Of course, it’d be even nicer with safety glasses.
Also, beautiful new labs. Yum.
Of course, it’d be even nicer with safety glasses.
Also, beautiful new labs. Yum.
Yes, you read that title correctly: Jean-Luc Picard, the greatest starship captain of all-time, failed organic chemistry at Starfleet Academy. In his defense, it was probably less to do with intelligence and more to do with being distracted:
I pulled that video clip so I can show it to my students during our opening lecture. It should go well with the “How to Win Orgo” handout.
Update (5/1): Thanks to a tip in the comments from “bad wolf”, I went and pulled a clip from Star Trek: Generations where it is revealed that one of Picard’s ancestors won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It makes his failure in orgo all the more astonishing.
This week, Just Like Cooking has been hosting the Chemistry at the Movies blog carnival. I’m slipping in my contribution just under the wire…
I don’t especially care for the movies, but I’ve been given special dispensation by See Arr Oh to discuss chemistry in television, instead. The West Wing is my second-favorite fictional TV series of all-time (after Star Trek: The Next Generation), and I was excited when an episode in the third season prominently featured the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis.
Here is but one clip of the many times the episode referenced Mullis, who never appeared on camera. The Bartlet White House was hosting a dinner for Nobel Laureates, and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg was stressing about sitting next to Mullis:
I suppose the clip doesn’t make chemists look terribly great. It certainly highlights the difficulties we’ve had interacting with the general public, but I always get a kick out of seeing “real” chemistry and chemists in pop culture. And while Jean-Luc Picard failed organic chemistry, it seems like President Bartlet has some technical skills regarding gen chem.
Kary Mullis is just such an interesting guy. On one hand, you have his absolutely brilliant development of PCR. The technique was revolutionary, yet extraordinarily straightforward—one of those things that other scientists curse themselves over not having thought of first. But Mullis also has a weird side. He believes HIV does not cause AIDS (video), and he claims to have once engaged in conversation with a fluorescent raccoon. The autobiography he submitted to the Nobel Foundation is also very odd. At times, it reads like the narration to Stand By Me:
We tortured the cows. We sliced apples and slipped them onto the electric fence that contained them in the newer parts of the pasture. Cows like apples and they kept trying. We watched the chickens pecking at the black mud around their chicken house. We heard the squeal of young pigs being castrated by my grandfather and the veterinarian, but we weren’t allowed to watch.
When my great-grandmother died she was almost a hundred and we were glad to see her go because every time she would come over to my grandmother’s house, she would try to kiss all of us. She looked almost a hundred and, heartless, cruel, mindless little children that we were, she repulsed us. She grabbed us anyway and kissed us until she was through. They put her body in a metal casket with gauzy curtains and left it in the living room near the grandfather’s clock, which announced the hours with a number of resonant bongs and marked the half-hours with a single chilling tone. Her body was there for three days until the service on Sunday at Mt Zion Baptist Church. We dared each other to go in and look at her. The adults were unaffected and took their regular meals right in the next room. We found it difficult to sleep. The clock seemed more alive than usual.
You’ve got to read the full thing. It is short, which is what makes the above passages so weird. It’s not like I pulled them from a 300-page book. Mullis added an addendum to his autobiography in 1999:
Addendum, August 1999
And then early in the spring of 1997 there was Nancy and my whole heart began to unfold and everything else before seemed like a long dream from which I had awakened at last. Married: Nancy Lier Cosgrove, San Francisco, CA March 21, 1998.
And here’s where I can attest that Mullis is indeed an odd creature. In 1998, I was invited to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the American Academy of Achievement‘s annual banquet. They invite high schoolers who’ve done well in a variety of competitions to attend their annual celebration to induct more ridiculously famous achievers into their ranks. The whole experience was surreal. On the first night, I sat ten feet from Puff Daddy as he talked to the audience about stowing-away on Amtrak trains to get to recording studios when he was starting out. In a different session, I sat between the owner of the company that made Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and George Lucas. Perhaps experiencing sensory overload, I skipped out on a subsequent session to sit on a couch in the lobby of the main lodge that overlooked the Grand Teton Mountains. While minding my own business, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and some other guy walked up, said hello, then sat down on the couch on the other side of the coffee table. Like I said, surreal.
What does all of this have to do with Kary Mullis? Well, he was there too. I had already fallen in love with chemistry as a high schooler, so I knew who Mullis was and I kept my eyes peeled for him and other Nobel laureates. As it turned out, Mullis was not too hard to spot, since he was constantly full-on making out with his new wife. It was unreal…in the hallway, at dinner, in the audience at the sessions. In a room packed with high schoolers, Mullis was the one who stood out for excessive amorous behavior.
I guess inventing PCR entitles you to a bit of PDA?
I like listening to the audio of PBS television shows as background noise, because (i) I’m cheap, (ii) it’s free, and (iii) it keeps me in tip-top shape for pub quiz tournaments. I was listening to an old episode of NOVA ScienceNOW on the intelligence of animals, when a profile of Alex the Parrot piqued my interest. Alex was world-famous for his incredible—for a bird—ability to speak, recognize objects, and count.
Fast-Forward to 37:53
Alex died in 2007, so this profile was more about his trainer, Irene Pepperberg. Narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sexy science voice really grabbed my attention when he summarized Pepperberg’s educational background:
Growing up in 1950’s Brooklyn, Irene initially set out to study chemistry, first at MIT, and then as a graduate student at Harvard. But in 1974, halfway through her Ph.D., a new television series changed everything.
[Cut to an ancient episode of NOVA about training apes to use sign language.]
With her Ph.D. in hand, Irene turned her back on chemistry and set out to begin a career in biology, at Purdue University. Her first stop: the pet store.
I love keeping track of people who’ve ditched chemistry and had fantastically successful “alternative” careers. Maggie Thatcher was a research chemist prior to becoming the first female Prime Minister of the UK. Joel Godard got a degree in chemistry at Emory and would later become the long-time announcer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Jerry Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before he became a real estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Cindy Crawford started out as a ChemE major before becoming a supermodel.
A closer inspection of Irene Pepperberg’s history reveals that she appears to have worked on boranes with Nobel laureate Bill Lipscomb at Harvard. It’s quite a jump from boranes to parrot training, but Pepperberg really made a splash and blazed new trails in the world of biology.
It’s always nice to have examples of wildly successful people who invested many years getting a Ph.D. in chemistry and later decided to leave the field. Such a decision takes a lot of courage, and I think many graduates feel needlessly ashamed of opting to leave the bench.
Sometime last year, my girlfriend DVR’d a copy of this commercial for Garnier Fructis shampoo because she saw it had chemistry in it and because she is awesome:
If you pause the video at 0:13, you will notice quite a few chemical atrocities:
Basically, nothing is right. Note the surfeit of Texas carbons. I also love the asymmetry of their elemental fluorine, though maybe those things labeled “F” are atoms of fruit? And what is up with that ideal gas law? You’d think they’d be able to get a structure for biotin in there, considering how big they wrote the word on the chalkboard. Argh…
Anyway, great catch by the ol’ g/f…whom I am now happy and proud to call my fiancée.