Alien Biochemistry & Extraterrestrial Minerals
Descriptions of the Movie clips and Explanations used in the presentation titled
“Alien Biochemistry and Extraterrestrial Minerals in the Movies”
Here is my paper about the effectiveness of using these movie clips to teach chemistry to students in a summer science camp.
Close Encounters with Creative Chemical Thinking.
Clip 1: Men in Black II (2002)
Before showing the clip, the students are asked whether they’ve seen this movie. The majority raise their hands affirmatively. They are reminded that Agent Jay (Will Smith) and Agent Tee (Frank the pug; voice of Patrick Warburton) are investigating an alienicide at a pizza parlor and that they should pay close attention to the clues.
This clip is the shortest at 1:03 min. It begins with Jay and Tee getting out of their black Mercedes at Ben’s Pizza of SoHo. Before they enter, Tee agrees not to talk. As soon as they are inside, however, Tee asks the two investigating agents, “What do we got?” After Jay gives Tee a look of disapproval, Tee pretends to zip his lips and then Jay asks the agents, “What do we got?” One of them responds, “There’s a phosphorus residue on the wall and floor. We’ve sent samples back to Emm for analysis.” Tee then jokes, “Hey Jay, zero percent body fat” as we see the dead body is deflated on the floor. The agents laugh but Jay gives them his disapproving look so they stop laughing as one of them explains, “Funny.” Jay immediately asks, “Witness?” The agent tells him that waitress Laura Vasquez saw everything. Jay sets off to query her and tells Tee to stay behind because the talking dog thing might upset her. Tee is miffed and asks, “What do you want me to do?” Jay shrugs his shoulders and says, “Sniff around.” The agents laugh but Tee gives them a look and the clip ends when one of them says, “Funny.” The students are then asked to rate the clip for your personal Wow!, where 1 is low and 5 is high. Another ending point might have been after Agent Jay finished interviewing waitress Laura Vasquez but it would have added another 2 min. Given that the first explanation is the longest, we opted for the shorter clip.
The explanation following Men in Black II has three parts. First, we note the clue is that the “Alienicide leaves phosphorus residue on the walls and floor” and then ask rhetorically “Why is that significant?” Next, they are shown the elemental abundance of vertebrates and the solar system. They are reminded there are many types of aliens in the movie and that they all appear to be vertebrates. The composition of our solar system is determined by our Sun because it is so massive in comparison to the planets. It has a similar composition to rest of the universe. Then, it is noted that the first four elements of life are the same as the first four chemically reactive elements in the universe. Helium cannot form bonds and cannot be used by any life form. While looking at a different student each time for each clause, they are told “You are one with the universe, you are made of cosmic stardust, and you reflect your environment”. It makes some sense that life forms will make use of the most abundant elements. But wait, phosphorus is the sixth most abundant elements in vertebrates and isn’t even in the top ten of the solar system elements (it is #17). Even though phosphorus is low in the soil, plants bioaccumulate it as phosphate from the soil. The concentration of phosphate in living organisms is much higher than their environment. Animals eat plants and bioaccumulate it too. Therefore, phosphorus is a signifying element of life. The phosphorus clue in the clip is telling the agents that the dead alien must have been formerly alive.
In the second part of the explanation, the students learn that Agent Jay tells Laura Vasquez that the dead alien didn’t have skin but a “protoplasm polymer similar to the chemical makeup of chewing gum packaged with baseball cards.” They are asked the class of molecules to which chewing gum belongs. Often after some waiting, someone gives the correct answer of rubber. Therefore, it is a joke on the audience that the moviemakers are admitting the alien was wearing a rubber suit. Since there are the two types of aliens in the movie, the students are asked whether the dead alien’s outer layer was (a) a natural protective skin, or (b) a humanoid body mask. In a call for a raised hands, nearly all of them choose answer (b). We agree there is insufficient information to know for certain but that we favor answer (a) because of the phrase “protoplasm polymer similar to”, where protoplasm is an old term meaning the fluid in a cell containing all the necessary small molecules and ions of life. It is a living polymer. The object of this explanation is to get them to pay very close attention to details of the question.
In the final part of the explanation, the students are asked “Do the aliens in the movie resemble life forms on Earth because: (a) we share a common ancestor, or (b) similar environments produce similar adaptations?” The response is overwhelmingly for answer (b). Once again, they are told there is insufficient information to answer this question but how would you test the hypothesis of answer (a) if you had access to an alien. The most common answers are anatomical comparison and DNA sequence comparison.
