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Science And Dramatic Art: Any Intersections?

Someone asked me this the other day, and I’ve never had a good answer for it. Has there ever been a realistic, compelling depiction of of what it’s like to do scientific research in any movie, TV show, or play? My own answer is that while the number of dramatic works that have mishandled the subject are beyond counting, there are still many that manage to deal with scientific topics in a reasonable way. But how many of them are able to depict what it’s actually like to be a scientist?
Perhaps the problem is that “realistic” and “compelling” are almost impossible to achieve at the same time for a wider audience. WIthout the background, you’re at one remove (at least) to the real topic, and to the real experience. What happens is that the authors have to start out by saying, implicitly, “We’ll stipulate that this is important. . .”, or “Trust me, the protagonist finds this interesting. . .”, and that’s a big handicap to start off with. At least it is compared to the standard materials of human drama, which range from Shakespeare, Chekhov, etc. at the top to some sort of “Babies in Danger!” movie on the Lifetime channel at the bottom.
So most of the well-regarded depictions of science and scientists tend to borrow human interest in order to spice things up. There has to be conflict between strong personalities, a love story entanglement, or flat-out good guys and bad guys to give the audience someone to root for. It’s true that there are episodes in scientific history that involve these things, but the science part of the story isn’t about them. It’s about ideas, and the manipulation of ideas is very, very hard to get across. (Montherlant said that “Happiness writes white”, but scientific abstraction writes whiter than that).
It would be a wonderful thing if anyone could really make a reader or viewer feel what it was like to be an obscure patent clerk in Switzerland, surpassing Newton in your spare time. Or what it was really like for Watson and Crick when they heard that Linus Pauling had a DNA structure coming out, and when they then realized that it was wrong. Or what it must have been like for Alvarez and co-workers as the meaning of the iridium anomaly crept up on them. Or just what it’s like for a grad student in chemistry, getting the result that means the definite end of their project and realizing that yes, this really is it.
But these are mental states, intimately tangled with a wealth of obscure details and high-level reasoning. They aren’t built out of words, and their key steps aren’t physical actions, so conveying them with words and physical actions is a major challenge. It’s not possible to really get across what it must have been like to be Einstein. What sort of writer would you have to be? But just explaining things at one remove is hard, too: what sort of writer do you have to be to get across (say) the feeling of that self-referential tail-biting mathematical move that’s at the heart of Gödel’s incompleteness proof? To a reader who doesn’t have much of any math?
And I’ve made it this far without even mentioning the other tough part, the pace at which these things move. Watson and Crick looped in and around the question of DNA structure for a couple of years before hitting on the solution – try turning that into a faithful hour-long TV special. Even without the mental gymnastics problem, those sorts of time courses are hard to dramatize.
But who’s come closest? Nominations for artistic works of all kinds in the comments (TV, movies, books, plays), and in all fields of science. We’re going to have to cast the net as widely as possible to come up with some good ones.

124 comments on “Science And Dramatic Art: Any Intersections?”

  1. Slurpy says:

    Jurassic Park

  2. Chemjobber says:

    I’m going to nominate my old standby, “Lorenzo’s Oil.” The conflict between the Odones and the academic (Peter Ustinov?) is all made-up Hollywood, but Augusto Odone’s excitement at figuring out the biochemistry of lipid synthesis with the paperclips is a little bit of what you’re talking about.
    Also, the pleasure that Don Suddaby (actually played by Don Suddaby) in distilling erucid acid was palpable for sure.

  3. NKM says:

    The BBC equivalent of PBS’s Nova, called Horizons, produced a very good version of “The Double Helix” a number of years ago, and you can stream it for free here:
    Jeff Goldblum plays Watson, and is actually quite good 🙂 It always made me think that one could hold a “Jeff Goldblum DNA Film Festival” featuring this film along with the remake of “The Fly” and Slurpy’s fav, “Jurassic Park”.

  4. PharmaIP says:

    The 1936 movie The Story of Louis Pasteur was a very good biopic about the rabies vaccine and incredulity in the local medical community.

  5. Wavefunction says:

    Although I find it a bit too melodramatic in parts I love “Lorenzo’s Oil” too. If we are talking about movies based on real life science I would also nominate “And the Band Played On”, “Extraordinary Measures” (a bit like Lorenzo’s Oil), “Gravity” as well as the book “The Billion Dollar Molecule” (which contains a fair amount of dramatized but quite accurate and detailed science). There’s also the plays “Breaking the Code” based on Alan Turing’s life and “Copenhagen” based on the controversial Bohr-Heisenberg meeting of 1941.

  6. johnnyboy says:

    I think the short answer to the question is NO. There is no way you can convey the full experience of scientific research in a movie or TV series for the greater public. Works that are set in a research environment always end up using science as just a vaguely brainy backdrop to a love story, or to a contrived hero vs villain drama.
    This said, I did enjoy some pieces that have a sciencey setting. The HBO movie on Einstein was very watchable, though it did cover his love life much more extensively than general relativity. And Soderbergh’s “Contagion”, even though not strictly about research, was extremely realistic and uncompromising (and scarier than any horror movie) in the way it depicted the various aspects of a worldwide pandemic.

