#ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor

Chemistry has made many appearances in films—sometimes depicted accurately, more often not so much. This week, there’s a blog carnival devoted to chemistry’s role in movies. The carnival is being curated by @SeeArrOh over at Just Like Cooking, and can be followed at #ChemMovieCarnival.

I’m going to go way back to my youth for my offering, as this movie is partly to thank/blame for my interest in science. It’s Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor, from 1961. Here’s a promo:  

Now, I didn’t see this when it was first released—at least, not that I remember. Back then, my concerns were limited to crying for food, producing its various end products, then crying some more. My first memory of seeing the film was on TV, on The Wonderful World of Disney or one of its incarnations, on a Sunday evening in the late Sixties. Let’s say I was seven or eight.

Apparently, flubber is based on polyvinyl acetate. Check the board for any Texas carbons!

The films stars Fred MacMurray as our protagonist, Ned Brainard, a professor at fictional Medfield College, a campus which was the setting of several other films from Disney Studios. In addition to his teaching duties, Prof. Brainard is enthusiastically engaged in a little garage chemistry. He becomes far too engrossed in his work one evening  and forgets (absent-minded, remember?) his other engagement and his scheduled wedding. There’s a mildly destructive but non-injurious explosion, which serendipitously creates the real star of the film, a bouncy, levitating polymer soon to be known as flubber. This material has 1001 uses! Well, it probably does, but we only get to see a few. Like make super bouncy balls! Iron it onto sneakers so you can fix a basketball game! Make a car fly! Have a rival arrested on suspicion of a DUI! Secure a potentially lucrative Defense contract!

NEVER sniff your reactions. And, dude, where's your PPE?

Flubber is even used to thwart the villain, Alonzo Hawk (Who shows up as the baddie in several Disney films, and is portrayed by Keenan Wynn. Alonzo Hawk holds the distinction of being Wynn’s second-most-awesomely-named character, after—naturally—Colonel "Bat" Guano.)

I haven’t seen, and don't intend to ever see, the colorized version of  The Absent-Minded Professor or the retitled remake with Robin Williams, because I am a pain in the a purist.

Interestingly, the main inspiration for MacMurray’s portrayal of Ned Brainard was Hubert Alyea, professor emeritus at Princeton. Dr. Alyea, who died in 1996, was renowned for his demonstrations of chemistry principles. The sometimes explosive nature of these demonstrations earned Professor Alyea the nickname, “Dr. Boom.” As an added video bonus, here’s a version of Professor Alyea’s popular lecture on the nature of scientific discovery, entitled "Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind," given in 1985:  

Finally, and sadly, I have yet to make flubber. I still hold out hope, however, that the next reaction I run that gets stupid on me will produce, instead of the usual uncharacterizable, polymeric pile of craptar, something with more flubbery qualities. Thus far, the only flight such material has achieved is while joining the contents of the nearest chemical waste container.

Back to the drawing board.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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  1. Well, so much for this Princetonian’s intended #chemmoviecarnival topic. But seriously, great post! I didn’t watch the full video clip of Alyea, but does it include him performing the clock reaction to “The Orange and the Black”? If not, I’ll have to find it for you. We used to do that at demo weekends.

    • Whoops! Sorry about that. I remembered that you’re a Princeton alum, but didn’t think to check with you before proceeding. My bad. Glad you like the post, though!

      “The Orange and the Black” clock reaction is the finale at around the 26 minute mark in the Alyea video.