What is it with Hollywood releasing movies that coincide with NASA missions to outer space? Remember when Star Trek came out during the Hubble Telescope repair mission [read ScriptPhD coverage]? Moon, a thoughtful new science fiction indie feature from Liberty Films and Sony Pictures, featuring a near-solo bravura performance by Sam Rockwell, comes on the auspicious heels of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter mission to remap and fortify our knowledge of Earth’s Moon and surrounding solar system that got off to a spectacular start on June 18th. ScriptPhD.com reviews Moon and discusses the LRO mission, along with some of the first days-old high-resolution topographical beamed moon images and their implications for further lunar missions. To read the article, click “continue reading”. Continue reading Review: To the Moon, Alice! To the Moon!→
House meets The Sopranos—there’s your Hollywood pitch line for the debut novel of talented newcomer Josh Bazell. But it’s so much more than that: part medical mystery, part action-adventure thriller, part character study, Beat the Reaper deftly explores the scope of revenge, loyalty and one’s capacity for redemption. We are introduced to the novel’s protagonist, a New York City doctor, as he’s getting mugged on his way to work. But rather than acquiescing, he expertly dislocates the mugger’s arm, smashes his nose in and takes his gun. Peter Brown is clearly no ordinary doctor. Left to fend for himself at the age of 14 after the vicious murder of his grandparents, Pietro Brnwa takes up karate and a fateful friendship with David Locano, aka Skinflick, whose father was a lawyer by day, a mobster by night. Initially attracted to the mafia for personal retribution, Brnwa descends deeper into the Locano family and their ties, and finds that he is disturbingly good at his job. A perfectly orchestrated series of events leads Pietro into murder, a test of his friendship with Skinflick and the threat of jail. Instead, he ends up at dingy, dilapidated Manhattan Catholic Hospital as Dr. Peter Brown, a member of WITSEC, the U.S. Marshal’s Service Witness Security Program. Peter’s anonymity comes to a crashing halt when he treats a blast from the past, in the form of terminally ill patient Eddy Squillante, who recognizes him as the erstwhile “Bearclaw” Brnwa. As long as he can keep Squillante alive, he staves off some angry mobsters looking to get reacquainted. To do so, he must navigate through a sea of other patients, a shady surgeon assigned to Squillante’s case, and external forces looking to ensure that he fails. Oh and by the way, he has eight hours. (Why is Peter known to the mobsters as Bearclaw? You’ll have to read the book and find out… it’s downright incriminating!)
Pietro Brnwa is a unique, memorable character in the best tradition of detective fiction heroes. Not one you’d call warm and fuzzy, he ascribes himself as “God’s original asshole” and his sycophantic medical students as “two cups of human misery in short white coats”. He has a short temper, a snarky aside for most everything and everyone that crosses his path, and generally looks at the glass as half empty. But Pietro also has a defined moral code of ethics. His very reason for joining the Mafia—to avenge his grandparents’ senseless death—is practical, not glamorous. He won’t kill women or children, as evidenced by his refusal to kill the sister of the man that sold his grandparents to Auschwitz. And he manages to show a tender side with the only woman he’s ever loved, and who plays a tragic role in the final showdown between his past and present. More importantly, Brnwa, as Peter Brown, is an excellent doctor. Sure he has plenty of insults for fellow physicians, no patience for patients, and crunches on Moxfane tables to stay awake enough for rounds. But he also cares enough to make time for a frightened cancer patient awaiting surgery, to retrieve a lost well-meaning elderly patient with dementia and to perform an impossible surgery on the dying Mob messenger that’s been sent to warn him. Okay, that last one was a necessity.
On top of the intricate action, mind-bending medicine and humor, the book’s style is immensely enjoyable—sexy, sleek, fast-paced, and a little too cool for old school. Bazell unfolds the plot cleverly with side-by-side storylines. Peter Brown’s impending peril is told compactly over the course of the eight hours that interweaves his reunion with old friends with an interesting medical mystery and a rather unfortunate incident with an Assman and a needle. All in a day’s work. Concomitantly, Pietro Brnwa’s story transpires over a more protracted period of time, and the reader absorbs the tragedies that befell Pietro from his early days in the mob through to the deal that lands him in witness protection, learning what makes him tick along the way. The past merges seamlessly with the present to culminate in an ending so shocking and imaginative, you will want to have an anatomy textbook, not to mention a strong stomach, to piece it all together. Interspersed throughout are little factoids and medical footnotes that add a rich third dimension to the novel’s flow and to our protagonist’s hilariously sarcastic wit. Did you know that scrub suits are reversible, that some of the most prosperous pharmaceutical companies had a shameful history of slave labor at Auschwitz, that you can’t run DNA tests from urine, that surgeons will use some pretty superfluous silly vocabulary to avoid saying “head up” or “head down” in surgery, or the real reason that Tony Soprano’s cover as a garbage consultant is ironic? Neither did I. Rarely does a thriller afford you the opportunity to pick up some knowledge while you’re being entertained, and for that, Beat the Reaper gets the ScriptPhD.com seal of approval!
As if all of this isn’t enough to get you excited, the book is currently being adapted for film by the same team of screenwriters that brought you Ocean’s Thirteen. There are even rumblings of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Peter Brown/Pietro Brnwa/Bearclaw. So go out and please support a local bookstore in picking up a copy today!
A compelling, socially and scientifically significant new film is buzzing its way into the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. From director Jeremy Simmons, The Last Beekeeper is a stirring new documentary that explores the ramifications of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious HIV-like pandemic killing bees en masse, on beekeepers, the pollination industry, and our ecosystem. The filmmakers follow the lives of three beekeepers over the course of a year, as they prepare and transport their bees to California’s massive annual almond pollination, an event that requires the assembly of nearly all American bees. In depicting their struggles, triumphs, and personal pain, the film delves into the scientific mystery behind CCD, the personal relationship that bonds an apiarist to their bees, and the lengths of devotion three human beings take to save themselves and an insect in crisis.
