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Assessing the realism of fictional portrayals of chemistry


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I figure if I have one for biology and another for physics, I may as well round out the high school science trifecta!

 

In "The Simpsons," a recurring chemistry gimmick is to feature sulfuric acid, and to portray it as green, instead of the H2O lookalike it is in real life.

 

 

 

 

I presume the speed with which the acid would eat metal and destroy clothing is exaggerated to save time; and that it would in real life do so more slowly than that; but what of the "green" thing? I know the chemical itself is colourless as are solutions thereof in water with no impurities, but is there supposed to be a kernel of truth to the "green" thing? Are there impurities that are often deliberately added to it to make it easier to tell apart from other liquids, and/or created accidentally as a result of the manufacturing or bottling processes? Or just some misunderstanding of the term "green vitriol"? (Which I'm aware is a sulfate salt, not the acid itself, but the latter part of the name could be easily mistaken for the acid by those less familiar with either...)

 

This George Kouronis clip features him boating on a lake of 0.13pH sulfuric acid (Johnny Knoxville, eat your heart out!) and the lake appears to have a turquoise-ish cyan-ish colour. Not quite green, but close enough that I wonder if previous depictions of Kawah Ijen might have led to the association of sulfuric acid with "green" in the popular imagination. As well, it also makes me wonder what led to that turquoise-ish cyan-ish colour in the first place; could it have been yellow light reflected by the sulfur and blue light from the sky refracted together in the lake?

Edited by ScienceNostalgia101
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37 minutes ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

As well, it also makes me wonder what led to that turquoise-ish cyan-ish colour in the first place;

It may just be a simple, superficial association with toxicity. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/05/02/scheeles-green-the-color-of-fake-foliage-and-death/

After all, cartoons and comic strips have a limited, unsophisticated palette, as well as a limited, unsophisticated range of conceptualization. They need to make a visual association instantly, without explanation or references.

Edited by Peterkin
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19 hours ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

In "The Simpsons," a recurring chemistry gimmick is to feature sulfuric acid, and to portray it as green, instead of the H2O lookalike it is in real life.

Is there a point for looking for realism in cartoons, which exist without having to conform to real-world limitations (other than financial), and looking for realism in parody?

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6 minutes ago, swansont said:

s there a point for looking for realism in cartoons, which exist without having to conform to real-world limitations (other than financial), and looking for realism in parody?

Not really. But I do find some of these enduring icons of fiction interesting. Toxic substances are cyan-green. Red eyes, or red light, or haze means satanic or underworldly activity. White flowing robes stand for the attainment of some kind of heaven or beatific state. A man or humanoid figure that takes slow, heavy steps intends mindless destruction.

There is a series of associations behind such images that comes from a shared cultural sensibility.

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On 3/27/2022 at 4:23 PM, swansont said:

Is there a point for looking for realism in cartoons, which exist without having to conform to real-world limitations (other than financial), and looking for realism in parody?

It's more so because said cartoons have piqued my curiosity about very specific aspects of chemistry. Same reason I already have analogous threads for pop cultural depictions of physics and biology; you have a means to discuss these things while the matter is still fresh in your mind from the spark the fictional portrayal created in your mind.

 

Speaking of which, thanks for the feedback thus far.

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I'm always up for that, given an abiding interest in SF, both literary and cinematic.

There is a whole separate language - I guess, more accurately, dialects - of symbology in fictional representations. It's made up partly of traditional emblems, partly of linguistic analogues (puns or homophones), partly of real-world association, partly of legend and folklore.  

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8 hours ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

It's more so because said cartoons have piqued my curiosity about very specific aspects of chemistry. Same reason I already have analogous threads for pop cultural depictions of physics and biology; you have a means to discuss these things while the matter is still fresh in your mind from the spark the fictional portrayal created in your mind.

The goal is not to be scientifically accurate. Artists are going to employ artistic license, and are also limited by the medium. Rendering water as blue (or sulfuric acid as green), for example, is likely because it's far easier (and less expensive) to do that than be realistic about it. Some big-budget efforts do a better job of such things.

The radioactive rod that sticks to Homer's back in the intro of the Simpsons isn't realistic. It glows green because that's a particular trope that they are leveraging, and in the vast majority of cases you can't tell by sight that something is radioactive. Or poison. Or has a high or low pH. 

The purpose of these cartoons is to entertain, not to educate, unless an accurate portrayal is entertaining.

"We do teach it in school. You're too busy eating sugar snacks and horsing around!"

 

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