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Science Communication


Newscripts at the Oscars: Barbenheimer double feature

by Brianna Barbu
March 4, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 7


Science in the scenery

A photo of David Saltzberg standing in front of a bookshelf and whiteboard.
Credit: The Daily Bruin
Scenery scribe: David Saltzberg went to see Oppenheimer with his students, who cheered at seeing his name in the credits.

Oppenheimer, last summer’s blockbuster biopic—now nominated for 13 Oscars—about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who headed up the Manhattan Project, goes to great lengths to make viewers feel as if they’re in the room with the people trying to figure out if an atomic bomb will set off a nuclear chain reaction in the atmosphere. The film owes this immersive experience in part to the real scientists who lent their expertise to getting the scientific and historical details just right, even down to the sets and props.

David Saltzberg, a particle physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was one of those scientists. His contribution to the film involved creating about two dozen chalkboards for scenes shot in and around Los Angeles, which included the parts of the movie set at Cambridge and other European universities and the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The prop masters are wonderful at creating these worlds where, whatever the actors and directors might decide to do, there’s a little reality underneath,” Saltzberg tells Newscripts. His job was to work with them to make sure the reality depicted was grounded in historical and scientific accuracy. Even if the chalkboards were mostly out of focus in the background of the film and obscured by the actors in the foreground, they were still essential to the world-building.

Designing a chalkboard for a particular scene required considering not only the scientific subject matter but also “the life of the chalkboard in the minutes or hours that it was being filled,” Saltzberg says. A board for a lecture hall would be organized, for example, while one meant for a research space would be messy, with half-drawn schematics and snippets of equations.

He says his favorite chalkboard was one illustrating a nuclear reaction using historically accurate names for radioactive elements. Many of these elements were later renamed after scientists, including Albert Einstein, Ernest Lawrence, and Lise Meitner. The most difficult assignment was creating a chalkboard written entirely in an old German script for a scene depicting a lecture by Werner Heisenberg.


This Barbie believes in lab safety

Doctor Barbie dolls in their packaging.
Credit: Shutterstock
Dressed for success: Doctor Barbie has the right wardrobe but could use a hair tie.

Though Barbie has over 200 jobs on her résumé, she isn’t exactly renowned for being an accurate representation of the real world. Fortunately, Katherine Klamer, a grant writer at the Indiana University School of Medicine, has the data to show exactly how Barbie should improve her portrayal of careers in science and medicine.

In a study for the humorous Christmas issue of the BMJ last year (2023, DOI: 10.1136/bmj-2023-077276), Klamer examined 80 medical Barbies and 12 laboratory scientist Barbies to gauge how well they represented the careers they were meant to depict. Given the popularity of the Barbie movie last year, Klamer—who collects dolls as a hobby—felt pretty confident that the journal would appreciate a Barbie-related study. “I saw the opportunity, and I took it,” she tells Newscripts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the dolls are marketed to kids, Klamer observed that most of the doctor Barbies were pediatricians or general practitioners. The scientist dolls she looked at frequently came with microscope and Erlenmeyer flask accessories, suggesting that they were probably biologists or chemists.

Klamer also found that the majority of scientist dolls came with safety glasses and a lab coat, but none of them met all of her university’s lab-safety requirements. The most common safety sins they committed were not having their legs fully covered or long hair tied back.

The study was just for fun, but Klamer says she genuinely believes that Barbie dolls should accurately represent the broad range of careers that kids can aspire to, especially in science and medicine. She adds that inspiring girls to go into medical research could potentially lead to more research into conditions that primarily affect women, such as endometriosis.

Newscripts reached out to a representative from Barbie’s creator, Mattel, to ask when their chemist dolls will come with hair ties but did not receive a reply as of press time.

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