Saturday, February 20, 2021

Books: "The Science of" Double Feature

Most movies and TV shows have a cavalier attitude towards the laws of physics ("So what if John McClane would've been maimed or killed by jumping off a building tethered only by a firehose? It looked cool as hell!"). Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar are two exceptions to that rule, however, and today's post reviews the entertaining books explaining the science behind those productions.

The Science of Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad's conceit - milquetoast high school chemistry teacher Walter White transforms into a meth-making drug lord - doesn't immediately call for MacGyver-esque antics, but the show delivered in spades. Each season, Walt and his cohorts would get out of sticky situations using the power of science: an improvised battery to start the engine of their RV-turned meth lab, hydrofluoric acid and giant magnets to dispose of incriminating evidence, and, of course, cooking up Walt's signature crystal meth, "Blue Sky."  

The show's science advisor, chemistry professor Dr. Donna J. Nelson, wrote this neat book with science writer Dave Trumbore. As the official advisor, Nelson gives some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into the writers' room, including the practical and dramatic reasons for some choices on the show (a particular chemical might be used simply because it's easy for the actors to pronounce). As a professor, Nelson makes the book surprisingly pedagogical, and it'd be a fun companion to a college chemistry course.

The Science of Interstellar

Plenty of movies hire science advisors, but Christopher Nolan went all-out and recruited Nobel laureate and Caltech professor Kip Thorne to parse the physics of his sci-fi epic Interstellar.  In consulting on the movie, Thorne attempted to eliminate or minimize physically impossible elements (like travelling faster than the speed of light) and also helped the special effects crew model the appearance of a supermassive black hole (which even led to a scientific paper).

The Science of Interstellar functions as a crash course in the strange (and sometimes theoretical) astrophysical phenomena in the movie, including an artificial wormhole and a planet with deadly mile-high tidal waves. As you might expect, the book is strongest when Thorne is within his physics expertise (discussing gravitational singularities and time dilation) and weakest when he has to explain other sciences (the movie's depiction of suspended animation systems and planetwide crop-killing blights). All in all, it's a great read and a must-have for science-minded fans of the movie.


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