  7. Chimaera says:

    If we’re talking books, then Simon Singh’s “Fermat’s Last Theorem” is well worth a read. It’s an excellent account of Andrew Wiles’ odyssey in proving the titular theorem. (Come to think of it, any of Singh’s work that I’ve read has been very good!)

  8. anonymous says:

    “Arrowsmith” (by Sinclair Lewis) does a pretty good job covering the state of medical science in the 1920s and even puts it in some social context.
    There is a great scene in the movie “The French Connection” that demonstrates the use of a melting point to determine the purity of heroin. The technique is somewhat botched, but the basic idea is there. I would guess that only science-minded viewers appreciate what is happening in the scene.

  9. crni says:

    A Beautiful Mind came close in the depiction of frustration of graduate student experience. Also in characterizing Chemistry as “too much hand work” 🙂

  10. C says:

    I’d say that “Something the Lord Made” (2004) gives a sense of the arduous path that medical discoveries take. The movie does a good job revealing the physical and mental challenges of performing new and delicate surgical procedures.

  11. Cato the Elder says:

    @10 Was about to put that one down too… Alan Rickman was great in that movie

  12. Anonymous says:

    Surely the Spy Game’s use of the GSK Stevenage site was one of the most useful and accurate things to come out of there for a while?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Big Bang Theory.

  14. pfired says:

    Zombies wandering around Pfizer Sandwich in world war Z

  15. JS says:

    ‘Primer’, as a movie about time travel, obviously deals with unrealistic science. It starts with two guys trying to build an artificial gravity generator in their garage (and failing), so it’s not about the clean professional lab kind of science either. However, the first part of the movie shows the process really well, with two physicists/engineers desperately trying to figure out what the hell their machine actually does when they turn it on.
    It also starts with 15 minutes of pure, unleaded technobabble about quantum physics and superconductivity, so ye be warned.

  16. John Wayne says:

    I’m going to put in another vote for Big Bang Theory. Being a scientist is a lot like being a regular person with an odd job, but your friends and coworkers tend to be a lot more eccentric.
    The chemists have more hair-raising stories about accidents at work, and the MS/PhD’s bond over the horrible things their advisers did and said. Other than that, we have the same interpersonal issues at work as anybody else, but they express themselves in weird ways; like, “I can’t believe labmate X just left the balance covered in powder again.”

  17. curryworks says:

    The fight of an American chemistry corporation struggling with foreign CRO’s

  18. Anonymous says:

    A saw a movie once that showed a guy sitting at his desk for two hours writing grant proposals while waiting for a gel to finish.
    Oh wait, that wasn’t a movie.

  19. swattie91 says:

    I’d like to make a case for the play ‘Arcadia’ by Tom Stoppard. Science plays an central role in this piece that New York Times author Brad Leithauser called “the finest play written in my lifetime”. While I agree that no piece of art can “convey the full experience of scientific research”, what Arcadia does capture is the passion of its adherents and the mis-steps and tentative forward progress of research. Importantly, it connects this process and the passion for discovery not only across academic disciplines, but also across time. In this sense it captures the true essence of scientific inquiry without getting bogged down in the particulars of how it is practiced in any particular period of time or in any particular field. Any seconds for this nomination?

  20. rtw says:

    Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, a 1940 film starring Edward G. Robinson, based on the true story of Dr. Paul Ehrlich. One of the best I think concerning early medicinal chemistry attempts.

  21. Anon says:

    Young Einstein with Yahoo Serious. Gotta love splitting a beer atom

  22. anon says:

    The primary backstory to Breaking Bad was that Walter White was a promising young scientist whose peers surpassed him and became successful while Walter became a high school chemistry teacher. The resentment festered in Walter and as he became involved in meth he saw how successful and powerful he could be, which he missed out on as a grad student and post grad school. Breaking Bad, less the blue meth, dealt with science and the wounded psyche of a failed academic in wonderful, but very dark, way.

  23. Am I Lloyd says:

    Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Breaking Bad

  25. Anonymous says:

    I guess “Breaking Bad” is not too realistic in that a chemist is employed throughout in a high paying job…
    Neither was “Medicine Man”, although they had glimmers of science buried in the nonsense.
    And “The Constant Gardener” was the worst depiction of drug discover and clinical trials that I have ever imagined. That story was bad in so many ways and the movie was even worse.
    I agree that A Beautiful Mind was a great story of university studies.
    But face it, daily chemistry in the lab is mostly boring work-a lot of slow, monotonous work to find a new compound or medicine. The most excitement we get is usually the kind we don’t want, an accident, fire or spill.

