Science in Pop Culture

Hello, I’m a climate scientist in a movie. You need the solution to climate change in 24 hours. I happen to be a world-renowned expert in physics, engineering, astronomy, biology, forecasting, alien technology, and news media. I can solve any problem, but I communicate my findings in techno-babble and can’t stand normal people. Luckily for you I have a machine that reverses air pollution in my basement which doubles as my lab. I’ve just been waiting for someone to come along and press the button.

Dr. Banner as he appears in one of many Marvel films. Pic from Pinterest.

The most important – and hopefully obvious – thing about Hollywood scientists is that they are merely caricatures of real-life. Real-life scientists have a slew of responsibilities aside from solving the world’s problems, such as: writing grant proposals, reading + editing papers, analyzing data, and publishing it. Most inventions are patented before becoming property of the university which a professor works under. For a research scientist in a federal laboratory, there are probably similar procedures.

“I think the way to live your life is that you find the study that sounds best to you and you go with that.” – Good Morning America

No, no, no. On an episode of Good Morning America regarding a study about milk, two co-anchors had differing views on whether milk was good or bad – but both claimed there were scientific studies to back their point. Television shows like Good Morning America cater to their audience with helpful advice typically backed up by “experts” in the field. Unfortunately, attention-grabbing headlines produced for news media don’t always align with the main point of the studies that garner all their attention.

close up of drinking glass
Photo by Pixabay on

Studies on milk might proliferate for the rest of the century. Maybe one day the co-anchors of Good Morning America will rest assured that their milk-drinking habits are beneficial to their health. But other studies might not have the kind of results applicable to the audience of Good Morning America. Scientific studies aim to explain and understand the world around us – and that can be a very long process with hundreds of studies required to prove a single point. Despite what a scientist sets out to do, their research doesn’t always meet a specific end goal. I mean, check out these world-changing scientific discoveries that were made by accident:

“Howard Florey – petrie dish” by The Florey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
  • Penicillin – Who hasn’t heard this story? Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming came back from a two-week vacation to find that the culture of staphylococcus he had left out was growing mold, which had killed off the staphylococci. That mold was penicillin, an antibiotic that is now used to kill off lethal bacterial infections including pneumonia, scarlet fever, and ear, skin, gum, mouth, and throat infections. Pictured above is Howard Florey, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine along with Ernst Boris Chain and Alexander Fleming for their work on penicillin.
“Colors” by Tranks is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 
  • Purple dye – 18-year-old William Henry Perkin tried to create quinine to help treat malaria back in 1856, but his experiment failed. While cleaning out his vials with alcohol, the liquid inside became a stunning shade of what he soon called “mauve”. The mauve dye he created was more permanent, brighter, faster, and cheaper to produce than previously existing natural dyes that produced only purple-blue colors. He also went on to create turquoise-green, Britannia Violet, and blood-red.
“3rd metacarpal” by kylewm is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
  • X-Rays – A physics professor in Germany named Wilhelm Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays to see if they could pass through glass. He noticed that the incandescent green light from his cathode tube covered in heavy black paper was projecting onto a fluorescent screen in the vicinity. Roentgen shortly found that the mysterious rays could pass through anything except for solid objects. X-Rays became a vital part of the medical community and are now used to locate gunshots, fractures, kidney stones, and things that have been accidentally swallowed!
“Everlasting love” by pezelk is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 
  • Viagra – Sildenafil was a compound created by Pfizer, Inc. which was undergoing clinical trials in the early 1990’s as a treatment for hypertension and chest pain from heart disease. Although it wasn’t the best at treating cardiovascular issues, test subjects experienced a very interesting side effect. Today, this accidental invention alleviates an intimate issue that previously caused performance anxiety, low self-esteem, damaged personal relationships, and even clinical depression. Viagra was approved by the FDA in 1998.
“Automobile Dash and Steering Wheel” by Image Catalog is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 
  • Safety glass – French scientist Edward Benedictus accidentally dropped a flask lined with a thin film of cellulose nitrate in his lab in 1903. To his surprise, the glass didn’t shatter when it hit the floor. The coated glass had a meaningful application for windshields, but car companies weren’t willing to spend the money on the new invention. Safety glass made its main debut in safety goggles for gas masks during World War I. Only after that was the product adopted on a broad scale by the automobile industry.

It’s clear to see that inventors, business people, and scientists alike can stumble upon inventions that make life easier. However, the aforementioned stories are rarities in history. Unlike we see in news media and pop culture, science takes a long time and doesn’t always reach the conclusions that we expect or want to hear. Reality shows like Shark Tank are a little closer to the truth than Marvel movies. Inventors are everyday people. They could be engineers or scientists on the rogue or stay-at-home moms, and their ideas could make it big, get shot down, or land somewhere in the middle. The common thread is a curious mind and an occasional accident. Do you know of any other neat inventions? I’d love to hear about them! Cheers, Jess 🙂

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