Scientist’s book links chemistry to big screen

Aug 20th, 2009 | By | Category: August 20, 2009, Campus News, Issue

It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, chemistry-style.

How is an associate professor at UNL connected to Elvis Presley, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and, yes, Kevin Bacon?

By his new book, “ReAction: Chemistry in the Movies.”

With its publication Aug. 12, chemist Mark Griep and his wife and co-author Marjorie Mikasen have linked the theoretical and scientific concepts of chemistry to generations of filmmakers and movie stars.

“From the silent era through today, it is clear that chemistry has always been in the movies,” reads the book introduction. “In fact, chemical themes and characters have been capturing the imaginations of audiences for more than a century. They appear in surprising and significant ways and have generated some of the most enduring fictions and motifs in movie history, and thus in the culture at large.”

Mark Griep
Mark Griep, associate professor of chemistry, has published a new book, “ReAction: Chemistry in the Movies.” The book outlines links between chemistry and more than 110 movies. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communications.

From “Dr. Strangelove” to “The Nutty Professor” and “Spider-Man,” Griep began cataloging and categorizing film appearances of chemistry and chemists about a decade ago, in an effort to engage his students and satisfy his own curiosity about Hollywood’s representations of the field. To compose “ReAction’s” 10 chapters, he and Mikasen pared down a list of 1400 films featuring chemistry to a more manageable 110.

Griep and Mikasen’s research was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Public Understanding of Science Program. After watching and re-watching hundreds of films, they determined that chemistry in the movies can be divided into five dualities: Dr. Jekyll vs. inventor chemists, the invisible man vs. forensic chemists, chemical weapons vs. classroom chemistry, chemical companies that knowingly pollute the environment vs. altruistic research chemists trying to make the world a better place to live, and people who choose to experiment with mind-altering drugs vs. the drug discovery process.

“The first five chapters focus on the dark side of chemistry, and then the last five are the bright side,” Griep said. “People reading the book might be disturbed that we’ve put the chemistry into dark and bright sides, implying that chemistry as a field has these two sides, but really we’re looking at what movies have to say about chemistry. Science is neutral, but practitioners are not necessarily neutral, and that’s what movies show.”

In the book, the authors note, “The somewhat innocuous subject matter of movies might seem an unlikely place to explore the complexity of moral issues and personal responsibility related to the science of chemistry. Taken as a whole, however, the movies described in this book show a wide range of the possibilities of action and agency in the moral dimension.”

The book has been incubating since 2000, and in recent years, Griep has utilized films to help first-year students understand the science and philosophies of chemistry. He hooks them on the first day of class with a scene from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” His collection of film clips serves as a teaching tool on a gamut of theoretical questions – What’s so compelling about the moral of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story that keeps drawing filmmakers back for more re-adaptations? – and scientific queries, such as, “How would you calculate how much lithium hydroxide is needed to sustain three astronauts on-board Apollo 13?”

Mark Griep
Mark Griep without his mad scientist glasses. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communications.

Griep’s efforts have been rewarded with stellar student evaluations, and earlier this year he received a College Distinguished Teaching Award from UNL’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also speaks frequently at conferences on the importance of using pop culture as a supplemental teaching tool. Griep sees middle- and high-school chemistry teachers as the primary audience for his book, and believes they can utilize his research to engage students at younger ages.

— By Sara Gilliam, University Communications

“ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies” (hardback, 352 pages) is available through the Oxford University Press (

griep book cover

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