  26. Andy says:

    A couple of years ago we came up with an extensive list of films that were all about chemistry. Probably.
    These are some of my favourites
    Life of Brine
    Terminator Solvation
    Ferrous Bueller’s Day Off
    The Wizard of Osmium
    Dangerous Lithiations
    Yield of Dreams
    Seven Borides for Seven Brothers
    NMR of the State
    Science of the Labs
    Spatula party
    Also a musical: Mass specs of Love

  27. series_junkie says:

    There’s a Canadian TV series called ReGenesis about a molecular biology lab. It is a little bit more serious than spinning colorful eppendorf tubes and getting DNA sequencing data out of the centrifuge like you see on CSI. Still, if you’re working in the lab you’ll most likely find it disturbing for a simple reason – who wants to get back home and watch a movie about work?

  28. A Nonny Mouse says:

    There was a pretty good BBC production on the development of penicillin a few years back (“Breaking the Mould”).
    Having bumped (literally) into Chain a few times, the portrayal of him was excellent.

  29. Jim Whitson says:

    How about Hoffmann’s play about oxygen?
    I’m not chemist enough to say if it’s scientifically accurate, but if Hoffmann wrote it it ought to be!

  30. CMCguy says:

    I 2nd #20 rtw on the old Dr Ehlich Magic Bullet as decant portrait of the scientific process and would add another of similar vintage with the 1943 Madame Currie even focus is on the beginnings of relationship with Pierre has some good expressions of science and lab efforts.
    In terms of iterative invention and dedication there is a recent BBC movie “Longitude” (2000) that details John Harrison’s attempts in late 1700s to create accurate time pieces (chronometers) that would allow ships to navigate more precisely. I found both good story and drama (that did not know about) with many scientific and engineering concepts integrated, particularly areas involving astronomy and metallurgy.

  31. Anonymous says:

    The Double Helix, though more of a dramatized documentary on the discovery of DNA than a “movie” as such.

  32. Anonymous says:

    “The Billion-Dollar Molecule” by Barry Werth is an obvious pick.

  33. Anon says:

    I also recommend the play Arcadia, the passion of the tutor to teach, of Thomasina to learn and describe the world with “formulas” is a quite accurate description of how we feel arriving to the lab on a new project, before the grantstorm and datathunder hit the fan … 🙂

  34. Anonymous says:

    Here it is, with Jeff Goldenbum:

  35. Anonymous says:

    “The Billion-Dollar Molecule” by Barry Werth is an obvious pick.

  36. Anonymous says:

    “Naturally obsessed: the making of a scientist”
    Short, but entertaining

  37. annon 2 says:

    When in grad school and post doc, I wanted to come up with a tv show set in a working lab environment, where the center characters were “relatively” normal (you know, worked hard in a lab, had no dates and questionable relationships or social life, you know the type) but found themselves involved in the antics and foibles of other students, along with the various events showing the feet of mud of “prestigious professors”. Events related to their relationships, anxieties, odd habits….would have made a great reality comedy.

  38. drug_hunter says:

    #26 (Andy) wins the thread!
    I second “breaking the mould” – very well done.

  39. Anonymous says:

    A French movie “Les palmes de Monsieur Schutz” depicts the discovery of radioactivity by Pierre and Marie Curie. It’s a comedy but science is well presented. Also, the conflict between the Curies and their boss, Mr Schutz, who is only interested by quick (but small) scientific results would talk to anyone who worked in a lab… Don’t know if it’s possible to find it with English subtitle.

  40. Rock says:

    @7 NOVA also made a documentary on Fermat’s last theorem with Andrew Wiles playing himself. It was excellent. You really felt the highs and lows, especially when he realized he had make an error on his first “proof” after going public. I think you can still find it on Youtube.

  41. Pete says:

    #26 Andy
    I did the same with songs a few years back
    Blame it on the Buchi
    Fluoride on time
    Sulphones of Swing
    The Grubbs Don’t Work
    Under Pressure
    We Will BOC You
    Get Your FMOCs Off
    Tainted Glove
    All sung by The Aspartic Monkeys
    Too much time on our hands?

  42. jtd7 says:

    I heartily endorse Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” in this list. There is an excellent production playing in Philadelphia right now, I have seen it twice. The last scene of this play brings me to tears every time. I have trouble explaining that I’m crying for the second law of thermodynamics.
    A college friend who is an actress asked me this question a long time ago, and I had a great deal of trouble coming up with an answer. The only movie I came up with at that time was “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” One character is a wildlife biologist and you see him collecting dung samples in several scenes. It’s one of the few examples of a movie scientist doing actual work instead of standing in front of a chalkboard and pontificating.
    One commentor suggested the TV movie “And The Band Played On.” I have to respectfully disagree that it depicts scientists realistically. In one scene, Matthew Modine walks into his lab at the NIH and announces, “I just got a letter from a guy in France. He has identified the virus that causes AIDS.” Everyone at the bench throws their hands in the air and shouts “Hooray!” In real-life the reactions at that moment would range from “Oh, yeah? What’s his evidence?” to “Shit!”

