#ChemMovieCarnival: Dramatic Acid-Base Chemistry in Fight Club

This week, friend of the blog See Arr Oh is hosting a blog carnival devoted to chemistry in film. I'm a big fan of the silver screen, so in honor of the #chemmoviecarnival, I’m going to break a couple of rules and talk about one of my favorite films: “Fight Club.” Living in a world where casual violence has become far too commonplace, I confess that it feels peculiar to be so fond of this film. After all, there are some alarming acts of violence in David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about, well, many things, but in particular life in our consumer-driven world. I first saw this movie when it came out in theaters, back in 1999, and one of my companions commented as we left, “I hate everyone who liked that movie.” For me, however, the film’s violence is just an unusual way to get at a theme that might otherwise come off as cheesy: Appreciate every moment of your precious life. To that end, there is this chemistry-related cinematic moment, in which one of the film’s central characters (Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt) gives the other (played by Edward Norton) a chemical burn with lye. Be forewarned it’s pretty graphic. Please, please, please do not do this. It is not cool to give yourself or your friends chemical burns. That said, note the accuracy of the chemistry here: “you can run water over your hand and make it worse, or you can use vinegar to neutralize the burn.” Also, I am always amused at how Durden is so careful to put on gloves and safety glasses, but then rips them off for dramatic effect. It's certainly not the most positive depiction of chemistry in film, but does drive home the movie's point.

Author: Bethany Halford

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  1. Can we note the INaccuracy of the chemistry here?
    Safety note to any non-chemists reading this: do NOT neutralize acids or bases when they are on your skin! Doing so only risks making things worse by A) generating heat at the site of the wound (from the reaction between the acid and base) and b) putting the damaged skin in contact with yet another potentially dangerous material. The best response to most chemical incidents is to rinse with clean water, and lots of it.
    Also, in case you do get lye on your skin, don’t expect searing pain. Speaking from experience, base burns start out feeling soapy (any surprise, Mr. Durden?) and progress slowly but relentlessly from there, if left untreated, until the skin is so damaged and dry that it begins to fissure.