#ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor
Apr18

#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. 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! 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...

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Making waves: The chemistry of hair perms
Sep22

Making waves: The chemistry of hair perms

I hope my previous post about cosmetic chemistry whet your appetite to know more about the mechanisms underlying the chemical processes that take place in the salon. If it did, then I have just the thing for you. It’s the International Year of Chemistry, and in honor of that, the chief of the CENtral Science bloggers, Rachel Pepling, has called all blogging chemists to write about their favorite chemical reaction. If this is news to you, it’s not too late! You have until Monday, September 26th to submit your entry. Check out all the details here. A bit of background Before I dive into my reaction, I need to set the stage a little. Organic chemistry was my first chemistry love. Oh, the mechanisms, the reactions, the… electron pushing! But what really sealed the deal between me and chemistry was my first biochemistry class. I had an “Aha!” moment when my professor threw a transparency up that showed how proteins are just really stinking big molecules. So, you mean all those colorful blobs with strange names like “Golgi apparatus” and “mitochondria” that I memorized in high school biology— those were just molecules all along? Yup. I discovered that so many everyday occurences all boiled down to chemistry. Everything is made of chemicals. That’s right, I said it. There’s no such thing as chemical-free! My biochem professor was great at building in examples of how science intersects with everyday life. One day we learned about the structure of hair. It’s made of keratin, a fibrous structural protein that is also found in skin and nails. Disulfide bonds between polypeptide chains in keratin molecules are what give your hair strength and rigidity. The chemistry of perms If you have straight hair, I know there are days when you’ve looked in the mirror and wished it was wavy. And vice-versa for the curly haired folks out there. A century ago, you might have resorted to putting 24 pounds of heated brass rods in your hair and topped it off with a solution of cow urine and water to set the wave in place. That’s quite a price to pay for wavy hair. But now, thanks to modern chemistry, a couple simple solutions— of ammonium thioglycolate and hydrogen peroxide— are all you need. The chemistry of perms. Reference: J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 1996, 47, 48-59. A basic solution of ammonium thioglycolate, a.k.a. perm salt, is applied to the hair. The excess ammonia present in the solution helps the hair swell so that the reagents can work their way through each strand of hair, and also deprotonates the thioglycolate molecule, enabling it to break...

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