Bad Science on TV and at the Movies

1.Back to the Future(1985)

By Stephen Berlingieri

Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), is called to the Twin Pines Mall after Dr. Emmett Brown (played by Christopher Loyd) tells Marty that he has a new experiment to show him. Once Marty arrives, the doc reveals that he had created a time machine out of a DMC DeLorean.

One of the first chemical goofs that came to my attention is in the scene where the doc is pulling out a tube of plutonium which he got from a group of Libyan nationalists after he told them that he would make a bomb from it. One problem from this scene is that the plutonium is a translucent red colour, when in fact it’s silvery white colour in nature. Another problem with this scene is that weapons grade plutonium and reactor grade plutonium are two very different isotopes. Weapons grade plutonium (Pu-239) has a percentage of fissile isotopes of 93% in a material while reactor grade plutonium only has 50-60%. The weapons grade plutonium is inefficient at producing power while the reactor grade plutonium is a more suitable alternative. If he had been given weapons grade plutonium (to make the bomb, since reactor grade plutonium is almost never used to make a bomb) then he wouldn’t have been able to put it into the DeLorean and use it to power the nuclear reactor and the flux capacitor (which is also a scientific anomaly since a flux capacitor can never exist, flux is a defined as a vector field continuous in a region).          

Another problem with this scene is the fact that it is nearly impossible to have a nuclear reactor in a small area such as the back of a DeLorean. Nuclear reactors require large amounts of space and they also need proper areas to gather the nuclear waste that they produce. On top of all these facts, the humans near it also require proper protection from the radiation nuclear reactors produce. Nuclear reactors are always in containment systems that prevent the radiation from harming us, yet, even with our modern technology we haven’t been able to make small enough containment technologies or even small enough reactors. Our current nuclear powered vehicle is a submarine, which is very large.

In addition, when both Marty and Emmett are handling the plutonium to place it into the nuclear reactor they are wearing protective gear. Yet, when they are finished, the doc says that it’s all safe and that they could remove the gear. They then proceeded open a case which contains 14 more tubes of plutonium which is extremely dangerous. Weapons grade plutonium is safe to handle with just gloves on, yet, reactor grade plutonium is different. Reactor grade plutonium emits radiation and without protective gear, the handlers would have been exposed. One isotope of reactor grade plutonium, Plutonium-241, can even decay into americium-241 (this accumulates quickly and we don’t know how long the plutonium was in storage when the Libyans stole it) which emits intense alpha particles, X and gamma rays.






1. Elements of Electromagnetics Fifth Edition, Matthew N.O. Sadiku, Pg.64, 2010 by Oxford University Press Inc.

2.  Hand book of Chemistry and Physics 81st Edition, David R. Lide, 1996-1997 CRC Press Inc.    


2.      Sherlock Holmes (2009)…fun film in spite of the questionable chemistry!

One can argue that we never actually see the actual antidote to the cyanide poison derivative work. Holmes, Watson and Adler stop the release of the poisonous gas, presumably HCN, the gaseous derivative of the cyanide salt. But since all the other dubious chemistry in the film worked to a charm, we have to assume that they are proposing that such a thing as a cyanide-antidote existed or could have been discovered in the 19th century.

Hydroxycobalamin/sodium thiosulfate has been used in France since 1970. The first compound forms a strong bond with cyanide, converting it to Vitamin B12, which can then be safely excreted from the body. The so-called Cyanokit is in fact an injection given after exposure to cyanide. In the film, however, Blackwood has select politicians unwillingly drink the antidote at least a day before the attempted poisoning. According to a 2007 research paper,

some animal tests do show that an oral antidote administered 30 minutes prior to cyanide exposure can serve as an antidote.




















Sherlock Holmes (2009) 

3..       “Snorkasaurus episode” of the Flintstones (1961)

In the Flintstones a snorkasaurus (fictitious type of dinosaur) falls from a tree and lands on Barney and Fred.

Bad Science: Cavemen and dinosaurs never coexisted. According to the fossil record, the last of the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, as a result of an asteroid impact and other factors. Our genus Homo, which includes our present species and those that never made it, only evolved about 2 million years ago.


4.        Around the World in 80 Days (2004)

Towards the end of the movie, as Fogg completes his journey and returns to London, Lord Kelvin says,”This is the Royal Academy of Science. We don’t need to prove anything.”