  43. I always like “Duplicity”, in which Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are industrial spies trying to steal the formula for a hair growth cream. The movie completely overlooks the FDA clinical trial process, so you have to fault it for that, but just when you think that Hollywood got it wrong (you actually get to see the structure of the secret chemical), it turns out you’ve been duped too and they did get it right!
    Only chemists get that extra round of duping, in a moving that is full of duplicities.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Surprised that no one has mentioned the documentary “Particle Fever” yet. Although it played up the experimentalist vs. theorist angle a bit much, I felt it was a nice look at big science.
    I’m sure that there’s a lot of muck and conflict that was left out though.

  45. fmrNatProdChemist says:

    Medicine Man was interesting in that it at least tried to capture the kind of work I was doing in grad school, though I was never successful in convincing my wife that Sean Connery’s character was loosely based on my life. She was even more skeptical when I tried convincing her that Sean Connery’s character in the James Bond movies was loosely based on my life…

  46. A Nonny Mouse says:
    Breaking the mould- well worth the watch

  47. Algirdas says:

    Carl Djerassi has written several novels of what he calls “science-in-fiction” genre. I’ve read “NO”. As a novel it was not too great, characters a bit one dimensional, one could even say primitive. Science aspect, centering on treatment for erectile dysfunction, was enjoyable.
    Off topic, but for those that enjoy hard science in their recreational reading, Greg Egan’s science fiction novels are great. Pick any one.
    Also, John Wyndham’s SF novel from 1953, “The Kraken Wakes” is an interesting item. A remarkably lucid depiction of a mysterious alien invasion of the Earth. None of retarded Hollywood explosions; rather, a description of confused attempts to figure out a series of puzzling, hostile and frightening events.

  48. Chemjobber says:

    I second #36’s “Naturally Obsessed.” It’s quite a good film and a realistic look at academic life science, including the text overlay that “Protagonist grad student gets a postdoc at institution X” at the end of the movie.

  49. Tom says:

    Reanimator – The grad student is psychologically damaged, his PI steals his research, the dean is a brain-dead zombie and the pencil snapping scene in the lecture hall is great. Highly recommended for Halloween.

  50. Ted says:

    @44 Yep, I think Particle Fever was one of the more well-executed science oriented movies I’ve seen.
    I wouldn’t discount “Awakenings” either. How about this set of lines:
    Dr. Sayer: [in job interview] It was an immense project. I was to extract 1 decagram of myelin from 4 tons of earth worms.
    Dr. Sullivan: Really!
    Dr. Sayer: Yes. I was on the project for 5 years. I was the only one who believed in it. Everyone else said it couldn’t be done.
    Dr. Kaufman: It can’t.
    Dr. Sayer: I know that now. I proved it.

  51. Curt F. says:

    The Insider! Although to be fair it is more a story of a scientist caught in a legal drama that tests his commitment to science rather than a pure science story.

  52. anon the II says:

    In Ghost Busters, when Bill Murray looks at the guy and says “Back off man, I’m a scientist”. That’s the power I feel every day when I walk into the lab.

  53. NJBiologist says:

    Since somebody (cough*8*cough) beat me to naming Arrowsmith, I’ll go for TV’s version of industrial R&D: Better Off Ted. It’s got vapid suits in management spinning out unrealistic development objectives and mandating impossible timelines, while the lab staff are sequestered in the basement trying to figure out the latest unpredictable side effect.

  54. Esteban says:

    Anything with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Now that was chemistry – the explosive kind.

  55. Tiger Chem says:

    While it certainly has a lot of problems I found some aspects of the student/PI relationship at a top institution to ring true in “Real Genius”
    Chris Knight: I have advanced your project more than any three students on campus.
    Jerry Hathaway: That was yesterday. What have you done for me today?

  56. MTK says:

    Not quite what we’re looking for here, but Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is probably the single best book about science that I’ve ever read.
    Heck, forget even the science part. Just a great work of non-fiction.

  57. Chemjobber says:

    50: I LOVED that bit of dialogue.

  58. jojo says:

    @20: great.
    I don’t think anyone mentioned “The Man in the White Suit”; basically a funny and strangely realistic look at synthetic polymer development. Fictional, this story actually captures realistically what goes on in R&D (could be any chemical R&D, including pharma), from obscure research, submarine efforts, results, recognition, jealousy, investment, expectations, pilot plant…a must see.

  59. jojo says:

    @20: great.
    I don’t think anyone mentioned “The Man in the White Suit”; basically a funny and strangely realistic look at synthetic polymer development. Fictional, this story actually captures realistically what goes on in R&D (could be any chemical R&D, including pharma), from obscure research, submarine efforts, results, recognition, jealousy, investment, expectations, pilot plant…a must see.

