Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sarah Cady on #ChemMovieCarnival: Real Genius - Or, revenge is a dish best served popped

Thanks to SeeArOh for putting together the Chem Movie Carnival and thanks to Chemjobber for allowing me to wax poetic about my favorite science movie of all time: Real Genius. Some may argue that Real Genius is a physics movie, but as any spectroscopist can tell you, the line between physics and chemisty in our field is blurry at best. I first watched Real Genius at the end of my second year of graduate school - a time when I was enduring significant struggles in research and in life. I can't say Real Genius is either inspirational or motivational, but it is damn funny and I think it taught me to take both myself and my research a little less seriously. 

For the uninitiated, Real Genius follows the story of two college students (Chris and Mitch) who work for an overbearing, egotistical, megalomanic professor. (The college is for geniuses - maybe it mimics the intensity of a Cal Tech/MIT undergraduate experience, but it seems more like graduate school for us regular folk.) The movie has many great characters that you've probably come across in academia or working in science: professors with infinite egos, reclusive geniuses, competitive brown-nosers, capricious first years, the guy who's always screwing around but is actually the smartest guy in the room, and the movie even has one whole entire lady scientist.

But what about that chemistry? So, the entire point of the movie is for Chris (and his mentee, Mitch) to build an incredibly powerful laser so Chris can graduate. (Plot twist: later, it is revealed that the laser is for NEFARIOUS PURPOSES!) Probably one of my favorite scenes from the movie is when Chris and Mitch finally figure out their research problem and get the laser to work: 

In the scene, Chris reveals the laser works because "it is possible to synthesize excited bromide in an argon matrix." For a long time, I assumed this statement was pure Hollywood fake science, but there's a bit of actual research backing up the statement. In 1986, group at UC Irvine made a solid chloride-doped xenon laser (via Wikipedia), and the paper actually references Martin Gundersen, who acted as the math professor in the film and also served as a scientific consultant. Reading the paper, the quote "amorphous solids are not very useful as amplifier media because of the scattering losses that predominate," seems to indicate that that this system doesn't make for a very good laser, but it does work. The authors go on to say, "[d]espite the poor performance of these amorphous solids as gain media, emission can be effectively stimulated." So in reality, Chris Knight surely would not have obtained the the 5 MW required by Professor Hathaway.

The end of the movie is arguably one of the greatest college pranks in the history of college pranks (real and imaginary). After discovering the evil plan for their laser, Chis and Mitch sneak onto a military base in order to hack into the laser's computer controls and reposition the tracking coordinates for the laser. The goal of the prank is to turn Professor Hathaway's house into a giant Jiffy Pop Stove Top pan of popcorn, using the 5 MW laser to heat the kernels.

Unfortunately, popping several bushels of popcorn with a laser turns out to be the biggest fantasy of this film. The idea was busted by Mythbusters four years ago, however, there are still some neat videos out there of people popping single kernels with much smaller lasers.

Sarah Cady, Ph.D., is an NMR spectroscopist, which makes her uniquely unqualified to discuss laser spectroscopy in any fashion. She spends her days her days teaching NMR and knitting (although not at the same time). She earns many expressions of disgruntled confusion from students of both techniques. Find her on Twitter: @sarahdcady 


  1. If I remember correctly, the school in the movie is a stand in for Caltech. A lot of the ideas in the movie came from anecdotes from the school. Notably there was apparently a student living hidden at Caltech for a while a la Lazlo in the movie.

  2. The mention of UCI and the time capsule of the 80's that is Real Genius reminded me of this gem that I think pairs quite nicely.

  3. The Aqueous LayerApril 18, 2013 at 4:41 PM

    If there's anything I can do for you, or more to the point, to you, you just let me know.

    -C. Knight

    There are so many great lines in that movie, I could spend the rest of the day sharing them, and laughing out loud.

  4. Hey, Sarah. Thanks for writing this down. I've often wondered about the validity of the science in Real Genius. I've read a few things on the internet about it, but I like your comments best, because you appreciate the science as well as the movie (in all its glorious silliness).

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