Reference: Griep, M. A. (2006) The Chemistry of Men in Black II. In The World of Chemistry, 4th edition by M. D. Joesten, J. L. Hogg, & M. E. Castellion, Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Clip 2: Evolution (2001)
Before showing the clip, the students are told the action is from near the end of the movie. The movie begins when a meteorite crashes to the Earth’s surface and then buries itself in a cavity. The heat of entry causes chemical reactions on the meteorite surface to release ammonia and methane. Soon, unicellular life emerges and evolves into multicellular ecosystems. Once there are oxygen-breathing carnivores on the surface, they must be stopped.
The clip is 2:42 minutes long, starting when Dr. Ira Kane (David Duchovny) shoots a rubber band at some now-dead alien growth overflowing from a petri dish. In the clip, Kane uses the periodic table on Dr. Allison Reed’s (Julianne Moore) T-shirt to establish his hypothesis: if arsenic is the poison for carbon-based life forms, then selenium should serve the same purpose for these nitrogen-based life forms. He uses the knight’s move from chess as he speaks. After a bit more discussion, the scene ends with many people filling a fire engine with Head & Shoulders®—the active ingredient is selenium sulfide.
The explanation begins by reiterating Kane’s hypothesis. They are then given a possible justification for the toxic effects of selenium. Carbon is the basis for Earth’s organisms for many reasons but especially because it can form strong covalent bonds with many other elements. Carbon is special in being able to form long chains of carbon within molecules. Arsenic is in the environment as arsenate. It is incorporated into our molecules because it resembles phosphate and forms two or three strong bonds. Note that arsenic and phosphorus are in the same column of the periodic table. This indicates they have similar chemical properties. Arsenate is a poison in part because one of those bonds breaks more easily than in phosphate. Any life form that chooses nitrogen as its base element is in trouble from the start. The nitrogen-nitrogen bond is weaker than the carbon bond. When nitrogen forms long chains of single bonds, the molecule is prone to explosion as the bonds break. Nitrogen-rich compounds tend to be explosive, especially when they react with oxidants. Now consider that oxygen, sulfur, and selenium are all oxidants and are in the same column of the periodic table. The moviemakers apparently weren’t concerned that our heroes were trying to kill an oxygen-breathing alien or that oxygen is the best oxidant of this trio and selenium the worst.
Reference: Griep, M. A., unpublished.
Clip 3: Sphere (1998)
Before showing the clip, the students are told the action is from near the beginning of the movie. An alien spaceship has been detected in the Pacific Ocean and a group of scientists has been identified to investigate it. In this scene, the scientists encounter the alien golden sphere for the first time.
The clip is 1:57 min long, starting with the scientists in diving gear standing before the giant, perfect, solid, golden sphere. It ends with the leader Barnes saying, “Whatever it is, it’s alien”. In between, Barnes says it appears to be mercury, except that mercury is liquid at this temperature.
The explanation begins by reiterating “it’s alien” and by noting that the sphere is indeed the alien. The students are given the melting points of four elements: mercury -33 °C; bromine -7 °C; gallium 30 °C; and lead 327 °C. These elements are highlighted on a periodic table. We learned from the clip that it isn’t made of mercury but that it does have a smooth liquid-like surface and that it is supposed to be solid. The four elements are the ones with melting points nearest to room temperature, which is about 20 °C. Bromine is the next likely candidate but it would liquid at room temperature and it actually boils just above room temperature so it wouldn’t be a good choice. It definitely isn’t lead because it is a soft gray metal. Therefore, it must be gallium because it would be a solid at room temperature. It isn’t gold-colored, however, so it must be an alloy with a colored element such as reddish copper or golden gold, which would undoubtedly rais the melting temperature.
Reference: Griep, M. A., unpublished.
Clip 4: Independence Day (1996)
Before showing the clip, the students are told this is the movie that made Will Smith a big star. He is an air force pilot who was able to outfly an alien spacecraft and who has just delivered the alien to the base in Area 51. We are about to learn what goes on at Area 51.