Nicole Ulibarri might have had a very different calling in life. Described by her family as smart and ambitious, Nicole got a college education and became a Seattle career woman. But she also comes from several generations of beekeepers, and the calling, along with anguish over a painful family loss, led her heart back to Montana, where she became a beekeeper. Eric Mills is probably the most interesting Southern-to-the-core gay beekeeper you’ll ever meet. Meticulous, obsessed, at times arrogant, and profoundly gifted at his profession, Eric sums up his philosophy: “If you take care of the bees, they will take care of you.” Matt Hutchins is the archetype of many blue-collar, self-made small business owners in America. His struggling rural Washington business has been decimated by dying bees, but Matt’s perseverance, sense of obligation, and love of his craft drives his desire to keep going. In 1996, the almond industry got a huge boost when California led research efforts on the health effects of almonds, leading to a doubling of almond consumption worldwide. California is the industry leader in almond production, growing 80% of the world’s supply. The caveat is that almonds are almost completely reliant on bee populations for pollination. As such, the yearly California crop acts as a sort of beekeeper’s “Yukon gold rush”. 75% of all American beekeepers head out to California yearly to pollinate almonds, and rely on this event to earn most of their income (approximately $150 for a full hive). Among them are Nicole, Eric and Matt. Would their hives survive the stressful voyage to California? Could they beat the unbelievable odds against them to make a year’s worth of work pay off?
What is Colony Collapse Disorder? Beginning in October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. In 2007, 20 billion bees disappeared. This phenomenon, for which scientists have not been able to elucidate a cause, has been termed “Colony Collapse Disorder”. The main symptom of CCD is simply no or a low number of adult honey bees present but with a live queen and no dead honey bees in the hive. In a 2007 report prepared for Congress by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council’s (NRC) “Status of Pollinators Committee”, several factors were isolated as contributing to CCD, including invasive parasitic varroa mites, introduction of Africanized honeybees to replace dying European colonies, resistance to antibiotics treating American foulbrood, the major bacterial disease affecting honey bees, poor nutrition, the small hive beetle, the use of insecticides in crop protection and the stress inflicted on dwindling US hives in almond pollination. In response to this crisis, the Agricultural Research Service arm of the US Department of Agriculture has released an action plan to mitigate honeybee losses from CCD. Heavily featured in The Last Beekeeper, Professor Dennis vanEngelsdorp and his group at the University of Pennsylvania are attempting to figure out the exact reasons bees are dying in droves. After conducting autopsies on thousands of dead bees, the sick bees were found to be bigger, darker, with alarming multi-disease abnormalities, indicating a systemic immunity collapse akin to HIV infection. Incidentally, for one of the best explanations of CCD and celebrations of beekeepers, check out this video TED Talk entitled “Where Have All The Bees Gone?” presented by Professor vanEngelsdorp, in which he delves into the gentle, misunderstood creature’s important place in nature and the mystery behind its alarming disappearance:
Beekeeping is an essential component of modern agriculture, providing pollination services for over 90 commercial crops grown in the United States. The honey bee adds $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year, and the demand for honey bees is growing. The California almond crop alone uses 1.3 million colonies of bees for pollination, approximately one half of all honey bees in the United States.
Several important running themes are explored throughout this movie, with disappearing bees as the background context. Loss and devotion at all costs. Through all three stories told runs a profound sense of loss (whether Nicole’s personal tragedy or Matt’s hive devastation) and the cost of being a modern beekeeper. Matt’s decisions cause tremendous strife within his family, while Eric, whose partner quit his job to assist him with the business, sees himself as fungible compared to the bees. Bees as humanlike creatures. Through some very adroit camera work, Simmons is able to provide a rare emotional purview into the world of bees helping one another, working together, dying together. Above all else is the love of the bees. The beekeepers portrayed in this film make tremendous sacrifices, professionally and personally, but are motivated and driven because of a core love for the bees. At times gut wrenching, The Last Beekeeper effectively communicates the frustration and helplessness these caretakers feel.
If the current situation does not improve, the future for beekeepers looks pretty grim. As it stands, there are less than 1,600 beekeepers in all of the United States. (In 1950, there were 500,000.) At the rate they are dying, bees will cease to exist in North America by 2035. It is up to scientists, environmental activists, and ordinary citizens to take action, get informed, and prevent these assiduous, necessary, beautiful creatures from disappearing from our planet. At the end of the movie, sitting in his nearly devastated, ghostly apiary, beekeeper Jim Robertson sadly muses how much honeybees serve by nature. They make enough honey for themselves and everyone else, but we are constantly trying to get more out of them than they can give us. “It’s foolishness,” he remarks quietly. Foolishness, indeed.
The Last Beekeeper is a World of Wonder film, directed by Jeremy Simmons and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. It premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 14th, 2009. It is an official selection of the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, and has two screenings: Saturday, June 20, at 2:30PM at the Regent Theater (already passed), and on Thursday, June 25, at 4:45PM at the Landmark 4.
ScriptPhD.com had the opportunity to talk with Jeremy Simmons and Fenton Bailey and get their in-depth thoughts on the film and the beekeepers. For a transcript of our interview, please click “continue reading”. Continue reading MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Beekeeper→
Suddenly, in the world of TV medicine, RN are the letters you want after your name. Two summer cable shows garnering considerable buzz, SHOWTIMEs Nurse Jackie and TNTs HawthoRNe, shine the spotlight on nurses, the hospital heroes often relegated into the shadows of doctors on prime time. ScriptPhD.com got a sneak peak of the HawthoRNe pilot and the first half of the Nurse Jackie season.
