SOUND, LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!

Kenneth S. Suslick
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

(edited version from Suslick, K. S. "Sonoluminescence, Camera, Action!"
Engineering & Science (California Institute of Tech.) 1997 40 (#2), 4-5;
and from Inside Illinois, 3/20/97)

 

It’s not nominated for an "Oscar"(and no one is saying it should be), but last fall’s movie "Chain Reaction" has its own links to ultrasound. Ken Suslick, William H. & Janet Lycan Professor of Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recounts what happened when Hollywood came calling.

Some of you may have seen a movie last fall called "Chain Reaction". If so, you have my condolences. Nonetheless, it isn’t too often that a chemist finds himself involved with Hollywood, much less gets money for his school off a bad movie.

Movie Chain Reaction
(Note the lurker in the background.)

A pleasant fall day in 1994, I receive a message from my secretary that from someone claiming to be a Hollywood director. "Yeah, right!" I remember thinking as I dial the number. It turns out the caller, Gene Serdena, is the set director of a 20th Century Fox movie tentatively titled "Dead Drop"!

The movie is about a Nobel laureate professor and his graduate student who discover the use of sonoluminescence to produce unlimited quantities of hydrogen (the ultimate clean fuel) from water, catalytically. (Minor technical errors — such as violations of the Laws of Thermodynamics — are obviously no problem for Hollywood.) The professor is killed when the bad guys try to steal the discovery and the intrepid graduate student runs through chase scene after chase scene to expose the evildoers. This is no surprise since the director is Andrew ("The Fugitive") Davis. Serdena tells me that the student hero will be played by Keanu Reeves, the love interest by Nicole Kidman, and the prof would probably be Alan Arkin (or maybe--I kid you not--Marlon Brando). Now, by the time the movie actually gets going, Kidman has been traded for a new starlet and Brando has been downsized to Morgan Freeman.

Movie Chain Reaction
Let's see, now. Shockwave velocity ~1000 mph.
Motorcycle velocity ~100 mph.
Hmmm... Good thing Keanu has the scriptwriter on his side!

Gene called me because of my work on sonoluminescence and other chemical effects of high intensity ultrasound. He wants to visit our labs to see what a chemistry lab actually looks like. So Gene and his assistant drive in from Chicago for a visit. With video and still cameras, they shoot everything that didn't move. It was fun showing him around and trying to explain why things were set up the way they were. They even give disposable cameras to my graduate students and myself to see how we live. Cinema vérité, at least for the set design!

A week later, Gene calls and wants to rent equipment from the lab for the set. I explain to him that we do actually use this stuff and that it’s very expensive equipment. He sounds disappointed, and then it hits me — he doesn’t want equipment that works, only that looks like it works. And I know about this cavernous storage area in the basement of Roger Adams Lab that is full of old equipment — stuff too good to throw away at the time it was hauled down there, but of no use now. Things like ancient Infracord spectrophotometers, several dozen old black and white monitors, pre-war lathes (not sure which war), and so on. I suggest that maybe they’d like to see the "scientific equipment" in our storage area. His assistant returns to Champaign and with flashlights in hand we go spelunking into the depths of RAL. She photographs everything (again) and goes away.

When Gene calls next, about 48 hours later, I can practically hear him salivating over the phone. This room full of useless equipment turns out to be just the sort of place a set director dreams about (apparently set directors have very weird dreams). The question is, how do we sell this detritus of dead equipment to them? It turns out the university cannot sell equipment — no matter how useless — without rampant rivers of red tape. We can, however, declare old stuff surplus once it is of no further use, and simply take it off the books. Whether the junk then goes into a dumpster or into a truck, makes no difference.

Movie Chain Reaction s
Will the real sonochemist, please stand up!

So, with help from our business office manager, I arrange for a donation of $10,000 from 20th Century Fox to the school. I didn’t even ask a finder’s fee. They then send down a crew of four humongous guys and a moving van to match and spend a full day hauling away junk that we’ve been wondering how to get rid of for years!

Two years later the movie comes out, now called "Chain Reaction." On opening day last fall, we shut down our lab, and I take the whole crew out to the first matinee. I bought the tickets, but my students had to get their own popcorn. Afterwards, we agreed the best part of the film was the labs, which were only slightly hokey. In fact, that was just about the only good thing in the entire movie. Even Siskel and Ebert gave it thumbs down. Fortunately, the UI’s School of Chemical Sciences is not listed in the credits, so our anonymity remains preserved for posterity (until now!).

 

 



THE SCIENCE THE GROUP THE MAÎTRE D' LAGNIAPPE: A LITTLE EXTRA
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Nature Cover 2002


Science Cover 1990


Science Cover 1991


MRS Cover 1995


Supramolecular Chemistry 1998


The Journal of Physical Chemistry 2006
 
Nature Cover 2002


Science Cover 1990


Science Cover 1991


MRS Cover 1995


Supramolecular Chemistry 1998


The Journal of Physical Chemistry 2006