The clip is 1:28 min long, starting with a group of officials entering a room called “The Vault”. The white-labcoat-wearing scientist (Bret Spiner) explains that “Some people call this the freak show”. He laughs but no one joins him so he stops awkwardly and then flips a switch to reveal three dead aliens floating in fluid-filled tubes. They appear to be the same height as humans although with different body proportions. They have oversized brain skulls, short bodies, and long limbs ending in sharp digits. He explains they were wearing biomechanical suits when they were found. Once the suits were removed, they learned the aliens had eyes and ears but no vocal chords. There is speculation that they use telepathy to communicate. The U.S. President (Bill Pullman) says, “So, they’re an organic life form. Can they be killed?” The scientist explains, “Their bodies are just as fragile as ours. Two of them died in the crash and the other one a few weeks later.” The scene ends when the scientist says their technology is more advanced than ours.
After the clip, the students are first asked “What did we learn about alien biology from the clip?” Collectively, they name all the mentioned features. Someone nearly always knows that organic means their molecules are based on carbon. Next, the students are asked “What did we learn about the aliens’ planet? Collectively, they mention it must have a similar size with similar gravity and atmosphere.
Note that this clip was added because we thought it had high Wow! but little or no chemistry. It was added to the talk to determine whether campers would come to the same conclusion, which they did.
Reference: Griep, M. A., unpublished.
Clip 5: The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Before showing the clip, the students are told this is the earliest movie about alien biochemistry in our presentation. Our clip is taken from near the middle of the movie and a lot has happened. The military sent a satellite into orbit around Earth. It crashed to the ground in a town in New Mexico, where it mysteriously killed 29 of its 31 residents. In full protective gear, the military retrieves the satellite, a crying baby, and a delirious alcoholic, all three of which they bring to a classified underground laboratory in Nevada. During a close examination of the satellite, they discover a green and black object that they are able to determine is the toxic agent and that is growing. We will watch the scene where they perform an elemental analysis of the toxic microbe.
The clip is 2:41 min long, starting with a shot of a door labeled “Microchemistry”. A group of three scientist are wearing white clothes and have their backs to the camera. Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) is peering into very bright light coming from an instrument. It appears to be an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer but the students are not told this information because it would not help them understand the scene. After 40 seconds, Leavitt says, “Ready” and the scientists focus their attention on the two television screens on the wall. With the camera showing the composition of the “black object”, Leavitt says, “Nothing so unusual about our rock after all” and then names its elements. Leader Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) says, “Except the black rock isn’t a rock at all, it’s some kind of material similar to plastic.” Leavitt then says, “How about that? The green is even simpler—hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.” Stone says, “The four basic elements of life on Earth.” After amino acid analysis shows there are none, they discuss how this microbe “doesn’t come from here” and how it will be a major finding to determine how this life form works. The immediate task at hand, however, is to prevent its growth.
After the clip, the students are shown the two clues: the elemental percentages of the black rock and green object as shown on the television screens; and Stone’s statement that the black rock is some kind of plastic. Next, they are shown how to convert percentage composition into molar ratios using the atomic masses. According to this analysis, the composition of the black rock should be C32H146O7Si2 as described in our book ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies (Griep and Mikasen, 2010). The students are told any chemist will know this is obviously an impossible formula. To show them how a chemist would come to this conclusion, they are reminded that methane is the simplest hydrogen with the highest possible ratio of hydrogen to carbon, CH4. You can’t have a higher ratio than four hydrogens to one carbon because carbon makes only four bonds and hydrogen makes only one. You cannot make long chains of carbons if the carbon atoms are all bound to hydrogen. If you multiply 32 by 4, you will see it is close to that of methane. Therefore, this is a mistake in the movie and book upon which it is based. Instead, we believe Michael Crichton, arguably one of the most financially successful science fiction writers, and upon whose book this movie is based, made a basic chemical error in assuming the mass element percentages are the same as the elemental ratios. Using that assumption, we arrive at a composition of C55H21O16Si8 for the black rock and C45H27N5O23 for the green object, neither of which defies the laws of chemistry. They are shown one possible molecules that could be drawn for each of these compositions (see the examples in Griep and Mikasen, 2010). The black rock is a silicone rubber, which is a type of plastic. The green object is a polyaromatic compound with heterocyclic nitrogens, which might cause it to be colored, and exocyclic peroxides, which would cause it to be toxic.
Reference: Griep, M., & Mikasen, M. (2010) ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Clip 6: Avatar (2009)
Before showing the clip, the students are reminded we are now in the second half of the presentation by showing them a list of five movie clips involving minerals from other planets. When the students are asked “How many of you have seen this movie?”, anywhere from 80 to 90 percent raise their hands.