Nurse Jackie (SHOWTIME) ScriptPhD Grade: A
I didnt want to love Nurse Jackie, I just want to say that for the record. First of all, shes been taunting me on the billboards of Los Angeles all spring and summer long with that intimidating needle. Secondly, I didnt know if I had it in me to get attached to yet another medical show. Third, after hooking me with brilliant shows like Dexter, Weeds and newcomer The United States of Tara, could SHOWTIME extend their magic touch to this newest addition to their franchise? They could, they did, and the result is some of the freshest television this side of basic cable. Starring three-time Emmy®-winner Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie is based on the provocative tell-all journal of a real-life Manhattan nurse. Shot on location in New York City, the show spares nothing in projecting the goings-on of a big-city ER through the eyes of one very unorthodox nurse.
And Jackie Peyton is certainly not an easy character to love. Shes decidedly cantankerous and has little time for people or their stupidities. I dont do chatty, she barks. I like quiet. Quiet and mean. Those are my people. Shes got an unhealthy attachment to painkillers. No matter the delivery system (mouth, nose, coffee) or the type (Adderall, Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet), Jackies not very picky. She views rules as bendable at best, nonexistent at worst. Oh yeah, and then theres the part where shes cheating on her husband. But theres two sides to every coin, and Jackie is no exception. At home, hes a devoted wife and mother. Her picture-perfect husband Kevin (Dominic Fumusa) struggles between tending to their daughters Grace, sporting an escalating emotional anxiety disorder, and Fiona (Ruby Jerins and Daisy Tahan) and running his bar. At the ironically named All-Saints Hospital, shes an extraordinary, deeply empathetic nurse. Whether shes helping a 10-year-old take care of her mom with some contraband pharmacy supplies, assisting a terminally ill fellow nurse, helping a mute stroke victim shut up his obnoxious family or stealing money from a criminal to help a dead patients poor fiance, Jackie weaves through the murky moral grey area to ultimately do whats right for her patients. Part saint, part sinner, Nurse Jackie is never less than totally compelling.
Trailing Jackies every move (much to her dismay) is overly earnest, perky nursing student Zoey Barkow (Merritt Weaver). Luckily, Jackie can take reprieve from her besotted young acolyte and her problems with the rest of her hospital family. Providing cover is her partner in crime, fellow nurse Mohammed Mo-Mo de la Cruz (Haaz Sleiman), with whom she bends the rules, shares coffee breaks and romantic advice. Providing narcotics and lunchtime quickies is pharmacist Eddie Walzer (Paul Schulze). Her best friend and confidante is the wry Brit Dr. Eleanor OHara (a razor-sharp Eve Best). She has a penchant for expensive clothes, snappy comebacks and mid-town lunchcapades with Jacks, but seems to be holding back a painful past. Peter Facinelli (Damages) is the handsome, young Dr. Fitch Coop Cooper, who could easily be dismissed as a one-dimensional, book smart but inept playboy. But with lesbian moms (the devine Blythe Danner and Swoozie Kurtz), a proclivity for Tourettes-like inappropriate touching, and better doctor skills than he gives himself credit for, Coop is more than meets the eye. Rounding out the ensemle is rote ER administrator Gloria Akalitus (The West Wings Anna Deveare Smith), who rules with an iron fist, thinking shes hip to every trick in the book. (By the way, who knew Deveare Smith had such a gift for physical comedy? Two gags with a Taser and some wayward painkillers had me rolling on the floor.)
Employing top-notch writing and directing, led by creative team Evan Dunsky, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, Nurse Jackie shies away from tired old medical show tropes to peel back the layers of a functional addict leading compartmentalized lives, to realistically show the challenges nurses face in saving lives under the limitations of our broken medical system, and to ask, What does it really mean to be good? Nurse Jackie may be addicted to bad behavior and every painkiller on the planet, but in the end, Im addicted to her. I wouldnt have it any other way.
Nurse Jackie airs on SHOWTIME Mondays at 10:30 EST/PT, following Weeds.
HawthoRNe (TNT) ScriptPhD Grade: B
A number of high-profile film actors have recently settled comfortably in starring TV roles, most successfully Emmy® winners Glenn Close (Damages) and Alec Baldwin (30 Rock). TNT, with their long and storied tradition of strong female drama leads, from Kyra Sedgwicks The Closer to Holly Hunters Saving Grace, extends the same small-screen opportunity to Jada Pinkett Smith, who stars in new medical drama HawthoRNe. Lest there be any doubt about the girl power behind this series, it is being co-produced by Pinkett Smiths 100% Womon [sic] Productions. In the first five minutes alone, Christina Hawthorne races to Richmond Trinity Hospital in the middle of the night, out(wo)mans an armed security guard, tends to a wandering psych ward patient, pays care to a homeless woman shes befriended and talks down a suicidal cancer patient. But it turns out, there are some cracks in Christinas impenetrable armor. For one, the pilot takes place on the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband, whose ashes she still talks to. To celebrate, her rebellious, headstrong daughter Camille (Hannah Hodson) chains herself to the schools vending machine, much to her mother’s consternation. And a deliciously saccharine Joanna Cassidy is the still-meddling mother-in-law who also serves on Trinitys board.
As the hospitals Chief Nursing Officer, Christina is organized, uncompromising, decisive, empathetic, and always puts the needs of patients first. Her charges include nurse Bobbie Jackson (Suleka Matthew), one of her best friends and nurse Ray Stein (David Julian Hirsh), a man caught in a womans world. Aliass Michael Vartan (welcome back to television Mr. Vaughn!) is Dr. Tom Wakefield, the Chief of Surgery with whom Christina often butts heads administratively, but who also treated her late husband for cancer.
Still working out its kinks, HawthoRNe feels a bit uneven at times, mostly due to relying on some trite, atavistic medical formulas that come off stale. A genuinely compelling storyline about a homeless woman besieged with mental problems giving birth outside the hospital is negated by an unnecessary (and gross!) side plot involving a grateful nurse (Christina Moore) um thanking a wounded soldier for his service. Her name is Candy. Seriously. And a chance to explore doctor-nurse synergy and conflict in providing effective patient care turns downright silly when the characters in question ride two extremes: the stupendously arrogant, omniscient doctor whose decisions Cannot. Be. Questioned. and the equally timorous nurse who dare not think independently. And dont forget to save some snickers, because hes a male nurse, which is funny, or was in 1975.