Bad Science: It is true that towards the end of his career Kelvin was not open-minded towards new developments in physics.  But he never would have made a statement that would contradict the experimental foundations of science. Throughout his career Kelvin was actually the type of scientist that Phileas Fogg supposedly is in this version of the movie. Kelvin patented a telegraph receiver called a mirror galvanometer used on the Atlantic cable which made communication possible between Europe and North America. He also improved the mariner’s compass, invented new types of sounding gauges and a tide predictor. Theoretically, he was the first to propose that -273 is absolute zero, the temperature at which the volume of a gas is zero because its molecules possess no kinetic energy.


  • Simov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Second Edition. Doubleday. 1982

5.       King Kong (2005)

In 1933 New York, an overambitious movie producer coerces his cast and crew to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who is immediately smitten with leading lady Ann Darrow.

Bad Science: A creature 30 feet in height cannot have the same proportions as a 6 foot gorilla and maintain its strength and fluidity. If Kong is 5 feet times taller, he’ll also be 5 times thicker and 5 times wider, making him 125 times heavier. But the cross sectional area of his muscles would only be 25 times as large and would make it difficult for him to move around. Also Kong is presumably a prehistoric creature living on a small island, where the area would not be able to sustain such a large beast.


6.       Spiderman (2002)

Nerdy high school student Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically modified spider, and his body chemistry is altered mutagenically. Suddenly, he can scale walls and ceilings; he has superhuman eyesight, strength and reflexes, and he develops a precognitive sense that warns him of approaching danger.

Bad Science:

We know of chemicals that are mutagenic and that cause visible changes to organisms, but it is a bit far-fetched to have so many positive changes occurring so quickly and in such a coordinated fashion. A fair amount of protein is needed for him to grow the extra muscle and clinging hairs that he acquires in less than 24 hours. Where did it come from? Even the most spectacular and unimaginable mutations cannot violate the conservation of mass principle. In addition, Parker’s newly found muscle-power and uncanny reflexes are based on the misconception that a spider scaled to the size of a human will retain its muscle-strength to weight ratio and its quick responses.


7..Batman episode The Penguin Declines (1967)

Joker and Penguin collaborate in a series of crimes inspired by signs of the Zodiac. The Joker's moll, Venus, turns from her evil ways to assist Batman and Robin, but all three are chained in a shallow pool, about to be eaten by a giant clam.

Bad Science:

A giant clam does exist. Tridacna gigas  may weigh over 500 lb (225 kg) and attain a length of over 4 ft (120 cm). But they are filter feeders using algae as their main source of food. Stories of people being trapped in clams have never been substantiated.


8. Star Trek Episode 26 The Devil in the Dark (1966 )

There's an emergency on Janus VI, a seemingly uninhabited planet rich in metals and rare minerals crucial to Federation operations,, but there's a swift-moving, unseen monster roaming the snaky tunnels of Janus's interior, turning miners into acid-drenched goo. Fifty men have died, and Captain Kirk Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy) beam down to initiate the detective work. Spock surmises that silicon-based life is behind the mystery.

Bad Science: Although silicon has the same valence number as carbon, Si’s chemistry is different enough to make silicon-based life highly improbable. Carbon can catenate: it can make chains with itself. Life’s key molecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids carbohydrates) all involve carbon chains.  Catenation with carbon is facilitated by the strength of the C-C single bond (356 kJ/mol). In addition, carbon can form C=C double bonds and CC triple bonds through sideways overlap of atomic p orbitals. The combined effects of catenation and multiple bond formation allows the formation of cyclic aromatic compounds such as adenine, which is found in ATP, DNA, RNA and other molecules. Silicon can also catenate but far less effectively due to much weaker single bonds (Si-Si 226 kJ/mol). Multiple bonding for silicon is also highly unstable due to poor π overlap of its 3p orbitals because of interference from empty 3d orbitals. Silicon instead loves to catenate with oxygen (as Dr. McCoy points out) to create sand. Oxygen is a common atom in the universe, and it is a very efficient electron-mugger and energy-liberator. Life without it has arisen and still exists, but it is very difficult to have multicellular life without it.


0. Star Trek Movie

A spaceship is attacked, and we hear several explosions in space.

Bad Science: There are very few molecules in space. Without a medium to transmit sound waves, no sound is possible. In older Star Trek episodes, explosions were portrayed more accurately: they were silent.

Other links:

3 Things Sci-Fi Movies Get Right



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