The clip is 1:49 min long, starting with Parker putting a golf ball into a coffee cup while surrounded by many engineers watching their monitors. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) enters to express dismay about her new recruit. Parker won’t take any of it. He brings her to his office where he removes a levitating rock from his desk to explain this “little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo”. It pays for the party and her science so he wants her team to get the indigenous to cooperate.
After the clip, the students are told that the coolest thing about superconductors is that they levitate over a permanent magnet. Then, they are asked, “Given that unobtainium is a room-temperature superconductor, how can we derive limitless energy from it?” The answers range from “burn it” to “connect wings to it and spin it like a turbine to generate electricity”. All reasonable answers are encouraged but we make it a point to lead them to the idea of levitating a payload and then pushing it for frictionless movement, as in levitating trains.
Reference: “Unobtainium” entry on Wikipedia.com.
Clip 7: Moon (2009)
First, the students are asked to notice that this movie was released the same year as Avatar. Then, they are told the clip is from the very beginning of the movie. It begins with an advertisement, and then shows very realistically how helium-3 could be harvested by machine on the Moon.
The clip is 4:09 min long. The advertisement is by Lunar Industries, a fictional corporation. First, it notes that energy used to be in short supply. This is accompanied by images of unhappy, third-world people living in decrepit, overcrowded conditions. Then, the ad says, energy is now abundant because they are harvesting helium-3 from the moon. There is an image of a woman smiling as she holds her child. Helium-3 now supplies 70% of our energy. This is accompanied by a global image of the evening lights aglow across the United States. Cut to Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who tells Gerty the computer (voice of Kevin Spacey) that Mark (a harvesting truck) is ready and he’s going to retrieve the load. Eery techno music plays while the credits appear next to Sam as he makes his way into his suit, into the four-wheeled vehicle, and then across the Moon’s surface until he reaches a very large vehicle spewing rock out its back. Sam’s truck enters into the larger truck, he retrieves a vessel that he loads into an orifice. After he backs out of the larger truck and is on his way, he messages Earth that the “full container of helium-3” is on its way.
After the clip, the students are told they need to know how we get sunlight to understand why there is helium-3 on the Moon. The first thing to know is that the sun is so hot that atom’s don’t exist in the same way as they do on Earth. Instead, everything is a plasma where the electrons are in the same soup as the nuclei for all the elements. As we’ve already learned, hydrogen is the most abundant element on the Sun. When two hydrogen nuclei (or protons) collide, they can sometimes form a deuteron and a positron. A positron is a proton bonded to a neutron. An positron is a form of antimatter and is the complement of an electron. When a positron collides with an electron, both are annihilated with the result that light is emitted. This is one source of sunlight. As the deuterons build up, they can collide with protons to form helium-3 and release some more light energy. As the helium-3 builds up, it sometimes happens that two of them collide to produce stable helium-4 and two protons plus more light. Everytime the Sun has a coronal ejection, it releases material into space. The material released includes protons, deuterons, helium-3, and so forth. Any of this material that reaches Earth is quickly dissipated because we have an atmosphere filled with molecules to bounce it around. The surface of the Earth is also alive with activity. The Moon, however, does not have an atmosphere. Anything that collides with the Moon, stays there. This movie hypothesizes that we could harvest the helium-3 that must be there by sucking up the surface dust and filtering it. We would bring it to Earth and then use atom smashing machines to collide helium-3 with helium-3 to produce incredible amounts of energy. This is a nuclear fusion reaction that doesn’t produce any toxic radioactive side products. The reason we aren’t doing this right now is that it costs way more to harvest helium-3 than the energy we would get out of it.
Reference: Matson, J. (2009) Is MOON’s Sci-fi Vision of Lunar Helium 3 Mining Based in Reality? Scientific American, June 12 online issue.