TNT may know drama, but HawthoRNe needs to tone it down a bit. To be fair, having only viewed the pilot, the show has definite potential to grow. With the departure of ER, no current medical show centerpieces medicine in a cash-strapped, blue-collar city hospital. Set in Richmond, VA, HawthoRNe has a unique opportunity to tell stories pertaining to the challenges of its setting and patient population. It also is clearly a character-driven drama, establishing some fascinating early relationships. The tension between Christina and her bitchy mother-in-law, tempered by working through the shared grief with her still-angry daughter, makes for a rather interesting family triangle. And sparks fly between Pinkett Smith and Vartan, who is obviously being set up as a potential love interest. But the biggest asset is Pinket Smith herself. She brings an intensity, compassion and resolve to a complex character. Her movie star power translates well to the small screen, and could easily make HawthoRNe a fine vehicle for her considerable acting chops. Assuming they steer clear of Clicheland.
HawthoRNe premieres this Tuesday, June 16th on TNT at 9 EST/PT.
This sudden focus on the nursing profession doesnt come a minute too soon. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the United States is in the midst of an imminent nursing shortage, compounded by the rapidly aging baby boomer population and low enrollment in nursing programs that is not expected to meet this demand. As of July, 2007, total RN vacancies across the US totaled 135,000, or 8.1%, according to a report released by the American Hospital Association. Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published in the November 2007 Monthly Labor Review foresee that more than one million new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2016. Contributing factors vary, from a shortage of nursing school faculty and projected enrollments, to a slowing rate of growth for the overall nursing population, resulting in a climbing average age of the nursing population. The result for nurses? Insufficient staffing is raising their stress levels, impacting job satisfaction, and driving many nurses to leave the profession. The result for patients? Inadequate access to quality health care. An eye-opening report released in August 2002 by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, revealed that a shortage of nurses in America’s hospitals is putting patient lives in danger. JCAHO examined 1609 hospital reports of patient deaths and injuries since 1996 and found that low nursing staff levels were a contributing factor in 24% of the cases.
Less than a month ago, members of major nursing unions that included the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, the United American Nurses (UAN), and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, congregated on Capitol Hill as part of a National RN Day of Action in Washington, D.C., that included a conference focused on promoting legislation that would guarantee certain ratios of nurses to patients nationally, a march and rally, and visits to their congressional representatives to advocate on various legislative issues. The legislation, House Resolution 2273, also seeks to protect the rights of nurses to advocate on behalf of their patients, and to invest in training new nurses to address the current nationwide nursing shortage.
To discuss some of these issues, and to get a dose of real-life perspective on the profession, ScriptPhD.com sat down with Dr. Suzette Cardin, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at UCLAs venerable School of Nursing, ranked in the top ten of national nursing programs. Dr. Cardin has over 35 years of experience in nursing, and prior to her faculty appointment, she spent 14 years as Unit Director of the Critical Care Unit and the Cardiac Observation Unit at the UCLA Medical Center. She has been honored as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and the American Heart Association. To read our interview, please click “continue reading”. Continue reading TV REVIEW: Nurses Ratchet Up the Medical Show Ladder→
I’m honored to be joining ScriptPhD.com as an East Coast Correspondent, and look forward to bringing you coverage from events in such exciting areas as Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York City – as well as my hometown of Washington, DC.
And to that end, here is a re-cap of the World Science Festival’s panel “Battlestar Galactica: Cyborgs on the Horizon.” For anyone interested in the intersection of Science and Pop Culture, I cannot promote this event enough. In addition to the panel I’ll be describing, some of the participants included Alan Alda, Glenn Close, Bobby McFerrin, YoYo Ma, and Christine Baranski from the entertainment sector. Representing science were notables like Dr. James Watson (who along with Francis Crick was the first to elucidate the helical structure of DNA), Sir Paul Nurse (Nobel Laureate and president of Rockefeller University), and E.O. Wilson (who is celebrating his 80th birthday in conjunction with the festival).
To people who might wonder what three most important factors helped me navigate the rigors of higher education, Id say passion, persistence, and good old-fashioned hard work. Yeah, right! More like coffee, my iPod and PHD Comics. Oh yes, three times a week, as Id saunter to my graduate mausoleumoffice, serious decisions had to be weighed: pipette smelly bacteria or laugh along to a spot-on comic strip spoofing the ups and downs of all things academe? You know I made the right choice every time!
What is PHD Comics? Its official name, Piled Higher and Deeper, is derived from one the oldest inside puns about ascension on the ladder of knowledge: if a BS stands for bullshit (pardon my Swahili), MS means more of the same, and attaining a PhD means youre piled higher and deeper. (Empirical observations have validated the veracity of these acronyms.) Often relegated to fringe sidelines in media and popular culture, the junior Ivory Tower set is composed of a bustling microcosm sporting its own culture, mores, axioms, and idiosyncrasies. Illustrated and composed by scientist Jorge Cham, PHD Comics celebrates, spoofs, but most importantly, spotlights, this world with remarkable humor and authenticity. I have had too many Oh my gosh that is SO true! moments reading this comic to count. But a few notables:
Jorge Cham got his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech University He then completed doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University with a research focus in Robotics. Jorge built robots that mimic natural biological functions in their technological design, resulting in some of the fastest running prototypes ever created. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech University, where his research specialized in the design of smart biomimetic neural implants. His impressive body of work includes 24 scholarly articles, invited talks at prestigious universities and leading corporations, as well as teaching experience as a lecturer at Caltech. Oh, yeah, and he can draw pretty well too!