  60. Philip says:

    I would nominate the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster. They really ham up the religion vs science in this, but perhaps they can all get along? Perhaps not too much about the science, but you get the idea behind how much time must be logged for great discoveries.
    Also, “The Marriage Plot” by Eugenides could be turned into a film, and I like how they portray what looking at a grad student from the outside of science looks like.

  61. Wavefunction says:

    #56: Rhodes’s book is perhaps the best book on any topic ever written, not just science. I have three extra copies of the book with me at any given moment. If anyone is interested in a free copy shoot me an email with a mailing address.

  62. Drive-by music guy says:

    I immediately thought of “Primer”, which #16 beat me to.

  63. Harrison says:

    Lorenzo’s oil
    Something the Lord made
    Forgotten Genius (the Percy Jullian Story)
    I like the mention of Real Genius. Poor Kent. A co-worker and I were just reminiscing about some of the non-academic things grad students end up doing for their advisors.

  64. Jonathan says:

    Although it’s science fiction, particularly in the last season, a Canadian show called Regenesis managed IMO to do very good justice to the day-to-day grind of doing science. IE when you need to sequence something it actually takes you several days instead of five minutes in the pink glowing lab.

  65. Jonathan says:

    Ah, I see that @27 series_junkie also flagged Regenesis.

  66. OldLabRat says:

    “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, what is the question?” by Leon Lederman does a good job of describing the scientific endeavor.

  67. kdog says:

    Andrea Barrett writes convincing historical fiction in which many of the characters are scientists, albeit mostly 19th-century biologists (“naturalists”). Many are also women. I highly recommend the short story collections _Ship Fever_ and _Servants of the Map_ plus the novel _Voyage of the Narwhal_. I think her work is a much more successful example of “science in fiction” than anything Djerassi has written.

  68. chris says:

    I’m probably showing my age but i’d nominate The Search
    by C.P. Snow

  69. steve says:

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” as well as her other body of work. I can’t think of a better illustration of a scientist’s fight to prove that evolution doesn’t exist, that global warming is a myth or any of a myriad of other so-called scientific truths that she demolishes. The woman is a genius and we can only hope they make a movie that fully illustrates her and the current Republican approach to science.

  70. Dr. Manhattan says:

    “but Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is probably the single best book about science that I’ve ever read..”
    Yes, it is excellent.
    In that regard, PBS had a multi-part series back in the 1980’s in which Sam Waterston played J. Robert Oppenheimer. It focused mostly around the work at Los Alamos. The series is available on DVD (“Oppenheimer”). I’d highly recommend it.

  71. simpl says:

    I think you can keep to within chemistry, Derek, which I agree is harder. The biologists and astronomers do pretty well on getting their work across – Richard Attenborough’s documentaries,for instance. Or Steven Jay Gould, writing a lifetime’s worth of popular books to explain that not just the public, but many biologists don’t understand the ramifications of one concept, evolution.
    For chemistry, I too support one of the serious French biographies on Marie Curie and her family. It left a good impression the ups and downs of her project, working up tons of ore waste and coming up with the highest counts of radioactivity in an immeasurably small amount of some metal ion in a dissolved isolate. It also resonated with your recent blog on cold, wet laboratories.

  72. pat bowne says:

    Glory Enough for All! It’s a Canadian drama about the discovery of insulin. I used to use it in our senior philosophy of science class because it dealt with so many of the concepts we were studying.
    It’s now on youtube, in several segments.

  73. misterscampers says:

    I’ve always thought that Moby Dick provided a great analogy to grad school, with Captain Ahab as PI, pushing the crew onward in a hopeless quest to satisfy a prviate obssession.

  74. misterscampers says:

    Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of novels also has some interesting scientific biography, and a nice depiction of the temperament of scientific genius.

  75. a says:

    There is a website dedicated to this
    Djerassi would call it “science-in-fiction”

  76. drug_hunter says:

    I spoke too soon – #69 (Steve) might have just stole the thread from #26 (Andy) !!

  77. Anonymous says:

    I found Intuition by Allegra Goodman to be a dramatically compelling and reasonably realistic depiction of scientists:
    That is the only novel I can think of.

  78. Götterdämmerung says:

    For those given to abstraction: “Einstein on the Beach” the opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.
    A good approach in book form: “Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” by Douglas Hofstadter.
    “The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse. This novel is not overtly about science, but on a symbolic level it does give a sense of the competition, drama and search for personal identity that gets at the essence of life in the laboratory.

  79. Chemjobber says:

    77: Ha! I was just about to mention “Intuition” – seconded!

  80. AS says:

    “Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman” provides good insights on how an accomplished scientist views the world and his research in layman’s terms.

