Among the many manifestations of mental illness, psychological and developmental deficits and behavioral disorders regularly portrayed on television and film, conspicuously missing is Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental Autism-spectrum disorder. ScriptPhD.com eagerly took in a private screening of Fox Searchlight’s thoughtful new film Adam, a sensitive love story with a groundbreaking portrayal of Asperger’s in a leading character. In addition to simply reviewing the film, we wanted to provide a background primer on the basics of Asperger’s diagnosis and treatment, as well as an ensuing discussion of accuracy in portrayal and plot by the filmmakers. To do so, ScriptPhD.com enlisted the help of two leading international Asperger’s experts, Timothy P. Kowalski and Dr. Tony Attwood. Please click “continue reading” for our full story. Continue reading From the Annals of Psychology: ‘A’ is for Adam (and Asperger’s)→
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!
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!→
Airs on SciFi Channel starting early 2010. DVD including an extended version of the pilot, bonus scenes, interviews, and video blogs was released April 21, 2009.
Set fifty-eight years before the Cylon genocide attacks and the subsequent events of Battlestar Galactica, Caprica details the genesis of the first Cylons amidst the backdrop of two rival families—the Adamas and the Graystones.
For those bereft fans tuning into Caprica as a means to replicate the magic of Battlestar Galactica, you will be sorely disappointed. Oh, sure, there’s Cylons, and Adamas, and pyramid ball and plenty of ‘frak’s flying left and right. But as the pilot streamed with a bang onto the enormous screen of Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinema Dome, I was reminded in a not unpleasant way that this was not going to be the same show. And oh what a bang it was!
The action breaks in a club of sorts. Although patronized by teenagers, we meander through various provocative “rooms”—Fight Club-style combat, erotic dancing, sex shows—as three friends congregate. Suddenly, one of them spots their exact twin and we cut to the same friends, Zoe Graystone, Ben Stark and Lacey Rand, at a futuristic high school conspiring to escape their Caprica colony for the greener pastures of Geminon. On the train out of the city, however, Ben reveals himself as a suicide bomber acting in the name of the ‘Soldiers of the One’ monotheistic religious movement and commits an astounding act of terrorism that kills Zoe, among others. What had seemed like ephemeral teenage fancy is revealed to have much darker roots with wide-ranging
ramifications. Because as it turns out, Zoe is the daughter of surgeon Amanda Graystone and brilliant scientist Daniel Graystone, who has been consulting for a company entrusted with building the perfect government war machine. We recognize the faulty prototype as an early-model Centurion Cylon.
Bereft with grief over the loss of his daughter, Daniel forms an unlikely bond with earnest, honorable young lawyer Joe Adams, who also lost his wife and child in the explosion. In the search for answers, Daniel discovers Zoe was a chip off the old block. Using a hollaband, a computerized headband, that teleports him to the virtual nightclub where Zoe’s twin resides, he reunites with his dead daughter. The virtual twin from the virtual nightclub was not a twin at all, but an engineered digital life copy into whom Zoe downloaded her DNA and personality, the Zoe-A.
Preying on Joe’s grief and guilt over losing his family, Daniel poses the tantalizing possibility of being with them again through artificial computerized human replication. In setting up the major moral and philosophical conflict of the show, Daniel cajoles Joe into stealing the missing component for the war machine robot—a ‘metacognitive processor’, an artificial brain—from the rival Virgis Corporation from his own native Tauron. Adams’s reunion, however, is not nearly as heartfelt as his daughter’s replicon, trapped in a soulless black nothingness, is frightened by her very being. Buoyed by this realization, Adams reclaims his responsibility to embracing the living, namely his young son William, in a deliciously cheeky early peek at the eventual Galactica Admiral. He recounts for his son their family’s cultural and ethnic lineage from Tauron, where vicious civil wars left them orphaned strangers in a strange land. “Our name is not Adams,” he tells his son. “It’s Adama.” Nevertheless, it is too late to stop Graystone. As the Centurions flashing LED eyes change from orange to red, a Cylon—a cybernetic life node—is born, but at what cost, and at what consequence?
Caprica’s departure from the BSG shadow is immortalized in more than plot and core conflict (to build or not to build artificial intelligence), but in a cinematic majesty and geek-chick technological marvels that make for some visually appealing television. The gadgets of Caprica are bright, sleek, modern, oozing with cool, in direct contrast to the simple, practical, dilapidated equipment of the aging Galactica ship. Hollabands, paper-thin computing sheets with lit-up displays, cyber-chamberlains reminiscent of Rosie the Maid from the Jetsons, virtual mental computing, streamlined transportation hubs that we can only dream about. The cinematography of the show is split between rich, vibrant oranges and yellows for outdoor scenes and fresh blue-green hues for indoor scenes. Caprica also take advantage of Vancouver’s glorious outdoor settings in a way Battlestar could not within the location limitations of … er … space.
Another critical divergence for Caprica will be its serialized storytelling and focus on the linear dramatic development of Cylon creation and the ethical and moral quandaries posed therein. “It’s more about their personal lives,” series producer/writer Jane Espenson remarks. “They don’t have the threat of death breaking down their neck every moment so that you can feel more lived in, you can explore this culture more.” Adds Ronald D. Moore, “It’s a different show. I mean, losing the action-adventure is a risk…. [But] since there’s no Cylons coming in to sort of destroy the Galactica every once in a while, fate and humanity doesn’t hang in the balance yet.” Instead of the salvation of humanity, Caprica will probe on the very essence of what it is. “Find those things that make you cry, that make you feel,” Joseph Adama pleads of Daniel Graystone. “That’s what makes you human.” The Adama/Graystone schism certainly forms the show’s psychological nucleus, but other important questions are also raised: the roots of the monotheistic vs. polytheistic religious conflict, the greediness of the very corporate vultures that ordered the beta Centurion war models, racial and ethnic strife between the Twelve Colonies unified under one government, and the very limits of artificial intelligence and the human essence. “[These complex and difficult themes] are to Caprica what the space battles were to Battlestar,” remarks producer David Eick.
Ultimately, it is difficult for any show to escape the looming shadow of such an accomplished and critically acclaimed predecessor, especially when their plots are indelibly linked. Thankfully, Caprica has decided to step out of that inimitable shadow, contextually and stylistically, to create its own identity, and some pretty good frakkin’ television along the way. There’s enough sentimental peeks into a familiar world that we already know—so that’s how Bill Adama gained that sense of honor!—but enough new compelling characters to keep us coming back for more than just nostalgia. I, for one, plan to tune in to see what happens.