PHD Comics embodies the notion of a mighty tree growing from a small acorn. Initially published as a black and white strip at the Stanford University Daily while Cham was a PhD student, it quickly built a devoted cult following. Especially popular among grad students, scientists, engineers and other tech-geeks, the strip eventually found its way into a plethora of college dailies and mainstream national publications, with the official site generating over 12 million monthly pageviews. To date, the comic has evolved into a full color publication, including posters, song parodies, and book collections that have sold over 60,000 copies. You can (and absolutely should!) catch the latest PHD Comics on the official website, follow along on Twitter or on Facebook.
A couple of standout hits hand-picked by the ScriptPhD:
Who Will Grade Your Work?, a song parody of Jewels Who Will Save Your Soul? (particularly appreciated by those of us who have had the er distinct pleasure of being Teaching Assistants). Click the link for the mp3.
If TV Science Was More Like Real Science . This strip was my favorite, and particularly apropos for our site, because we do cover the very best of science and technology in entertainment. Sometimes its really hard to ignore the worst!
ScriptPhD.com was extraordinarily fortunate to catch up with Dr. Cham, who graciously and generously lent us some time in-between updating his strip and promoting the new addition to the PHD Comics books on a campus tour.
Remember back during our complete coverage of the Battlestar Galactica panel at the Paley Television Festival when I said that event would probably be the last significant gathering of on and off-screen talent from the show? Well, I may have been lyingpremature in my declaration. Its no secret that in the annals of television history, Battlestar Galactica will rightfully take its place as one of the most sophisticated, abstruse, demanding, and thoughtful shows to ever grace the silver screen. No issue or hot-button topic was off-limits to the writers: war crimes, torture, genocide, abortion, religious conflict, human rights, the rule of law, anarchy, the very essence of humanness. Though an action-adventure space opera to its core, BSG integrated storylines eerily germane to the times we live in, and transcended its medium in the process.
In recognition of these tremendous achievements, and in a television first, the United Nations hosted an invitation-only panel back on March 17th in the hallowed Economic and Social Council Chamber composed of UN representatives and officers, cast members Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, and executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. As a pilot project for its Department of Public Informations Creative Community Outreach Initiative, the UN hopes to partner more often with the international film and television industries to raise awareness and foster discussion of prevalent global issues. Unfortunately the first United Nations event took place at their headquarters in New York and we had to miss it (sadly, the ScriptPhD is not yet bicoastal). But luckily for us, the United Nations partnered with the Sci-Fi Channel to host a West Coast rebroadcast from Hollywood Thursday night. As a part of the Los Angeles Timess annual pre-Emmy Envelope Screening Series, LA Times writer Geoff Boucher moderated a panel that once again welcomed McDonnell, Olmos, Moore and Eick, and UN representatives Steven Siguero and Craig Mokhiber.
Amid a chorus of enthusiastic fans and So say
we all!s, a lively and vibrant discussion ensued about torture, enemy combatants, race, and the upcoming Battlestar Galactica: The Plan TV movie event. ScriptPhD.com is proud to bring you complete coverage.
I must preface this next post with a little truth in advertising. I’m a chemist. True blue, to my very core. College degree in physical chemistry, PhD in chemistry. So when I heard about a cable show on AMC whose whole premise rested on a chemistry teacher manufacturing meth, I must say, I was slightly skeptical. The propensity for letdown was huge, both in plot and in science. Well, let me assure you that Breaking Bad broke good. A “Break”out hit in its second season, the show has managed to layer complex serialized storytelling with compelling characters and stories, and even better science. In fact, chemistry itself can very well be considered a recurring character on this show and we’ll highlight some of the best moments in a bit.
ScriptPhD Grade: A+
If the pilot episode doesn’t get your attention in the first five minutes, then I don’t know what will. A man wearing nothing but his skivvies and a gas mask careens a Winnebago in the New Mexico desert, a passed out body beside him, two more dead in the back, and a toxic sludge of chemicals seeping on the floor. With impending sirens approaching, he videotapes a final goodbye and apology to his family. Through flashbacks, we come to find out that the man is Walter White, an unassuming chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, NM. While on his humiliating moonlighting shift as a car wash attendant, because we pay our public school teachers so well, Walt collapses. The culprit? Lung cancer. Terminal. Inoperable. He decides to infuse some excitement into his life on a bust ride with his brother-in-law, a DEA agent. Only instead of discouraging Walt, the bust shows him how much money can be made. While pondering the possibility of leaving his family financially secure after his passing, he spots an old flunky student, Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the scene. “You know the business, I know the chemistry,” he proposes to Jesse. An idea is born, and the metamorphosis of Walter White begins. Back to the original scene, the sirens turn out to be fire trucks, one of the many hair-raising escapes to come, and Walt and Jesse live to sell meth another day.
In addition to Walt (played by the talented Bryan Cranston), and Jesse (dazzling newcomer Aaron Paul), we meet Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt’s supportive but perplexed wife, who grows to be very suspicious of him as he has a harder time curtailing his clandestine activities, and Walt, Jr., a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, sensitively portrayed by RJ Mitte. The relationships serve as a centerpiece of the show are unraveled like the plot, in layers and tantalizingly. As Walt’s own family unit faces turmoil, Jesse, too, is disowned by his for his drug use. What started out as a business transaction between a teacher and former student blossoms into a tender father-son relationship. Meanwhile, while Walt’s well-meaning DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) closes in on the hottest new meth dealer in town, Walt and Jesse face a series of personal and professional setbacks. For every two steps forward, for every dollar made, there is a new foe, a new nemesis, or new unintended collateral. All of the action culminates in an electrifying Season 2 finale sure to generate buzz and anticipation for Season 3.