  81. Ted says:

    Oops, nearly forgot this one…
    “Project Grizzly”

  82. Anonymous says:

    #41, Pete,
    Great work. I would have discounted Under Pressure because it contains no pun that makes you want to hit something, but otherwise top notch. (Would the Sultams of Swing be an improvement?).
    #76. drug_hunter, I think you are right, steve has nailed it.

  83. paperclip says:

    I’m adding another vote for Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. A science professor made us all watch it for class, and I’m glad he did. It covers many aspects of research — ethical dilemmas, safety issues, funding concerns and doesn’t try to “sex it up” with action sequences, etc. As far as I can tell from my scientist vantage, I think a lot of non-scientists would find it interesting.
    And despite Breaking Bad’s drug-dealing craziness, there are scenes where the meth is made, and it did remind me of those times in lab where everything is actually working, and you fall into the rhythm and the trance of doing an experiment you’ve done a number of times and are attuned to the aesthetics that present themselves.

  84. su_p says:

    The Demon Under the Microscope – Thomas Hager
    The most overly dramatized part may be the title. Excellent account of the beginning of sulfa drugs around the world.

  85. J. Peterson says:

    I saw a local performance of the play “Breaking the Code” – about the life of WWII mathematician Alan Turing that was quite compelling.
    @80 – At a formal dinner, the entertainment was provided by a talented local actor doing an hour’s monologue based on Feynman’s stories. It came off very well.

  86. FarmerTed says:

    There’s a great discussion of Quantum Bubble-uh-nautics in Beerfest.

  87. anon. says:

    Real Genius.
    Hathaway: I want 5 megawatts by mid-May.
    (Chris laughs.)
    Chris: Uh, Jerry…I think you may be getting a little obsessive about this now. I took in Mitch. He’s coming along fine. He’s working his guts out for you. So…what exactly do you want?
    Hathaway: I want 5 megawatts by mid-May. Look I don’t care if you’re arrogant. I don’t care if you’re disrespectful. But your attitude’s distracting Mitch and that I won’t have. The rules have changed. I want it by mid-May.
    Chris: Jerry, I think you’re just forgetting about one little detail and that’s I’m out of here. I’m gone. I’m history. I’m Casper. I’m graduated. Me. Gone.
    Hathaway: To graduate you need my course, dear boy. So it seems I have something to say about what you do and where you go. So from now on you and Mitch are going to spend every waking moment in the lab. You will solve my power problem and you will solve it by my deadline.
    (Chris stands up.)
    Chris: Jerry, if you think that by threatening me you can get me to be your slave, well…that’s where you’re right. But…I’m only saying this because I care…there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market that are just as tasty as the real thing.
    Hathaway: I’m not kidding, Chris.
    Chris: Neither am I, Jerry.

  88. Poinsy says:

    @56 – I second “The Man in the White Suit.” The science is quite fictional, but there’s a lot about the politics and unintended consequences of the scientist’s discovery.
    Also, on a more engineering perspective, last year’s animated film “The Wind Rises,” which is about an engineer trying to design beautiful planes in 1930s Japan. Again, plenty of non-technical and personal plot elements, but when he goes into work there are a lot of schematics and slide rules in play.

  89. etomlins says:

    The TV film about the DNA story, the one with Jeff Goldblum as James Watson, has been mentioned. I had it screened for me in an undergraduate biology class and it succeeded in doing three things: first, teaching me that Linus Pauling had a horse in the race; second, teaching me that Rosalind Franklin existed; third, inspiring in me a heartfelt loathing for James Watson that further reading has done nothing to mollify.

  90. Wavefunction says:

    #70: Waterston’s “Oppenheimer” is excellent (also available for free on YouTube), so is Jon Else’s “The Day After Trinity” and “Day One” in which Brian Dennehy gives an outstanding performance as Leslie Groves. Compared to these “Fat Man Little Boy” is quite a flop.

  91. Larry says:

    No Highway in the Sky. Jimmy Stewart as an aeronautical engineer. He does obsessive and politically clueless very very well.

  92. Tom says:

    The oroginal Half-Life comes to mind. A game released in 1999, set in the near future that has you playing a theoretical physics graduate who works as a lab tech, pushing trolleys of dangerous samples and other menial chores.
    At the time it seemed unrealistic that a theoretical physicist with a PhD would be employed doing such menial work, but it’s now the near future, and in the current economic climate his job situation seems much more realistic.

  93. Colonel Boris says:

    Lab Rats on the BBC was a good comedy set in a lab-for-hire in a university. While the science was more in the realms of comedy, they got a lot of the rest of it right: the struggle for funding, animal rights protestors, extremely odd collaborators, interlab pranks, etc. The best episode is where they have have to spend a week awake doing lab work by day and running experiments at a ‘secret underground government facility’ by night, which sums up all those synchrotron trips I ever made. A beautiful depiction of the madness that develops from long shifts and no sleep in a major facility.

