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Science on Film and TV

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From Back to the Future's Emmett Brown to Breaking Bad's Walter White, countless scientists on the small screen and the silver screen alike are so legendary that they have become part of entertainment folklore.

Fictional scientists are by no means in short supply, either. But while the role of the scientist is a common one on-screen, the science itself is seldom explored in any real detail. To remedy that, here's a brief look at the specific expertise of some of TV and cinema's best-loved scientists.


Walter White, Breaking Bad - Chemist

Let's start with perhaps the most iconic TV scientist of the last 20 years, Walter White.

While the obvious answer of 'meth cook' may immediately spring to mind when trying to identify Mr White's vocation, it's not a job title that's likely to appear on a loan application or insurance form.

Prior to donning the famous black pork pie hat and becoming Heisenberg, "the one who knocks" was originally a chemistry teacher by trade.

In fact, according to the series, White was a promising scientist in his youth, studying chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

White specialised in proton radiography, and his research in this field even led to a 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

However, his career took a notable downturn that saw the promising chemist settle in teaching before ultimately taking on the clandestine guise of the infamous drug kingpin Heisenberg.

The Heisenberg name itself is a reference to German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, a notable theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics.

Since establishing his on-screen credentials in Breaking Bad, actor Bryan Cranston has subsequently gone on to play numerous scientific roles - most notably that of a nuclear physicist, Joe Brody, in 2014's Godzilla.

Meanwhile, he has also transferred his scientific standing into comedy-based roles as Dr Templeton in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dr Fist in The Cleveland Show.


Emmett Brown, Back to the Future - Experimental Physicist

Great Scott! Perhaps the best example of the classic 'mad scientist' on the silver screen, Back to the Future's Emmett Brown is the quintessential example of a Hollywood scientist.

Blending wacky eccentricities with genuine scientific genius, Dr Brown ('Doc' for short) refers to himself as "a student of all sciences", making an exact vocational specialism fairly hard to pin down.

That being said, quantum physics and general relativity are key areas that are likely to have been Doc Brown's specialist subjects, providing the basis for his time-travelling inventions and exploits.

However, perhaps the best label to apply to the zany professor would be that of an experimental physicist, owing to his wide and varied scientific experiments in search of new discoveries and scientific experiences.

The crown jewel of Doc Brown's fictional studies was, of course, the invention of the iconic flux capacitor. A plutonium-powered device that makes time travel possible, Doc opted to house his invention in the now-iconic DeLorean DMC-12, activating when the car reached 88mph.

The character of Doc has become so beloved that he was voted #20 in Empire's '100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time' list. More recently, the Rick Sanchez character in the popular TV show Rick & Morty is said to be a direct parody of Dr Brown.


Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park - Mathematician

No list of classic on-screen scientists would be complete without the charismatic rock star of science that is Ian Malcolm.

Dr Malcolm is apparently based on real-life mathematician Ivar Ekeland and scientific historian James Gleick. His specialist field of mathematic study is that of so-called 'chaos theory': how a minute action can result in a monumental reaction.

Coincidentally, the man behind the character, Jeff Goldblum, was no stranger to silver screen scientists when he donned the leather trousers of Dr Malcolm in 1993. He had previously portrayed molecular physicist Seth Brundle in the 1986 classic The Fly, earning himself a 'Best Actor' award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.

What's more, Goldblum would also go on to play Dr David Levinson in 1996 summer blockbuster Independence Day. He even played a professor in the 2001 kids movie Cats & Dogs, and a provost in TV comedy series King of the Hill - talk about typecasting!


Honorable Mentions

  • Indiana Jones - Archaeologist
    While often mistaken for a historian, the fabled adventurer (played by Harrison Ford) was technically a scientist. Naturally falling into the archaeology field of scientific study, Dr Jones proved that you don't need to be armed with a flux capacitor to make it as an iconic on-screen scientist.
  • Ghostbusters - Parapsychology
    While the team of Peter Venkman, Raymond Stantz and Egon Spengler may be best known for their affinity for busting ghosts with their patented proton packs, their spectre-snaring skills often overshadowed the fact that they are all highly-educated parapsychologists. Of course, parapsychology (the study of psychic and otherwise paranormal phenomena) is widely considered a pseudoscience - but that doesn't make the movies any less enjoyable.
  • Ross Geller - Palaeontologist
    Despite being one of the most recognisable characters of the 90s, Dr Ross Geller from Friends remains another criminally overlooked scientist, less known for his palaeontology than for his keyboard playing, furniture moving, and advanced levels of Unagi.

While we can't promise you a working life as exciting as those of Indiana Jones and Doc Brown, there are plenty of rewarding science jobs listed on the HRS website. Click the link below to browse the latest vacancies!

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