Science on Breaking Bad is given the red carpet treatment: it’s sleek, sexy, geek-chic, tongue-in-cheek and everywhere. The show revels in delightful touches such as the title credits interspersing elements from the periodic table. Walt’s classes brim with interesting blink-or-you-miss-it factoids, such as H. Tracy Hall inventing the first reproducible process for making diamonds. To a stupefied, gun-happy Jesse, he makes the suggestion of killing a drug lord with castor beans, the source of the protein toxin ricin. And let’s not mention the two separate synthetic methods he comes up with to cook and crystallize the best meth the New Mexico DEA has ever seen. The darkly comedic highlights of the show are Walt and Jesse’s interactions in their “laboratory”, a beaten-down Winnebago camper. Shocked by Jesse’s sloppy street cooking, Walt pilfers glassware and equipment from his classroom—gas masks, round bottom flasks, reflux condensers, crystallization dishes—to build a setup worthy of Pfizer. Along the way, Jesse gets some remedial chemistry that he failed back in high school. I mean, sure, they’re making a devastating and highly illegal narcotic, but at least it’s via a proper Grignard reagent amination of a Schiff base!
On a more serious note, Breaking Bad also strives for a VERY candid and unrelenting portrayal of both cancer and the ramifications of the modern-day drug trade. Often whitewashed in entertainment, Walt’s cancer, and the side effects are shown in a brutal way, but the stark realism also underscores his desperation as the illness unfolds. Easily on par with David Simon’s brilliant The Wire on HBO, in the world of Breaking Bad no one is absolved from the intertwining effects of drugs—the rising body count, both from use and dealing, the strain on law enforcement, and families torn apart. In an astute opening TRULY ripped from the headlines, a Season 2 Breaking Bad episode starts with an original narcocorrido, a Mexican drug ballad evolved from its folk music tradition that is often used to chronicle the drug trade and escalating violence over the last two decades. Take a look:
Bottom line: the science is white-hot, the writing is red-hot, the meth is blue and the humor is black, so why aren’t you watching?
Breaking Bad has been the recipient of a number of recent awards and critical acclaim. They won a 2009 Peabody Award for excellence in television achievement. Bryan Cranston won the 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Dramatic Series. Series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan won a Writers Guild of America award for the Pilot episode. Many more achievements are sure to come for their outstanding sophomore effort!
Who among us hasn’t wanted, nay desperately needed, to forget a painful event, relationship, person, or circumstance that can’t seem to escape their memory? Oh to be able to just wipe it from your brain and pretend it never happened! The concept sounds like something straight out of the imaginative mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. In his movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ex-lovers Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, erase memories of each other after their relationship sours. To do this, they seek out the bioengineering company Lacuna Inc, whose scruples are more than ambiguous. All’s well that ends well for the lovers, as they reconnect towards the end of the movie, rebuild new memories of one another and fall back in love.
Indeed, plenty of recent movies deal with memory loss, of varying degree, origin and consequence. In Christopher Nolan’s brilliant and esoteric Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), suffering from antiretrograde amnesia rendering him unable to form new memories, is trying to piece together the events of the vicious attack and murder of his wife. A similar condition is suffered by Drew Barrymore’s character in the romantic comedy 50 First Dates and has to “meet” her character’s love interest anew every day. In Paycheck, the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction story, Ben Affleck’s character takes extreme measure to protect his clients’ intellectual property, in the form of wiping his own memory, almost costing him his own life as his last deal embroils him in a standoff with the FBI.
Indeed, a slew of medical and psychological syndromes can cause, or is associated with, memory loss. But the idea of selective memory engineering has been the stuff of science fiction fancy.
While watching an episode of the television version of This American Life, I was struck by the episode entitled “Pandora’s Box”, which profiled the work of SUNY Downstate Medical researchers Drs. Todd Sacktor and Andre Fenton. Dr. Sacktor had a revolutionary idea about how memory is formed in the brain, and the elementary, yet powerful, way to manipulate it by eradicating the function of one regulatory molecule. And what a Pandora’s box did they open! Take a look at this short clip:
Powerful stuff, no? This research, in effect, suggests that a single molecule, Protein Kinase Mzeta, regulates the brain’s ability to form and retain memories, and consequently lies at the heart of memory erasure potential. In a recent New York Times interview, Dr. Sacktor admitted that his scientist dad directed him to a family of molecules called Protein Kinase C in 1985, from which his lab derived PKMzeta as a brain-specific member of that family. In a 1999 paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Drs. Jeff Lichtman and Joshua Sanes narrowed down 117 hypothetical molecules involved in long-term potentiation (LTP), the communication between two neurons when stimulated simultaneously. Following this paper, in a subsequent 2002 Nature Neuroscience paper, Dr. Sacktor’s lab was able to isolate PKMzeta as the absolute “it” memory factor, showing that it congregates semi-permanently en masse around these activated neuronal connections. At that point, he was off to the races. He joined forces with the friendly neighbor downstairs, neuroscientist Dr. Andre Fenton, who just happened to study spatial memory in mice and rats. He had previously shown that mice and rats placed in a circular chamber learn how to move around to avoid getting their feet shocked, a memory they retain, days, weeks, even months later. Sacktor’s lab injected an inhibitor for PKMzeta into the rats’ hippocampus, the part of our brain that regulates memory. The results were stunning. Two pioneering papers (paper 1 and paper 2) in the elite research journal Science showed that these “blockers” both reversed the rats’ neurons from forming long-term potentiation, and that it manifested in them forgetting the spatial information they’d learned in the chamber, an effect that seemed to last for weeks. Drs. Sacktor and Fenton had erased the rats’ memory!
Dr. Fenton and Dr. Sacktor’s reaction to their research in the This American Life piece was notable. Normally, scientists are shielded well behind the safe solitude of the ivory tower: long work hours, constant pressure, achieving the next research milestone. It’s not that scientists don’t ever think about the implications of their work per se, but they rarely have the luxury of time for such contemplation or the fortune of far-reaching results. While he read letters from victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Fenton broke down crying, and expressed a desire to just help these people.
