Lifelong Learning Programme

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Chemistry is all around us
Copyright 2015
This project has been funded with
support from the European Commission

Educational Packages

Chemistry in Science Fiction

Science Fiction


Chemistry in science fiction? A bit unusual. Technology, yes, robotics, spacecraft, you name it. Physics, of course, worm holes, time travel, beam me up Scotty, we all know about it. But chemistry?

Indeed, chemistry is rare in science fiction, unless...

Unless you extend the focus a little bit and of all of sudden there you are:
  • New elements, new materials, new alloys
  • Toxic atmospheres and methane lakes on distant moons and planets
  • Alien viruses and bacteria, drugs and medicines
  • Strange rays and formulas changing human metabolism and even transforming human beings
  • Aliens and their alien metabolism and food (strangely enough, they always tend to prefer humans as a diet)

Admittedly, we often find a mix of chemistry, biology and physics, but then it is difficult to draw a clear line between these sciences - especially on a molecular level - therefore, we need to apply a more holistic point of view. And here you can find science fiction stories and books where chemistry plays a bigger role. For example,
  1. “Bedlam Planet” by John Brunner (about stranded pioneers trying to adjust to a foreign planet's microbiology and chemistry)
  2. “Protector”, by Larry Niven (about the metabolism of an alien life form, its food and effect on humans)
  3. or the “Dune” series by Frank Herbert (not only about a drug called spice)

Science fiction itself is another hazy category. In contrast to popular belief, science fiction is not a modern phenomenon. At around 150 A.D, Lukian of Samosata already told stories of journeys to the moon, and under the perspective of being a source of science fiction even Thomas Morus and his “Utopia” in the early 16th century can be seen as one of the ancestors of science fiction.

However, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are usually seen as the godfathers and godmother of science fiction. These authors show that writing science fiction stories is a way of debating and coping with the developments of technical and natural sciences. Developments, that - especially in the time of Shelly and Verne - were on the way to profoundly change life and conditions of living .

New developments in natural and technical sciences offer new possibilities, and can make life easier and more comfortable. But they very often have “a dark side” as well and can easily destroy human life on this planet.

This (at least) double-edged nature of achievements in sciences is very often the topic of science fiction stories and culminates – with the background of of poverty, hunger, the uprooting of three quarter of the population (especially in the leading industrial societies like Great Britain, Germany, France, USA), and the First World War with it's millions of deaths - with the first science fictions films in the beginning of the 20th century. Among these films are “The Impossible Voyage” by George Méliès (1904 ), “Aelita” a Russian film by Yakov Protazanor (1924),“Metropolis” by Fritz Lang (1927), and “Things to come” by W.C. Menzies (1937).

These early science fiction films– as well as their great-grand children of today – show the intertwined relationship between scientific results and discoveries, their influences on society as well as on every single human being, and the effort to cope with them.

Some of these older science fiction films are outdated by current events and technology. Are they still science fiction? If there are horror elements in science fiction like in „Alien“, is this a horror film with a science fiction background or vice versa? What about horror films like „Tarantula“ and „Them“ that in their time were maybe rather science fiction films presenting (maybe not desirable) potential futures? What about film series like „Bones“ or „C.S.I“ that play in the present, but use technology that are clearly science fiction but is close enough to be realistic?

There is no clear answer, and therefore, when we speak of “chemistry in science fiction”, we enclose literature and films ranging from classics like “Frankenstein” or “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, B-films from the 50s and 60s, to current scientific-oriented TV series.

In this respect, chemistry as a science – together with the display and description of chemical reactions in science fiction – offers interesting insights maybe not so much about chemistry itself, but rather about the context of chemistry, especially:
  • The role of science and chemistry in society
  • The role of the scientist and chemist in society.

To discuss the topics mentioned above in class or for self-study, it is recommended to use films rather than books. Two simple reasons:
  1. You can get most films and film versions of books on DVD in different languages
  2. Showing a film takes less time than reading a book (and you should not just discuss the science bits ignoring the overall plot and context).

Therefore,we focus on films, and in case of film versions of books, on those versions that were closest to the book. Apart from that, TV series like „Bones“ or „C.S.I“ are very useful and interesting and can be exploited for showing scientific procedures, research, and reasoning. Chemistry very often plays an important role in these films, and as they are relatively short, they are ideal for discussion in the classroom.