  94. Kaleberg says:

    This is a great topic. I just finished binge watching some of the great scientific biopics from the 1930s, including the ones about Pasteur, Curie and Ehrlich. It’s a pity they can’t make these anymore.
    P.S. I’ll second Arcadia, though there are two sides to it. One side covers the continuity of scientific discovery. The other side covers the problems of historical discovery.

  95. Davidd says:

    For values of “science” that extend as far as computer science, _Sneakers_ is by far the best ever.

  96. gippgig says:

    For the best UNINTENTIONAL science in media I nominate an episode of the cartoon Underdog from the 1960s! The basic plot was that the bad guy wanted to get himself elected dictator. The problem with that, of course, was that noone else would vote for him. Then he realized that if he could prevent everyone else from voting he’d win so all he had to do was figure out how to do it. He thought that people might not be able to vote if they were crying uncontrollably so he invented a crying ray, built a voting booth, and tried the ray on his assistant but he was still able to cast a vote. OK, maybe people can’t vote if they’re standing on their head so he makes a stand-on-your-head machine and uses it on the assistant but he pulls the lever with his foot. Eventually he comes up with the tickle feather which leaves the assistant rolling on the floor unable to reach the lever so he bombs the nation with tickle feathers and gets elected dictator – until Underdog realizes he wasn’t registered so his vote didn’t count! Ridiculous as this was, the come-up-with-a-hypothesis-test-it-in-a-model-system-and-repeat-until-one-works approach couldn’t be more accurate (and this was before TV shows were supposed to be educational!)

  97. narf42 says:

    I am surprised nobody has picked the remake of Cosmos – A spacetime odyssey. I think it is a visually stunning TV show, presenting science beautifully, and always telling a nice story. The episode on the age of the earth even featured some chemistry, if I remember correctly.

  98. newnickname says:

    So many great suggestions so far! Where I work, it’s kind of like Big Bang Theory, but the tragicomedy is both more tragic and more comedic. That’s life. I think these suggestions are new:
    Someone mentioned “NO”. Djerassi’s OTHER science-in-fiction books: Cantor’s Dilemma (1989)
    The Bourbaki Gambit (1994) Menachem’s Seed (1997) (more?) as well as his many other autobiographical works. I haven’t yet read his latest, “How I Beat Coca-Cola.”
    “The Struggles of Albert Woods” by W Cooper, 1953.
    “The Tempter” by Norbert Wiener, 1959.
    “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis 1953.
    “Elixir” by Gary Braver 2000.
    “Magic Bullet” by Harry Stein 1995.
    “Dilbert” by Scott Adams (Oh, so close to the truth.)
    I wish I could take more time to read more of the suggestions but then I wouldn’t have time for Pipeline.

  99. Dylan says:

    I always thought that Pi somehow managed to get the feeling right better than most anything else I’ve seen…but then I’m not actually a scientist or mathematician, so what do I know.

  100. Scarodactyl says:

    Maybe October Sky in a really general sense?

  101. o says:

    For the mathematicians, Hardy’s ” A Mathematician’s Apology” or more recently Cedric Villani’s ” Theoreme Vivant”

  102. Daen says:

    I enjoyed the recent “Manhattan” TV series. I realize it’s a highly dramatized account, and there’s too much of the ‘adding square brackets to the equation (or multiplying it by two, or pi) changes the interpretation completely’ kind of thing, but nevertheless, the slow, relentless grind with no guaranteed outcome must surely be familiar.

  103. xfin31 says:

    Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi.
    And Good Will Hunting – Minnie Driver – “I’m sorry, I can’t come out tonight, I have to assign the NMR spectrum of ibogamine’. Closest I’m likely to come to dating Minnie Driver.

  104. steve says:

    OK, maybe Palin wasn’t the best example. There are a few authors I don’t think have been mentioned that I believe really captured the excitement and beauty of science even if they didn’t depict the day-to-day activities:
    Carl Sagan
    Lewis Thomas
    Isaac Asimov (he wrote non-fiction as well; his “Intelligent man’s guide to science was my bible growing up)
    Martin Gardner

  105. aonomus says:

    I too am also going to flag ReGenesis. 4 seasons long, Canadian original series, it does good justice to the realities of research, without being too complicated for the average audience, uses ‘explain it to the non-science politician’ as a way to explain it to the audience, and acts as science outreach. Also it explores a bunch of bleeding edge topics that are close enough to reality that pose a threat to the world. The protagonists of the series are part of a multinational sponsored lab almost as a worldwide scientific ‘oversight’ group that solves the mysteries that no one else can, when people need the crisis solved yesterday.

  106. Jose says:

    Just another vote for Carl Djerassi’s books. ‘NO’ is the weakest of the bunch; so worth reading the others.
    And glad to see ‘Making of the Atomic Bomb’ which is quite simply the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read as others have mentioned.

