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Stephen Lyons

A television producer's take on what makes good chemistry for the small screen

by Bethany Halford
September 29, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 39

Credit: Bethany Halford/CEN
Credit: Bethany Halford/CEN

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT what kind of chemistry makes for entertaining television, taking a melting point probably doesn't spring to mind. That producer Stephen Lyons was able to take this achingly dull lab test and turn it into the cinematic climax of the 2007 documentary "Forgotten Genius" is a testament to his skill as a storyteller.

What makes the scene such a nail-biter, Lyons tells C&EN, is that it portrays a make-or-break moment in the career of the film's subject, chemist Percy Julian. "One of the lessons of the Julian film is that presenting science in a human context—as something people do in the midst of personal crises like insistent fiancées and bigotry and looming unemployment—is one of the ways to make chemistry work in prime time," he explains.

Few TV producers are willing to take on the challenge of making entertaining television about chemistry. Before "Forgotten Genius," "NOVA," the highest rated science series on television, hadn't done a show on chemistry since 1995. In fact, when Lyons combed through the "NOVA" archives, he found that of the 650 programs that have been broadcast in the series' 34-year history, only six have been clearly and primarily focused on chemistry. Seven have been devoted to the search for aliens and life on other planets.

And Lyons doesn't think chemistry fares any better on other science TV shows or in books and newspapers. "When it comes to coverage in the popular media, chemistry is just the neglected science," he says. "Given the number of chemists in the world, the amount of chemistry they do, and the enormous impact it has on the way we live, the lack of attention from the media is striking."

Lyons has some ideas about why chemistry is so conspicuously absent from television. Bad experiences in high school chemistry classes have undoubtedly left some TV producers with "a lasting aversion to chemistry," he says. And since it takes place on the molecular level, chemistry doesn't naturally lend itself to video. But physics is equally difficult to visualize, and it doesn't seem to scare off the media in the same way.

The media neglect of chemistry, Lyons thinks, has more to do with the kinds of questions chemists pursue. Scientists in other fields seem to tackle what he calls Big Questions: Archaeologists study the rise and fall of civilizations; cosmologists explore the origin of the universe; biologists examine how genes determine human nature. But when the National Academy of Sciences identified the grand challenges in chemistry, this was number one on the list: "Learn how to synthesize and manufacture any new substance that can have a scientific or practical interest using compact synthetic schemes and processes with high selectivity and low energy consumption" (C&EN, March 3, 2003, page 29).

That doesn't exactly sound like it would make scintillating TV. "To those of us who are outside the field, it seems to be a very practical science, mostly concerned with making material things that will improve our lives," Lyons says. "Many chemists seem to be focused on fairly narrow, technical questions, not the kinds of things that captivate a television audience," he points out.

Julian's story was perfect for drawing in an audience, Lyons says. Not only had Julian done interesting and important research, but as a black man in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, he had to overcome tremendous obstacles to make a name for himself as a scientist. "Because viewers were hooked on that part of the story, they were quite willing to go along with us into the chemistry that they might not have otherwise been interested in," Lyons says.

For its compelling personal story and strong explanatory science, "Forgotten Genius" garnered the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science Journalism Award and the National Association of Science Writers' Science in Society Award. It also received two Emmy nominations, one for research and one for lighting and scenic design.

OF COURSE, not every chemist has a personal struggle as cinematic as Julian's. Even so, Lyons says, chemistry has a much broader appeal when chemists discuss what their work means to them personally and how it can impact society. Lyons is hoping to capture these aspects of chemistry with his "Chemical Explorers" project—a series of online videos focusing on current chemical developments (

Although few stories in modern chemistry warrant a full television documentary, Lyons explains, many make interesting topics for five- to 10-minute films. "I think people who watch these pieces will come away with a different impression of chemistry than they have now," he says. Last month, Lyons finished the pilot video, about Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Daniel G. Nocera's work on novel catalyst materials. He's currently trying to secure funding to produce more.

Funding, Lyons notes, is one area in which the chemical industry is uniquely poised to encourage the media. If chemical companies could pool their resources and give grants to mass media to cover chemistry, it could do a lot to raise the profile of the field. "The chemical industry spends a lot of money on image advertising," Lyons says. "I think if a small fraction of those funds were used to encourage evenhanded media coverage of chemistry, the benefit might be much greater than all the image advertising that's on the air right now."

Credit: Courtesy of Chemical Explorers


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