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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 16, 2009

Pass the Popcorn

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Posted by Derek

Year-end rushing around has left me little time for blogging last night or this morning. But a discussion with a colleague the other day leads me to ask a quick question of the readership: has there ever, in your view, been a realistic depiction of a research chemist in some sort of popular entertainment (TV, movie, reasonably-selling novel)? I'm hard-pressed to think of many examples myself, partly because what we do isn't (a) all that easy to explain in a dramatic setting, and (b) tends to operate with non-dramatic pacing, to put it mildly. But I'd be glad to hear some suggestions. . .

Comments (66) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. GregNeedsAJob on December 16, 2009 10:09 AM writes...

The only one that comes to mind right now is the Lifetime movie "Living Proof." If you can stomach Harry Connick Jr., he plays Dr. Dennis Slamon, and relates the story of how he singlehandedly brought Herceptin to market. Well, he might have had a little help, but it fairly accurately depicts what it might be like as a researcher - getting grants, finding funding/collaborations with pharma/biotechs, trials and tribulations with clinicals.... Pretty interesting in all.

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2. Calvin on December 16, 2009 10:09 AM writes...

Closest I can think of is "Breaking Bad" in which a high school chemistry teacher (but ex-research chemist) finds he has months to live and so tries to make cash by making extremely pure crystal meth. Only TV show where the phrase "reductive amination" has ever been uttered. Or the merits of a 5-litre RB flask been discussed. It also helps that it was a very good show if a little on the "dark" side for some.

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3. Keith Robison on December 16, 2009 10:15 AM writes...

At the beginning of Awakenings, Oliver Sacks (Robin Williams) is asked in his job interview to describe his previous project. It involved trying to purify some rare biochemical (protein?) from an ungodly quantity of earthworms. After a long exposition of the amount of tedious labor involved, the interviewer asks "Did it work?".


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4. Sili on December 16, 2009 10:49 AM writes...

Does Lorenzo's Oil count? That was pretty hardcore biochemistry for entertainment. And they had a process chemist do the essential separation of those oils as his last bow before retiring.

But I can't speak to the accuracy, since I doubt I've ever seen the whole thing - and it's been ages. All blogs and Youtube for me these days.


When I saw the hed I was sure you were referring to James Randi's unfortunate decent into presenility. (Yes, I know I shouldn't throw barbs, and instead brave the biiiig thread and engage the arguments proper.)

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5. Alex on December 16, 2009 10:51 AM writes...

"The Man in the White Suit" from the Fifties has some funny depictions of Alec Guinness doing sandbag chemistry.

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6. Nature's Kitchen on December 16, 2009 10:57 AM writes...

Does Sean Connery's magic natural product structure elucidation computer in Medicine Man count? It's kind of like an electronic grad student.

"Can it be synthesized?"

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7. opsomath on December 16, 2009 10:58 AM writes...

I second the endorsement of Breaking Bad. Definitely a dark show, but excellent drama, and while it wasn't completely focused on the chemistry, there was enough of it to keep that aspect of things interesting. Furthermore, there were no really cringe-inducing scientific bloopers that I can think of offhand, though I only watched about half the available episodes - hmm, I should finish those, it was a good show.

Highlights? Attempting to dispose of a body with aqueous HF (he told his street-rat assistant to do it in a plastic tub, not the bathtub. Did he listen? No he didn't...) Also, blowing up a rival drug-dealer's office with mercury fulminate.

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8. CMCguy on December 16, 2009 11:30 AM writes...

Tough because so many scientists in books, movies & on TV are Charaturizations that hit the extremes of either god-like miracle workers or depraved villains. As implied in post this is of course on purpose as actual documentary would probably likely take 8 weeks of filming to get may be 30 minutes of useful "action" (especially in industry where would have to cut out all the meetings unless wish to show how well mangers encourage the efforts).

There are a couple of old films (40s) that can sometimes catch on Classics Channel "Dr Erlich's Magic Bullet" and "Madam Currie" that may provide glimpses of realistic lab life.

In terms of Books Michael Crichton's works often had true to life lab/science pictures that got spun to the dramatic in the book and then totally exaggerated as a movie. As a general class most of early SciFi had elements take for actual science but rarely focused on the researchers.

