Do television shows like House, Breaking Bad, and Zula Patrol -- major sources of information about science and technology for millions of people -- try to get it right? Or do they play fast and loose with the facts, images, and nuances that forge public perceptions about science and help shape young people's career decisions?
Producers and writers for some of television's most popular medical, crime, science and science fiction shows today said they do strive for accuracy and ask more scientists to get involved and lend a hand in helping TV accurately portray science. It happened at a symposium titled "Hollywood Chemistry," held, quite appropriately, as part of the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society. Among the shows represented were House, Fox; Breaking Bad, AMC; Battlestar Galactica, Syfy; Eureka, Syfy, and Zula Patrol, PBS.
"Hollywood Chemistry" is one of the special Presidential Events, enabled by Nancy B. Jackson, Ph.D. ACS president for 2011. Donna Nelson, Ph.D., a chemist adviser for the six-time Emmy Award-winning AMC Channel show Breaking Bad, who organized the program with Jackson, said Hollywood needs more scientists to volunteer to vet the scientific accuracy of scripts and storyboards.
"It's really important for scientists to work with television and movie producers and writers so that when people watch science-based shows and films they are getting accurate information," Nelson said. She is with affiliated with the University of Oklahoma and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The people who make TV shows and films really are interested in getting the science right. They are serious in striving for accuracy and realism. For example, the credits at the start of Breaking Bad feature symbols of chemical elements from the Periodic Table. The symbols Br and Ba are for the elements bromine and barium as in 'Breaking Bad'."
Nevertheless, Breaking Bad producer Vince Gilligan told Nelson that she was the only chemist who volunteered to help with the accuracy of Breaking Bad, set and produced in Albuquerque, N.M. Nelson suspects it might not be due to any lack of a spirit of volunteerism among chemists, but chemists' reluctance to affiliate themselves with Breaking Bad's storyline. The series is about a high school chemistry teacher, diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, who seeks financial security for his family by making and selling methamphetamine.
More than ever, Nelson said, with 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (IYC), chemists have the opportunity to help increase public awareness of chemistry's major role in improving everyday life.
Nelson said that the producers and writers in the symposium discussed how -- with the help of advisers -- they accurately portrayed scientists at work and suggested how chemists and other scientists can help with scripts in the future. In addition, the symposium focused on new ideas and evaluated existing ones for better communicating science to the public.
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