Friday, December 23, 2016

How We Got From Doc Brown to Walter White

The changing image of the TV scientist.

At the start of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, Walter White angrily watches an inexperienced meth cook make his trademark blue meth. Walter is afraid that mob boss Gus Fring is going to kill him, so he desperately explains that Fring can’t make the “product” without him. When the amateur cook, Victor, says he knows every step of the process, Walter snarls, “So, please, tell me. Catalytic hydrogenation—is it protic or aprotic? Because I forget. And if our reduction is not stereospecific, then how can our product be enantiomerically pure?”

Walter’s scientific knowledge saves him. The ruthless Fring slits Victor’s throat with a box cutter.

Over the course of Breaking Bad, Walter unravels from a frustrated chemistry teacher to a brutal criminal. But no matter how horrible he gets, viewers can’t help but relate to and care about him. Much of this sense of connection comes from lead actor Bryan Cranston’s skillful portrayal of a troubled family man, but it was Breaking Bad creator and head writer Vince Gilligan who conceived the character. He imagined a scientist who is mad without turning him into a mad scientist.

Part of Walter’s appeal is he knows his science. “Vince tried to get the chemistry correct as much as he could, just to make it more believable,” says Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. As Breaking Bad’s science advisor, Nelson helped him achieve that goal. (Her favorite scene in the series is Walter’s sarcastic rejoinder to Victor.) Although they were careful to never give viewers the exact or complete recipe for meth, the chemical reactions are real, and if someone were to synthesize methamphetamine by altering other chemical’s structures, they would indeed want to make sure the end product is enantiomerically pure: The three-dimensional structure of methamphetamine works on the brain in a certain way to get you high, but the enantiomer, or mirror image, of the same molecule does not.

Breaking Bad is among a host of acclaimed shows in recent times with scientists as protagonists. Westworld, Orphan Black, Masters of Sex, CSI, Bones, House, The Big Bang Theory, and several others have all written scientists as diverse and complex humans who have almost nothing in common with the scientists I saw in the 1980s movies I watched as a kid. Gone is the lone genius with a shed full of goofy contraptions and bubbling liquids. Today’s fictional researchers work in realistic labs, with high-tech equipment, and in teams with others. Their dialogue is scattered with words from the latest scientific literature, and they have so much depth and personality that they carry entire shows.

The change in TV offers insight into the image and impact of scientists today, say communication scholars. Although recent headlines may have been dominated by people who bend scientific facts into the molds of their personal ideologies, surveys reveal a deep public esteem for scientists. Viewers now want and demand their scientists to be realistic, and what the viewer wants, Hollywood delivers. As a result, scientists on screen have evolved from stereotypes and villains to credible and positive characters, due in part to scientists themselves, anxious to be part of the action and the public’s education. (...)

In 1985, George Gerbner, a communications professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, led a remarkably detailed study of scientist characters on TV and their impact on culture. Scientists were smart and rational, the report noted, but of all the occupational roles on TV, scientists were the least sociable. In fact, 1 in 6 scientists were portrayed as villains. All in all, the report stated, scientists “presented an image lacking in some respects only in comparison to doctors and other professionals than in absolute terms. But it is a somewhat foreboding image, touched with a sense of evil, trouble, and peril.” Apparently those characters had a negative impact on viewers, especially “heavy viewers,” people who watched four or more hours of TV a day, cultivating an unfavorable orientation toward science.

But things have been looking up for unsociable TV scientists touched with evil. A 2011 study by Anthony Dudo and colleagues, published in Communication Research, takes up where Gerbner and colleagues left off. The authors compared several professions portrayed in prime-time TV shows and found that in the period from 2000 to 2008, only 3 percent of scientist characters were considered “bad,” less than any other TV profession in that period. Portrayals of TV scientists, the authors noted, are mostly positive, and what’s more, heavy viewing can “enhance attitudes toward science for people who share common experiences.”

What happened? Roslynn Haynes, an adjunct associate professor at the School of English, Media and Performing Arts of the University of New South Wales, has studied the representation of scientists in fiction. The world has changed since the 1960s, she says, when one-dimensional mad scientists or goofy side characters ruled. We have different things to worry about these days: political corruption, terrorism, climate change. “We don’t need the scientists to be the bad guys anymore,” says Haynes. “There are so many other bad guys now.” She points out that scientists are now often the ones we turn to for solutions. “We know we need scientists to fix up the mess we’re making of the planet. If there’s any hope at all, it has to come from scientists who monitor the risk and are able to find ways to overcome that risk. Whereas before, scientists were seen as part of the risk.” (...)

It didn’t take long for fictional on-screen scientists to catch up with this new attitude toward their profession. Eight years after Doc Emmett Brown sent his mad invention traveling through time in Back to the Future, scientists in Jurassic Park enthralled visitors with creatures from the past. But something was different now. Although Doc Brown’s chaotic goofiness was still acceptable for scientist characters in 1985, the paleontologists in Jurassic Park (1993) were held to a much higher standard. They did work that viewers recognized as having some root in reality: Dinosaurs, DNA, clean labs with professional lab notebooks. Although it’s not possible to retrieve viable DNA from dinosaur blood in a mosquito trapped in amber, the idea isn’t entirely implausible. Just this month, real paleontologists found a feathered, amber-encased dinosaur tail fragment, in which they detected traces of iron from its blood.

David Kirby, a senior lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester, and author of the 2011 book Lab Coats in Hollywood, points to Jurassic Park as the film that marked the start of the trend of scientific realism in movies. The film had incredible visual effects, and they brought in experts to get the scientific details in place. When the film was a box office success, other films tried to copy this attention to realistic detail. They saw that audiences liked it, so why not do the same?

It fit an ongoing trend of increased “realism” across all genres, explains Kirby. “When you’re talking about realism in the context of fiction, you’re not just talking about ‘Did they get the appropriate watch for a particular time period?’ or ‘Did they get the right equipment to do a piece of scientific work?’ The realism is all of it: the ways in which the characters act, the context in which they’re acting.” Filmmakers, Kirby says, “are paying attention to everything in terms of that realism, to try to convey the notion that this is taking place in a world that seems realistic.”

by Eva Amsen, Nautilus |  Read more:
Image: Breaking Bad