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9. M. Schriver on December 16, 2009 11:42 AM writes...

There is a movie version of "Race for the Double Helix" with Jeff Goldblum in the role of Watson. The rendering of the Cartesian and Baconian philosophies of the research groups involved is quite good.

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10. You're Pfizered on December 16, 2009 11:51 AM writes...

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

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11. startup on December 16, 2009 12:04 PM writes...

Blind Fury, in which a research chemist is abducted by a criminal gang and forced to make drugs. Or else. To me the concept rings true.

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12. chemgoboom on December 16, 2009 12:34 PM writes...

Can't think of any myself. I do enjoy watching GC traces appear 5 seconds after injection on CSI though.

We can be dreamers...

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13. haywarmi on December 16, 2009 12:41 PM writes...

Dexter's Laboratory - Cartoon Netork.

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14. dkgct on December 16, 2009 12:48 PM writes...

If you expand the domain of biomedical/chemical scientists to be considered, I nominate the portrayal of scientists in "The Andromeda Strain" (the original movie, not the recent remake) for one of the most realistic on screen. Nice portrayal of scientists as real humans, with both strengths and foibles.

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15. dster35 on December 16, 2009 12:51 PM writes...

It's a Canadian show wherein the characters are biochemists that use some pretty solid biochem reasoning to solve dramaticised problems, usually an outbreak of some sort, using supercomputers and the most amazing analytical equipment yet to be developed. The vocabulary & dialogue is surprisingly accurate for a tv series.

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16. Philip on December 16, 2009 1:02 PM writes...

Definitely, CSI:Miami with it's glass walls and tables and huges LCD monitors and artful colors and lights and all those drop-dead gorgeous people, doing things that have an impact, right now! That's how I remember it, just like all the labs I've worked in. Go here:

for a virtual lab tour. They have even an LC/MS and a lot of other cool stuff. Did I mention that the labs are really clean, too? None of those people around like you shared a lab with in grad school.

You may have to sit through a car commercial before the real tour.

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17. Curt Fischer on December 16, 2009 1:18 PM writes...

I'll admit it: I watch Better Off Ted. The scientists on that show are not exactly chemists, and the breadth of their laboratory activities are grossly exaggerated for comic effect, but nonetheless I think the show somehow transmits a kind-of realistic snapshot of day-to-day life in a corporate R&D lab.

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18. David P on December 16, 2009 1:22 PM writes...

@6: Oh boy, I loved that bit, hadn't realized until then that it was supposed to be a comedy.

Though it is kind of like those slides in some of the talks where the prof has put up a structure and takes as long as it takes to say "we made this" to go over that particular doctoral thesis.

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19. ANonymous on December 16, 2009 1:23 PM writes...

Real Genius for depiction of quirky grad school research group dynamics (but I think it's physics in the screenplay...).

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20. Chemjobber on December 16, 2009 1:27 PM writes...

I also vote for Lorenzo's Oil for the scene of the old chemist performing a (vacuum?) distillation of erucic acid.

As for really bad depictions, I suggest Samuel L. Jackson's "Formula 51" (also known as "The 51st State"), where he sets up a particularly deadly reaction in a spinning rotovap bulb.

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21. Dster35 on December 16, 2009 1:59 PM writes...

Regenesis - Canadian TV show
Great use of authentic biochem principles in the dialogue with an accelerated timescale and near CSI-like analytical equipment.

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22. Fjäll Räv on December 16, 2009 2:08 PM writes...

If I recall correctly, in the novel "The Diceman" (Luke Reinhardt)the main protagonist relates the following about two men he met at a bar: "These guys were so deadly boring they could almost have been graduate students in Organic Chemistry !"

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23. You're Pfizered on December 16, 2009 2:23 PM writes...

Syd, the Science Kid.

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24. Pats on December 16, 2009 2:47 PM writes...

Interesting book by a Chemistry Professor at Univ Nebraska
ReAction!: Chemistry in the Movies by Mark A. Griep and Marjorie L. Mikasen

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25. CMCguy on December 16, 2009 3:35 PM writes...