Less than two months ago, scientists at the Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children [sorry I can’t help myself… as opposed to healthy ones? I love Canadians!] have added an important piece to this canon of research. In a Science paper, the scientists identified the exact group of neurons—lateral amygdala (LA) neurons with increased cyclic adenosine monophosphate response element-binding protein (CREB)—responsible for formation of a given memory (the neuronal memory trace). Selective targeting and deletion of these neurons using an injectable, inducible neurotoxin blocked all learned memories.
Eventually, of course, all of this body of science will coalesce into a more coherent picture of how memories are formed, what subsets of neurons in which portions of the brain store them, and what molecules and proteins we can manipulate to control, enhance or erase memory altogether. But that still leaves us to grapple with some very powerful and comprehensive bioethical dilemmas. Assuming that this translates into a medical procedure or pharmaceutical treatment for memory manipulation, who will regulate it? How will rules be established to regulate how far to take this therapy? Is memory erasure the equivalent of altering our personalities, the essence of who we are, a psychological lobotomy? Most importantly, however, is the question of how much we need memories, even painful, negative ones, to build the cornerstones of human morality, empathy, and the absolute meaning of right and wrong.
Sheena Jocelyn, one of the researchers involved in the University of Toronto study, acknowledged the bifurcated ethical implications of the research: “Our experiences, both good and bad, teach us things,” she said. “If we didn’t remember that the last time we touched a hot stove we got burned, we would be more likely to do it again. So in this sense, even memories of bad or frightening experiences are useful. However, there are some cases in which fearful memories become maladaptive, such as with post-traumatic stress disorder or severe phobia. Selectively erasing these intrusive memories may improve the lives of afflicted individuals.” In fact, Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Ethics Center, penned an incredibly prescient piece two years ago that equated psychological mitigation of painful memories to “cosmetic neurology”. “If, as many religions and philosophies argue, struggle and even pain are important to the development of character,” Dr. Chatterje asks, “Does the use of pharmacological interventions to ameliorate our struggles undermine this essential process?”
To shed some light of this ethical quandary, ScriptPhD.com enlisted the help of Mary Devereaux, PhD, a bioethics expert at The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology in San Diego, CA and Peter Wagner, MD, a professor in the Schools of Medicine and Bioengineering at UCSD.
Still sitting atop the box office a couple of weeks after its release, the new addition to the Star Trek franchise is, quite simply, sensational. J.J. Abrams’s stunning visual pyrotechnics in the first ten minutes are worth the price of admission alone. The 11th film in the Star Trek movie series, arguably one of its best, goes back to the beginning to recreate the narrative of James Kirk and Spock. As the film opens, the USS Kelvin is under attack by Captain Nero, of the Romulan mining ship Narada. Only able to save his pregnant wife, acting Captain George Kirk is able to witness the birth of his son, James T. Kirk, before the Kelvin is destroyed. The action picks back up as Kirk, having grown up to be the cocky daredevil that we all know and love, is urged by Captain Christopher Pike to channel his recklessness and arrogance towards joining the Starfleet Academy. On the way to the USS Enterprise, he meets some familiar friends, Commander Spock, whose own childhood is chronicled early in the film, and Leonard McCoy. During Kirk’s first moments on the Enterprise, an attack similar to the one that killed his father occurs, and in trying to warn Pike and the rest of the crew that it might be a Romulan ambush, he is kicked off the ship to the desolate Siberia-like Delta Vega for mutiny. There, in the movie’s best moments, he meets an aged Spock Prime (portrayed by Leonard Nimoy), who relays events of the future to him. In the year 2387, a particularly strong supernova threatens the entire galaxy. Ambassador Spock is sent aboard the Jellyfish to inject a “red matter” with unstable gravitational properties into the star, thereby creating an artificial black hole to devour the supernova. But he didn’t do it in time, and the planet Romulus was devoured instead, along with both ships, which travel into the past. Nero arrives 154 years earlier, when he destroys the Kelvin helmed by Kirk’s father, and Spock arrives 25 years later and is marooned by Nero on the Delta Vega, a witness to the destruction of his own planet with the very same red matter. Spock Prime convinces Kirk that he must become the Captain of the Enterprise. They meet Montgomery Scott (always a welcome source of humor relief) at a Starfleet outpost and beam back up to the Enterprise. Aided by Pavel Checkov, Scotty, Spock, Bones, Mr. Sulu, and Uhura, Kirk sets of on a dangerous and exciting mission to stop Nero, save the captured Captain Pike, and save the entire galaxy. All in a day’s work!
What worked best about the movie was its updated cast, it’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge nod to little bits of the original series, and the movie’s overall approachability. Perfectly cast, its two leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, sizzle with chemistry and add a fresh facelift to beloved characters of sci-fi lore. They channel this chemistry well Of particular note was Quinto’s lone scene with Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock. When they stood side-by-side, giving each other the Vulcan salute, I’ll admit, my nerdy little sci-fi heart melted. Also noteworthy were Karl Urban as Bones, a hilarious Simon Pegg as Scotty, and Eric Bana who does what he can with Nero (who is a little too one-dimensionally eeeeeeeeeeevil for my taste). It’s hard for anyone to find disappointment with this movie. There are so many wonderful “insider” Trekkie moments to the new Star Trek, with references to Treks of the past, that older fans will not feel ignored. By the same token, by rebooting the story of Kirk and Spock’s original friendship and retelling the story of how Kirk came to be the Captain of the Enterprise, those fans who haven’t necessarily watched the series or the movies (*whistles innocently to deflect attention*) will still be able to follow the action anew.
Thanks to some first-class big-screen magic, a sleek, snazzy tricked out Enterprise set, and all the bells and whistles modern CGI can buy, I’d say the Trek franchise will live long and prosper for quite some time to come!
I’m not here to nitpick about every little detail from the movie, like, ohhhhh, DRILLING INTO A PLANET and the considerable power it would take beyond Captain Nero’s big, bad drill. Or that quantum teleportation, at the very basis of “beam me up Scotty”, has been accomplished only on the modest scale of atoms or light beams. But I digress. Instead, here are a couple of Big Items to mull over as you’re watching or re-watching the movie.
