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When Hollywood Gets the Science Wrong

Team TFS
Team TFS
fgfGdfgNeil Degrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, has done as much for science outreach and communication as anyone in recent memory. His Star Talk podcast, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey documentary television series, more than 5 million Twitter followers, and multitude of books have undoubtedly raised the scientific awareness, interest, and literacy of people around the world.

Part of that effort includes his penchant for pointing out scientific inaccuracies in movies and television shows. He got James Cameron to fix the star field in the 3D version of Titanic because in the original, “…it was the wrong sky! Worse than that, it was not only the wrong sky; the left-half of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right-half of the sky!” He let loose on his Twitter account about the mistakes in the movie Gravity. He informed Jon Stewart that the globe used on The Daily Show was spinning in the wrong direction.

This is an area where I find communion with Dr. Tyson. It drives me crazy when I see bad science in mass media. Okay, I did not notice that the stars were all wrong in Titanic but I am not an astrophysicist. I am a chemist by training so my sensors are tuned to that frequency. Here are a few of my “favorites.”

My Cousin Vinny

When the FBI agent is testifying about his analysis of the rubber from the tire marks left behind by the suspects’ car, he says he used a gas chromatograph with a flame analyzation detector. Yes, the rugged, dependable, and sensitive FAD. Not to be confused with the FTD (flame thermometric detector) or the universal TID (thermal inductance detector).

The X-Files

This is actually what inspired me to write this blog post. In one of the new episodes this past year, Mulder and Scully send a bandage found at a crime scene to the lab for analysis. When they ask for the results, the chemist says he found traces of paint and shows them the Raman spectrum below. Before you read any further, how many things can you find wrong with this picture?


The first anomaly that jumped out at me was the term “vibrational spectography.” Or is it actually “vibrational spectrography” as shown in the Scan Type box at the top of the image? Personally, I would have used gas chromatroscopy…with a flame analyzation detector, of course.

Then there is the apparent use of wavelength (nm) and wavenumber (cm-1) interchangeably. And I thought cm-1 represented the Raman shift, not the Shift Raman. That’s not all! Did you notice the Insensity measurement? I assume a.u. in this case stands for absurd units.

Whew! They packed a lot of wrong in one spectrogram. I’m not well-versed in Raman spectroscopy so it’s very possible that there are more things I missed. If so, tell me what they are in the comments.

So, can anything be worse than that? For your consideration, I present to you…

Medicine Man

Sean Connery plays a research scientist working for a fictional pharmaceutical company. He has spent six years in the Amazon jungle searching for a cure for cancer and found a flower extract that he believes could contain the miracle compound but he needs to analyze it so he requests a gas chromatograph. Miraculously, he gets one, presumably with a 500-mile long extension cord and a lot of helium and hydrogen tanks, regulators, copper tubing, columns, fittings, septa, liners, syringes, and everything else needed to do GC analysis.

Okay, so he injects his sample and lo and behold, he finds things you would naturally expect to find in a plant extract and are easily volatilized, such as SiO2, NaNO3, FeCl3, and NaCl2…yes, sodium dichloride, a non-existent compound. In the midst of all these inorganics, an unknown peak appears, which the GC identifies as a large, multi-ringed organic molecule and even provides the structure! That is one amazing instrument. I would love to know two things: what GC-amenable solvent and what type of detector did he use to analyze all of the above sample components?

If you want to read even more about the scientific slip-ups in Medicine Man, check out this article on See Arr Oh’s Just Like Cooking blog.

I know that there are many, many other chemistry errors in movies and television (search #ChemMovieCarnival on Twitter). What’s your favorite film faux pas or boob-tube blunder? Next time you see bad science on the big or little screen, let me know and if I get enough examples, I’ll include them in a future article.

Oh, and if any movie or television producers happen to read this, have your people call our people. We have lots of experts who can help you get the science right.
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