Probably violates the "realistic researcher" criteria yet I would also vote for the "Myth Busters" as often have a fair amount of good science/method content. Between them and the YouTube Periodic Chart videos it well depicts the pyromaniac tendencies in many chemists.

#16 Philip love your take on CSI

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26. Mat Todd on December 16, 2009 3:56 PM writes...

#9 - I agree. It was called Life Story with Jeff Goldblum as Watson and Tim Piggot-Smith as Crick. Only time I've ever seem tautomerism mentioned in a (TV) movie.

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27. chemist on December 16, 2009 3:59 PM writes...

As for books I've read, some of which became movies I haven't seen:

Carl Djerassi's "Science IN Fiction" novels:
- Cantor's Dilemma.
- Bourbaki Gambit.
- NO.
- Menachem's Seed.

Harry Stein, Magic Bullet.
Allegra Goodman, Intuition.
W. Cooper, The Struggles of Albert Woods.
C.P. Snow, The Search.
Norbert Wiener, The Tempter.
Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith.
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.

Not surprisingly, parts of some of the above stories are fictionalized accounts of real events.

Movie-wise, I'm told that Pinky and the Brain come close to reality but I'm going to have to get hold of the DVDs to check them out.

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28. Dr Nick on December 16, 2009 4:08 PM writes...

Oh come on, how about Will Smith in "I Am Legend"?

Doesn't everyone deal with crazy rats or zombies??

I come in every morning... "Compound One: negative. Compound Two: negative..."

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29. nitric_oxide_99 on December 16, 2009 4:44 PM writes...

I also enjoyed Djerassi's books - especially recommend Cantor's Dilemma and the Bourbaki Gambit. NO was also fun given that some real-life folks are weaved into the fictional storyline.

Also, best non-fiction read would have to be Barry Werth's "The Billion Dollar Molecule" which I guess everyone reading/commenting on this blog has burned through.

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30. Anon on December 16, 2009 5:10 PM writes...

Jack Baldwin stared as Dr Evil in all the Austin Powers movies - or did I just imagine that.....

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31. RKN on December 16, 2009 5:12 PM writes...

If neurosurgeon subsumes research chemist, I'd recommend "Young Frankenstein."

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32. iridium on December 16, 2009 5:34 PM writes...

The periodic table by Primo Levi.
There is a lot of real chemistry in it.

"The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories by Primo Levi, published in 1975. In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever"

It might not be exactly a "reasonably-selling novel" but I remember a nice short story by Isaac Asimov "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline".

I guess chemistry is interesting only to chemists.. and even chemists get tired of being a chemist (not of chemistry) once in a while.

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33. Belen on December 16, 2009 5:47 PM writes...

I enjoyed Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. Although the chemistry is a bit out of date now days.

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34. Brad on December 16, 2009 5:48 PM writes...

I am with Alex. The Man in the White Suit is the answer to all questions. What was the question again?

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35. Don B. on December 16, 2009 6:03 PM writes...

My vote is for Madame Curie!

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36. TAK on December 16, 2009 6:57 PM writes...

In the series of mysteries by Nancy Fairbanks, the heroine's husband is an analytical chemistry professor. Although the books aren't about him, he is portrayed very realistically (goes to ACS meetings, writes grants, talks realistic shop at cocktail parties, etc.)

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37. Anonymous on December 16, 2009 8:31 PM writes...

#31 Why not "Fugitive"?

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38. Classic Space Opera on December 16, 2009 8:33 PM writes...

For shame. Doesn't anyone read the old stuff these days? Edward Elmer 'Doc' Smith, Ph.D. was one of the founders of Space Opera. (This is the genre Star Wars is in. Smith's Lensmen books are considered a major influence for Lucas.) His Skylark of Space, one of the first Sci Fi stories to leave the Solar System, starts out with the Hero, Richard Seaton, Ph.D., working as a chemist at a government institute when he isolates a certain metal from the Platinum group wastes. Ninety years of science indicates that said unknown substance probably can't exist, along with many, many other technical issues with reading the books from a modern perspective, but the lab technique seems fairly accurate.

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39. walt on December 16, 2009 10:43 PM writes...