Clip 8: Superman Returns (2006)
The students are told the clip is from the middle of the movie but it shows everything you need to know. Lex Luthor and his gang are going to steal kryptonite from a museum that looks a lot like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The clip is 1:51 min long and opens with a fellow in glasses approaching a set of circuit breakers but quickly cuts to the back of Lex Luthor’s head (Kevin Spacey) who places a mask over his face while standing in front of minerals on display. Then, there is a 40-second interruption during which we explain Lex Luthor’s girlfriend is in the car and has just created a diversion for Superman (Brandon Routh). As he flies away with her to safety, Luthor signals for his accomplices to turn off the building’s power. Luthor is able to use a green laser on his head gear to illuminate each crystal in turn. When one of them reflects the green light, he says “Bingo” and there is a quick cut to the lights coming on and a zoom into the broken case. The label reads “1978; Addis Ababa Pallisite Meteorite; sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide with fluoride; Kebe Mine, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia”
After the clip, the students are given the elemental composition again and shown their locations on a periodic table. Since Superman is from the planet Krypton, any material from his planet would be considered a meteorite if it fell on the Earth. They are usually not able to answer the question, “What type of material is kryponite?” based on a list of elements. So, they are told that sand is made of silicates. They are then asked, “If you heat really clean sand until it melts and let it cool, what do you get?” to which someone always answers “glass”. So, the moviemakers are telling you kryptonite is a type of glass. If you watch the movie, you will see Lex Luthor holding green glass. But, that’s not the end of the story. This movie was made in 2006 and, in 2007, some geologists discovered a new mineral in a Serbian mine with the same elemental composition. It was widely reported at the time that it was the same as kryptonite in this movie (except that it didn’t have fluorine, wasn’t green, and didn’t fluoresce).
Reference: Burks, R. (2007) ‘Super’ Mineral. Chem. Eng. News, August 6 issue, 85, 48.
Clip 9: Forbidden Planet (1956)
The students are asked to note how much time we just jumped from 2006 to 1956. This is one of the most important 1950s science fiction movies and it has several chemical scenes. They will watch the shortest scene involving Robby the Robot, who is capable of synthesizing any object atom-by-atom.
The clip is only 25 seconds long. Robby the Robot (voice of Marvin Miller) walks toward the camera holding large sheets of a dull gray material and asks Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) where he would like the shielding placed. When the lieutenant realizes Robby is carrying solid lead, Robby replies, “Common lead would have crushed the vehicle, Sir. This is my morning’s run of isotope 217. The whole thing hardly comes to ten tons.”
After the clip, the students are shown the periodic table with lead highlighted and are asked “Are you smarter than a robot? Robby the Robot says Krell lead Pb-217 is lighter than earthly lead.” To answer the question, their attention is directed to the periodic table being projected on the screen. One of the campers inevitably realizes Earth lead weighs only 207.2 and is lighter than Krell lead. The camper is told he or she is smarter than a robot.
Reference: Robinson, J. J. (2004) The Reel Thing: One Editor’s List of Great Material Moments in the Movies. Journal of Materials, March online issue.
Clip 10: Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century (1952)
The students are told this is one of the most important cartoons ever made. It was highly rated by both cartoonists and cartoon viewers in separate polls. In addition, when George Lucas watched this cartoon, he knew he wanted to make a movie that had this much energy. The result was Star Wars (1977). You are about to watch the first 2 min of the cartoon including the credits because the graphics are so great. Pay close attention to the clues.
The clip is 1:32 min long. After a spaceship rises helically around tall thin buildings, it reaches the “17,000th Floor Landing”, location of “Dr. I.Q. HI, Secretary of the Stratosphere”. Duck Dodgers (voice of Mel Blanc) enters the building and meets Hi (voice of Mel Blanc) on a platform that rises. Hi tells Dodgers that the “World’s supply of illudium phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is alarmingly low.” A bass clarinet hits two low notes signifying danger. Hi continues, “Now, we have reason to believe that the only remaining source is on Planet X.” The platform stops rising when it reaches an irregular white surface labeled “Unknown”. Hi waves his hand in front of the word “Unknown” and says, “Somewhere in this area.” Dodgers replies, “And, you want me to find planet X, is that it?” Hi responds, “Can you do it, [pause] Dodgers?” Dodgers responds, “Oh, indu-bi-di-dubidoubly, Sir, because there’s no one who knows his way around outer space, like…” Dodgers elevates off the platform to exclaim, “Duck Dodgers in the twenty fourth and a half century!” at which point gravity takes over and he falls while Hi watches his slow descent. The platform shakes wildly when Dodgers hits the ground.
After the clip, the students are asked “What type of material is “illudium phosdex”? Element, Compound, or Mixture”. When someone answers mixture or compound, they are asked how they reached that conclusion. The typical answers are that shaving cream has to be a mixture and that its two-part name is typical of a compound. They are told these are reasonable conclusions but that this is a cartoon and you need to be careful when drawing a conclusion. What was the other clue? At this point in the presentation, it is a matter of waiting for the inevitable moment when one of the campers remembers the phrase, “shaving cream atom” and that realizes this signifies it is an “element”.
Reference: Griep, M. A., unpublished.