Black Hole Sun, Won’t You Come…
Let’s talk about black holes for a moment, since they get a lot of play in the Star Trek movie. A black hole is a region of space with such a powerful gravitational field that nothing, even light can escape the pull. That is why it is called black—it absorbs all light but emits none. At the center of a black hole is a concentrated point called a singularity surrounded by a spherical boundary called an event horizon. If crossed, this boundary will lead all matter and light inevitably towards the singularity. How are they created? Well, there’s three types of black holes. Black holes at the center of galaxies are called supermassive black holes, because they are just that—supermassive, usually on the order of 10^5 to 10^10 solar masses. Then you have an intermediate black hole, which is on a smaller scale than supermassive black holes, but whose formation is still a mystery to physicists. Lastly, and most common, are stellar black holes, created by the gravitational collapse of giant stars (at least 20 times more massive than the Sun) at the end of their lifetimes. When a star runs out of nuclear fuel—its ability to balance the gravity with pressure—gravity wins out and the star, if its massive enough, explodes as a supernova. That is the core completely collapses under its own weight to a point with zero volume and infinite density (the singularity). The velocity required to be able to break free from this point would require exceeding the speed of light.
Now having reviewed all of this, you don’t have to be Einstein to know that getting really close to black holes—bad. Getting trapped inside one—VERY bad. But they don’t suck things in. Unless you are closer than twice the diameter of the black hole, the gravitational pull is no different than anywhere else in the Universe. Each black hole has an event horizon, a mathematical demarcation of the space-time continuum, the region from which no escape is possible. Cross the horizon, and you are trapped, stay out of the horizon, and you are safe. In fact, if our own Sun were to theoretically go supernova and collapse into a black hole, the Earth would not suddenly be sucked in like a Hoover, since that black hole would only be about 3 km in diameter, proportional to its mass and the radius of its event horizon. You would have to have a very massive star or planet—definitely something bigger than Vulcan or Romulus—to create a black hole with a large enough horizon to be able to pose a danger to ships and other planets far away. And even then, it wouldn’t be able to reach across outer space to go get them.
Escape from a black hole. It sounds like a bad 1960’s Sci-Fi movie. And bad science.
In the movie, the black hole that envelops Romulus spits out Spock and Nero’s ships into the past. This is just not possible. Assuming that the ships made contact with the supernova’s event horizon, tidal gravitational forces would carry you to the black hole’s singularity in a matter of seconds. And since the concentration of mass per radius of a black hole is condensed such that the escape velocity—the speed with which you’d need to move to escape the gravitational pull of that object—is greater than the speed of light, nothing gets out. The ships wouldn’t even escape as minced meat; they just wouldn’t escape.
Later in the movie, as the Enterprise is about to escape to safety from the final black hole battle, the black hole’s event horizon threatens to suck the ship in, Scotty suggests ejecting the warp core and blowing it up near the black hole, thus creating enough momentum to thrust to push the ship away. Drop a bomb here on Earth, and the force of the explosion creates a shock wave as the exothermic reaction of the explosion travels through a chemically unstable medium, such as air (lots of oxygen, nitrogen, methane, etc.). We’ve all seen the videos of how far away a nuclear detonation can have this effect. The problem is, there’s no AIR in space. The force of the explosion would just create massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation. And even if we were to swallow this oopsie, once again, the escape velocity of an event horizon is equal to the speed of light, which the Enterprise would have to outgun. So we would have to make some assumptions, like relativity and quantum theory being wrong, to breathe a sigh of relief at this miraculous escape. J.J., bubbeleh, you’re killing me!
Red Matter, It Matters!
All things being equal, the scientific low-light of the entire movie had to be the “red matter” resulting in the implosion of the planets Vulcan and Romulus. The matter was created to possess certain gravitational properties, and was originally used for a good purpose, to stop the supernova threatening the Galaxy. Without spoiling the movie for those that haven’t seen it, the matter, having reappeared in the hands of the evil Nero, is used to create a black hole that envelops the planet Vulcan. Now I can predict what you’re thinking I’ll say next… “You can’t create a black hole!!!” Well, actually, yes, you theoretically can. And recently, researchers from the University of St. Andrews did… on a tabletop! The researchers used the refractive index of a fiber optic as an analogue for a gravitational field. They sent a pulse of light through that fiber optic that changed that refractive index, and then followed that up with a probe beam of light that could travel faster than the pulse, but because of the local altered field, couldn’t move past it. Boom, theoretical black hole! This experiment was prototypic at best, though, a model for a black hole using fiberoptic analogy. But to create something powerful enough to collapse a planet, a galaxy, especially given what we’ve discussed about getting close to a black hole, he fact of the matter is…. you need matter. And lots of it. The size and diameter of a black hole is directly proportional to mass of the original collapsing star. Something the size of a droplet of red matter would create a black hole smaller than the size of a pin, and since the event horizon is twice the diameter away…. OK, you guys are starting to get it. So the idea that a mere soupcon of mysterious “red stuff” can create a black hole core with that kind of gravitational pull? Well, that’s Hollywood. Shiny, dazzling Hollywood, but Hollywood no less.
Interested in reading more about the science behind Star Trek? Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss has written a fantastic book called “The Physics of Star Trek”.
All other things being equal, however, the movie itself had way too many shiny explosions, neat special effects, a decent script, and likeable, sexy cast portraying familiar characters to divert my attention away from J.J. Abrams’s brilliance or the tight production values. Bottom line? Worth seeing, and definitely reinvigorates the franchise. And hey, it got us talking about physics, right?
But you don’t have to move at warp speed or dream big on a movie screen to see stunning examples of technology and engineering taking off to the cosmos or staying right here on Earth! Click “continue reading” for more details… Continue reading Trekking to Outer Space… And Beyond!→