Another spectacular chemistry book is Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks.

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40. Bored on December 16, 2009 10:49 PM writes...

He was (apparently) a physicsist, not a chemist, but the answer has to be Doc Brown from "Back to the Future." Quite realistic, except for the whole time-travel thing. He did have great taste in cars, though.

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41. Bored on December 16, 2009 10:53 PM writes...

Physicist. God I can't spell tonight. You'd think this was the internet or something.

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42. lemieux66 on December 16, 2009 11:03 PM writes...

Clark W. Griswold from the popular National Lampoon Vacation movies was a Food Additives Chemist. I believe that his claim to fame was some type of "food shellac".

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43. Doglotion on December 16, 2009 11:34 PM writes...

Come on people -- we all know the pop-cultural artifact that defines the modern scientist is Kraftwerk's Pocket Calculator.

"By pressing down a special key,
It plays a little melody"

You can bet that's what your new associate has got looped on his iPod all day.

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44. antijen on December 16, 2009 11:36 PM writes...

Intuition, by Allegra Goodwin, is a terrific novel about cancer researchers at MIT in the 1980s. She got everything right - the equipment, lab dynamics, and how that changes with one's success or failure. It's not only one of the best books about scientistst that I've read - it's one of the best books period.

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45. Popcorn? on December 16, 2009 11:52 PM writes...

Not much of a lab setting, but I really enjoyed the involvement of 60 minutes with Brown & Williamson regarding Jeffery Wigand exposing the use of coumarin in cigarettes in "The Insider"...Al Pacino is great in it.

For Books my two current favorites are
"The Demon Under the Microscope"-development of sulfa antibiotics

"Vaccinated-One Man's Quest to Cure the Deadliest Diseases"-Maurice Hilleman's life story

Haven't read it yet but hopefully will over the Holidays, "The Discovery of Insulin" in the late 20's is supposed to be a great story.

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46. Calvin on December 17, 2009 3:23 AM writes...

#30. Jack was very proud of his run in Austin Powers. Although he wasn't sure about the cat. As everybody knows Jack hates cats!

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47. Anon on December 17, 2009 5:35 AM writes...

Not research chemists, but lab research (and microbiology specifically, I guess) is done excellently in "And the band played on", on the emergence of HIV. Not only depicts realistic pace and monotony of repeated experiments, but also catches egos and politics of science.

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48. Charlie on December 17, 2009 5:42 AM writes...

Abby in NCIS. She's not really into research, it's more just general analytical, but with occasional mentions of getting papers out based on her work. It was the first episode where she mentioned DMSO and I punched the air. She doesn't do the CSI trick of results magically appearing, she tests everything and it takes time. And she doesn't fit a stereotypical scientist profile. I love her, she's the reason I watch the show.

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49. Vader on December 17, 2009 10:36 AM writes...

I see someone already beat me to suggesting "Andromeda Strain."

"Real Genius" badly exaggerates the adventures of the average Caltech undergraduate, and in a way not necessarily flattering to them -- but then the ones I knew seemed to think they were being flattered, which perhaps says it all.

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50. RTW on December 17, 2009 10:40 AM writes...

Yea - Another vote for Abby on NCIS. She even has to rely of service reps or McGee to fix Major mass spec..... She has been about the closest I have ever seen to a realistic depiction of how Analytical work is done....

Sometimes the CSI shows gets it somewhat right, when they are doing physical analysis on evidence. But some of their space age technology is out of science fiction right now. DNA analysis in minutes. Identification of chemical compounds almost automatically... The one that really got me was the one on CSI NY where the ME made a virtual 3D model of a victum on his slab, and from the virtual image did the autopsy Removing organs and examining them from the model..... Ya right.

I know a forensic scientist in a State Police lab. This sort of depiction isn't even close, to what they have available. They still use paper notebooks and instrument logs!

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51. Anonymous on December 17, 2009 10:54 AM writes...

The X-Files episode where Sculley looks at a printout of a 1D proton NMR and just by looking at the spectrum, knows the exact (complicated) structure of the mystery compound. That one aired while I was in grad school and we all laughed about it the next morning.