  107. MoMo says:

    I second Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Anyone who can solve the splitting pattern of a compound in the time it takes to smoke a Marlboro is king.
    But let’s here it for Breaking Bad! The only show that has a chemist running for ACS president! Got to make sure those meth makers get it right!
    I bought my action figures right before they got yanked off the shelf at that Toy store.
    Now that is real drama!

  108. Dr. Manhattan says:

    For those of you into the early Space Program, Andrew Chaiken’s “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” is excellent. Covers all the flights extensively, including the last three “J series” flights with the extended stay LM and Lunar Rover.

  109. A novel that has the flavor of long preparation (even if it’s medieval history) followed by figuring something out: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

  110. hn says:

    Anyone see “Living Proof” about Dennis Slamon and Herceptin?

  111. DrOcto says:


  112. doctorpat says:

    Connie Willis has (at least) 2 novels that are about science.
    The first, Bellwether, was light hearted, but strangely right when it comes to research and inspiration. And the novel wasn’t just about research, it was actually about the nature of research, that was the plot.
    The second, Passage, is dark, and evil, and even better, though with a bit more life and death drama than a normal researcher sees.

  113. Paul Brinkley says:

    Friend of mine pointed out this:
    It’s a whole series of plays in which science is the center. Some are human drama against a scientific backdrop, but I suspect even a strict interpretation of Lowe’s requirement might admit a few of these works.

  114. Anonymous says:

    “Einstein and Eddington” (2008) is a really good movie about scientist personalities and scientific idea/method development.
    Sir Arthur Eddington is a renowned physicist at Cambridge University and an expert in the measurement of the physical world. He along with all of his colleagues are also avowed Newtonians. Sir Oliver Lodge suggests that he read a new thesis put forward by a German-Swiss scientist named Albert Einstein who is suggesting that Sir Isaac Newton may have got it wrong. The expectation is that Einstein’s theories will be disproven but Eddington admits that his General Theory of Relativity has merit. These are turbulent times as England and Germany are at war and Eddington’s own loyalty is called into question when, as a Quaker, he refuses to fight. In the end, Eddington develops a series of tests to either prove or disprove Einstein’s theories.

  115. Mike Bower says:

    Not a movie, but the ending to Dorothy Sayers’ novel “The Documents in the Case” always strikes me as a great example of the kind of psychic joy that comes from a scientific finding. At risk is whether someone has been poisoned by natural or synthetic muscarine. They are going to test it by seeing if the muscarine is optically active. And so, Sayers has to explain chirality, racemic mixtures, optical activity, and polarimetry. Finally, the poison is examined, and it does _not_ rotate the light. It is a surprisingly dramatic non-event, and conveys the pleasure of finding something out based on a long trail of chemistry knowledge.

  116. Allan says:

    A book called “Excuse me sir, would you like to buy a kilo of isopropyl bromide?” I remember this being extremely funny in parts, especially the bits about methyl iodide poisoning, and the large scale synthesis where they threw everything in a huge vat, closed the door, and then scraped the product off the wall and sold it to Aldrich. The full text is at

  117. Dan says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the novels of Richard Powers, in particular The Gold-bug Variations which relates to DNA and molecular biology. His books tend to walk a very nice line between humanities and the arts on one side and science on the other. My favorite is Galatea 2.2, which is nominally about teaching a computer to read, but is really about a breakup.

  118. Anon says:

    @117: That book has been a ‘guest post’ for Things I Won’t Work With. Even to a non-chemist, it’s hair-raising.
    “The Last Ship”(TNT) is 1/3-‘zombie apocalypse’, 1/3-‘military fiction’, 1/3-‘vaccine discovery drama’. And my biochem grad-student friend says the vaccine bits are ‘actually somewhat accurate’.

  119. a. nonymaus says:

    The movie Buckaroo Banzai is an accurate depiction of my workday as a scientist.

  120. texmex says:

    I thought Jodie Foster’s relationship with her former advisor in Contact was realistic. The way they constantly butted heads and the way he disparaged her work and then came in and tried to take all the credit in the end.

  121. anon says:

    What a great thread–three of the books recommended here are now in my reading queue. Thanks everyone!

  122. rumtscho says:

    There’s an answer from another corner, not life sciences: Tom Demarco’s “The deadline: A novel on project management”. It describes a fictional controlled experiment in software engineering, and I have seen it used as a textbook for university courses.
    While the author is a scientist, and certainly wanted to target software professionals with the book, it is written nicely enough to interest people from outside the discipline. And showcases some of the problems in research in general (e.g. how do you design an experiment) besides more specific software engineering problematic.

  123. Regina McEnery says:

    For movies, I would have to go with Europa Report, especially for those among us who spend a great deal of time wondering if anybody is out there. For a sci-fi movie, it manages to avoid a lot of the cliches we’ve come to associate with movies of outer space. Very sparse but well-told. One of my top favorite movies
    For books: I’ve enjoyed The League of Denial about the NFL crisis. Written by sportswriters, but captures the science –and the frustration of the scientists — well.

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