 50 percent of the time chemists and chemistry are presented in a positive way, and 50 percent of the time they are presented in a negative way. He said this essentially breaks down according to genres; the chemistry in horror, sci-fi, and drama tends to be negative, while the chemistry in comedy tends to be positive.

TABLE 6-1. Themes and Genres of the Movies Discussed in Griep’s and Mikasen’s Book ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies.

TABLE 6-1

Themes and Genres of the Movies Discussed in Griep’s and Mikasen’s Book ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies.

After conducting their research on movies, Griep and Mikasen were surprised to find three things:

  1. There are many chemists and a great deal of chemistry in the movies.
  2. Fictional chemicals in the movies are based on real chemicals.
  3. There are many women chemists in the movies.

Griep explained that when chemists appear in movies, they tend to have a white lab coat, they work obsessively, and they typically have colored solutions bubbling in the apparatus behind them. When chemists are portrayed on the bright side, they tend to be professors, inventors, criminologists, or researchers. Professors will be involved in explosions as a result of synthesizing a product that solves a personal problem. Inventor characters often want to create a commercially viable oxymoronic product, such as a nonsticking glue or elastic glass. Criminologists use chemistry to eliminate possibilities; however, Griep said, they don’t solve the problem. “How do you solve murder mysteries in movies? Intuition, it is always intuition, it has nothing to do with chemistry.” The ultimate glorifying version of chemistry in the movies, he said, is “the researcher who is working on something good to solve society’s problems. And I think everyone in this room would be happy if all chemistry in the movies had this image of chemists’ solving problems.”

Griep explained that there is a great deal of chemistry in the movies. For example, in the 1992 film Medicine Man, a botanist goes to South America for a couple of years to work for a pharmaceutical company and look for anticarcinogens. He is then joined by a biochemist named Dr. Rae Crane, who fires up her gas chromatography (GC) mass spectrometer to analyze samples in the middle of the South American jungle. Somehow they are able to determine that one of the compounds (“Peak 37”) in their mixture has anticancer activity. They show the wonderful chemical structure of the compound (Figure 6-5), a fictional molecule, that Griep said is chemically correct—that is, no rules of chemistry are broken, such as a carbon with five bonds.

Computer drawn chemical structure of a fictional anticancer drug, indentified as fiPeak 37fl in the 1992 movie Medicine Man

FIGURE 6-5

Structure of a fictional anticancer drug in the 1992 film Medicine Man. SOURCE: Mark Griep, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The second major surprise for Griep and Mikasen was that the fictional chemicals are for the most part based on real chemicals. For example, the 1961 version of the movie Absentminded Professor introduced “flubber.” The main character (played by Fred McMurray) sees the equation H = E − P on his blackboard, but it should be H = E + P. So the professor adjusts the dials on the machine he has for it to be plus, not minus, and it explodes and he makes rubber that flies. Griep looked for clues in this movie and noticed a notebook where the professor wrote the structure of butadiene (rubber). He said, “So ‘flubber’ is flying rubber, based on real rubber. This is 1961 and World War II, a lot of synthetic rubbers, this is fantastic stuff.”

The third surprise was that there are many women chemists in the movies. Figure 6-6 shows the number of movies they found featuring a woman as a chemist versus time and the percentage of physical sciences doctorates earned by women in the United States. Griep said, “You can see that in 1920 the first woman chemist made her appearance, and then from 1930 to about 1965 there were quite a few; it dropped down to very low numbers and then [they] made their appearance again in 1995, and they are going up. And it is continuing to go up, with actually a very good increase in women chemists in the movies.”

Graph comparing percent of physical sciences PhDs earned by women in the United States and number of movies featuring a woman as a chemist in five-year intervals from 1920 to 2004

FIGURE 6-6

Women chemists in the movies. Number of movies featuring a woman as a chemist versus percentage of physical sciences Ph.D.s earned by women in the United States. SOURCE: Mark Griep, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“But this does not reflect at all the percentage of women in the physical sciences who are receiving Ph.D.s in chemistry,” Griep said. The number of women earning Ph.D.s was low during the period when there were many women chemists in the movies; now, he said, “they are very high and the movies have lagged behind. Socially, making movies has lagged behind in terms of the women chemists.”

Griep listed the names of some of the movies featuring women chemists: The Blooming Angel (1920), Beauty for the Asking (1939), Wink of an Eye (1958), and Caprice (1966). However, he said, “if you go to an Internet movie database and you type in chemist you are not going to find these four movies,” because each movie involves a woman making cosmetics. Another category of women chemists in movies he described is where female chemists have a masculine or gender-neutral name, such as Dr. Rae Crane in Medicine Man.

Griep said he believes the future of chemistry in movies is very bright given recent trends. For example, he said 2009 was a great year for chemistry in the movies. All of the following movies had some chemistry (a lot of it on the bright side) featured in them: Married Life; Duplicity; Good Hair; Whatever Works; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; The Informant!; Moon; Avatar; District 9; and Sherlock Holmes. He also noted that the actors portraying chemists continue to become more diverse, and there are more women and more people of color who are chemists in the movies.