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52. Anonymous on December 17, 2009 12:31 PM writes...

Come on don't you all watch Fringe - Dr Bishop made LSD from scratch during a commerical break in the first episode. :)

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53. tom on December 18, 2009 8:37 AM writes...

The final scene of "The Man in the White Suit" is absolutely brilliant. Using classic Ealing comedy techniques it beautifully explains why we're all addicted to scientific research.

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54. Moebius on December 18, 2009 8:56 AM writes...

# 51... I am a big fan of the x-files, but that episode really made me disappointed in Scully ! The episode is called Synchrony and is in the fourth season.

There was some pretty bad science in the movie mission to mars (they had a weird DNA model for one thing...)I know there is a movie where Keanu Reeves is a chemist (I think it is called chain reaction), but I haven't seen it.

The couple first episodes of ''Fringe'' had some chemistry in it (there was that guy doing a complicated total synthesis in a matter of hours...)

For more science movies, there is a list at C&EN here

I also want to mention a really good movie I saw when I was an undergrad, It is called ''Les palmes de monsieur Schutz'' and is about Marie and Pierre Curie, and was pretty well made.

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55. A Nonny Mouse on December 18, 2009 12:29 PM writes...

There was a recent TV movie in the UK which depicted the development of penicillin from the Florey/Chain side of things. Having met Chain, it was a very good portrayal of him!
The was also "Stigmata" where the priest is an ex-chemist.
Also, the old man in "Lorenzo's Oil" who was doing the distillation was the actual chemist who did the real life stuff.

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56. Chemjobber on December 18, 2009 2:02 PM writes...

51: Absolutely -- and the super complicated NMR spectra (with peaks from 12 to 0) had like 3 carbons.

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57. Sili on December 18, 2009 3:19 PM writes...

51: Absolutely -- and the super complicated NMR spectra (with peaks from 12 to 0) had like 3 carbons.
Also, the old man in "Lorenzo's Oil" who was doing the distillation was the actual chemist who did the real life stuff.
I'd forgotten that. LO seems to be coming out as the winner here. Permalink to Comment

58. iggy on December 18, 2009 9:08 PM writes...

The eary 70's movie "The Andramada Strain",where the chemists do MS analyses of the virus like mutating extraterestial polygon "stuff" that turns ones blood into sand

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59. srp on December 19, 2009 5:12 AM writes...

The Man in the White Suit is the greatest piece of hard science fiction ever put on film, according to writer Ben Bova, plus it's a hilarious satire on "guild socialism."

Intution by Allegra Goodman is a fantastic novel about academic biomedical research. All the insiders who read it said it was dead-on accurate about the atmosphere of such labs, and it's a page- turning mystery and a character study with characters who feel like they could walk out of the book and into your living room.

The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif is a pop-science set of essays about famous...well, microbe hunters...done in a very romantic if not always accurate style. It supposedly motivated a lot of kids to become scientists after it came out in the 1920s or 1930s (I can't remember which). de Kruif later was Sinclair Lewis's technical advisor on Arrowsmith, probably the most successful novel about the life of a research scientist.

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60. amperro on December 19, 2009 2:26 PM writes...

The 1997 movie "The Relic" starring Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore. Contains in depth discussions of biology (though probably not accurate), research teams and conflicts between scientists over grant money.

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61. tom on December 21, 2009 6:26 AM writes...


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62. Design Monkey on December 23, 2009 12:57 PM writes...

Comeooonn guys.

Arthur Hailey, Strong Medicine (1984)

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63. meME on December 25, 2009 12:42 PM writes...

once on CSI the GC told a researcher that the accelerant for a fire was Heptane-2-one, but they pronounced it Heptane-2-1.

Realism at its best.

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64. youME on December 30, 2009 11:04 AM writes...

Regenesis. It's pretty much the Lab-Soap that my fellow students and I always imagined. And it's pretty good.

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65. orville redenbacher on January 2, 2010 10:53 PM writes...

My vote is for Madam Curie too

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66. Chemjobber on January 6, 2010 11:37 PM writes...

The chemist in Lorenzo's Oil was Don Suddaby of Croda International. I did a little writeup of him here.

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