Griep ended by mentioning that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has funded the Science Screenwriting Programs and awards, which has supported the production of many chemistry films. In addition, he noted that the National Academy of Sciences now has the Science and Entertainment Exchange,9 “which tries to bring scientists in collaboration with filmmakers to improve the content or come up with the best type of scientific themes that you could put in the movies—what are the most engaging themes.”

OPEN DISCUSSION 5

Poliakoff commented that his brother is a playwright and that he had to write some chemistry text for his brother’s play that was performed by the National Theater in the United Kingdom. Polikoff said, “On the opening night I was the only person in the audience who burst out laughing when one of the characters said ‘hectofloral isopropanol.’”

Bill Carroll asked Poliakoff about going from fun and exciting videos to instilling a real interest in chemistry. He said, “My question is, Do you see any transference from the people who enjoy the brief videos about the elements, to an interest in doing reactions with them, and doing more chemistry?”

Poliakoff said they have not done any research but have just looked at people’s responses to the videos. They found that although viewers enjoy explosions and things like that, they get nearly as good a response from the audience in videos that show nothing but Poliakoff sitting in his office. One of the most popular videos he has made is one on the “Chemistry of Candles,” which shows Poliakoff lighting a candle and blowing it out in his office.

A lot of people are very interested in videos, but it is difficult to know whether this translates into an actual lasting interest, Polikoff noted. He showed an e-mail posted by a Korean student, who said that people in his chemistry class thought it was really boring and that chemistry is pointless until they had seen the videos and found that chemistry was really interesting.

Brady Haran said they find a lot of interest in the films where they blow things up or do something that might be a bit fun and crazy, but there is also interest in ones where they are just talking through something quite scientific and dense. A lot of the people who first stumble over a video that had an explosion in it have said, “I like the explosion but I also liked what that crazy-haired professor was saying in between the explosion, I’m going to watch more of this.” “They subscribe [to the YouTube channel] and they become long-term viewers. And they may have been pulled in by something spectacular, but then they get into the more dense chemistry.”

Following up on Griep’s talk, Bill Carroll observed that the “Jekyll and Hyde” metaphor also applies to the discussions about the perception of chemistry—the Jekyll side that chemists want to promote versus the Hyde side that they get stuck with a lot.

Sharon Haynie commented on the stealth characteristic of radio, where listeners tend to listen passively, in contrast to watching a video or playing a game, which tends to involve people intentionally seeking out the content. Radio can catch listeners by surprise as one program transitions to another. She asked Salazar to discuss how EarthSky is transitioning from building the surprise to building an intentional listening audience.

Salazar replied that they are still trying to figure that out. They have had success in building up the broadcast network but are still learning about social media—YouTube, Twitter, and others. He said, “There are people who want to learn more about things like chemistry, about things like science, they love hearing this stuff from the scientists themselves. They don’t necessarily like people like me, the media, telling them about this kind of stuff. They want Einstein to tell them about chemistry, I guess, in some ways, Dr. Poliakoff.” EarthSky tries to show that there are a lot of different people who are doing science. “We are still building, and we are still learning,” he added.

Poliakoff commented that there are about 1,000 people following periodicvideos on Twitter. “I think that I would never get the research done,” he said, but Brady posts to Twitter quite regularly, and they now have about 1,000 followers and a similar number of fans on Facebook. He noted the people who do subscribe really seem to stay as followers, and from their comments it is evident that they have watched quite a lot of the videos.

Nancy Blount, American Chemical Society, asked Griep if, from his work analyzing chemistry in the movies, he thinks that an effective message about chemistry is being delivered. Griep responsed: “I think usually the chemistry that is presented in these movies is correct,” such as the molecule in Medicine Man. However, the public does not know it is chemically correct. They also do not know that it is a fictional molecule.

When movies use chemistry, it is because they know the public is going to accept it as true. In general, the public has no way of judging whether it is true, since they really do not have the chemical knowledge. Griep thinks the reason there is so much chemistry in these comedies is that the filmmakers can say these true chemical things, and then add a little bit of gobbledygook to make it fictional, such as some special property. Then they build their comedy on that.

“I think one thing that we can do as chemists is to use these movie clips in the classroom,” Griep said. Everybody watches movies, and they probably know more about movie actors than they know about chemistry. He said that if these movie clips were shown in the classroom, there would be an automatic connection between chemistry and movies, and that would link into the larger network most people have with movies. It then provides an opportunity to explain the real chemistry, “and people always love that,” said Griep.

Poliakoff added that a simple explanation for why chemistry is correct in films is because chemistry is difficult to make up. It is like somebody having characters speak a foreign language in a film—it has to be correct.

Footnotes

1

National Research Council. 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

2

For more information, see www​.periodicvideos.com/. Also, see S. Rittter. 2008. Elements Achieve Internet Stardom. Chemical and Engineering News 86(37):42–43.

3

www​.youtube.com/periodicvideos#p​/u/42/6yT8kvHlgeg.

4

For more information, see www​.google.com/sky/ (accessed April 27, 2011).

5

National Science Foundation, 2006. Public Attitudes Survey.

6

National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, 2005. Environmental Literacy in America.

7

Virginia Commonwealth University. Center for Public Policy Survey, 2001, 2006.

8

University of Chicago, 2006. National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey,

9

For more information, see www​.scienceandentertainmentexchange.org/ (accessed January 27, 2011).