‘Breaking Bad’ actor/Argonne scientist Marius Stan dishes on similarities between science and cinema

Lisa La Vallee
Director of CommunicationsOffice of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories

Scientists and cinematographers have much more in common than meets the eye—both study the forces behind attraction and rejection, whether between atoms or fictional characters.

Scientists and cinematographers are also both creators, driven by curiosity and the need to communicate. Moviemakers create and communicate emotion while scientists create and communicate knowledge.

So said Marius Stan, senior computational energy scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute. In addition to being a high-level chemist and physicist, Stan played the role of Bogdan Wolynetz, the carwash owner in “Breaking Bad,” the wildly popular television series about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin.

More than 150 students and other admirers lined up to have their picture taken with Bogdan, a.k.a. Stan, at his “Science and Cinema” presentation on Nov. 18, at the University of Chicago’s International House. The photo op and talk was part of “Argonne OutLoud at UChicago,” a free public lecture series that highlights the cutting-edge research of the lab’s researchers and their collaborators.

Stan said he came to the role of Bogdan by happenstance. At the time, he lived in Albuquerque, N.M., and worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. His children wanted to be extras on “Breaking Bad,” so he and his wife, Liliana, accompanied them to the tryout. All four were accepted as extras, but Stan was surprised to be asked to speak a line in the series’ pilot. Thus, Bogdan was born, and Stan went on to play the recurring character.

Stan’s acting experience not only made him a celebrity but also enhanced his understanding of science. For example, he was surprised to see how disciplined the filming process is, with everyone’s role laid out in detail and their responsibilities blocked out in minutes. This made him realize that a more disciplined approach to research actually allows for greater creativity.

Two sides of the same coin

In addition, the opportunity got Stan thinking about the similarities between the scientific method and cinematography. To be successful, both start with a good script, employ sophisticated tools, rely on well run facilities, depend on teamwork, require coordination, need significant amounts of funding and strive to serve, in some way, an audience.

A good script for a television show is analogous to close adherence to the scientific method, which lays out a research path: observation, hypothesis, prediction and validation. Regarding tools, the filters and optical lenses that a good director carefully chooses to control light, contrast and mood are similar to the various tools scientists use—such as optical, electron and high-resolution microscopes—to examine phenomena. To illustrate this point, Stan showed a video that used these magnifying tools to zoom in on a bicycle seat post, magnifying it tens of millions of times to the level of the atomic crystal structures.

“Within twenty years, technology may allow us to go even farther and experimentally ‘see’ the nucleus and electronic structure of the atom,” he said.

Already, computational science allows researchers to do this, virtually. “Using mathematical methods grounded in theory and implemented by software, we can better understand the dynamics of atoms at picoseconds and nanometers,” Stan said.

This is how, for example, computational techniques solved the longstanding mystery of why potassium ions become blocked in potassium channels of the body cells, he said.

Other examples of how technology has fueled discovery abound. Stan showed how computational science has shed light on why the chemical element gallium does not melt all at once, how arteries become blocked and why the ignition of neopentane, an extremely flammable gas, is sometimes delayed. An especially ambitious computational science project is “The Cosmic Web,” a large simulation run on Argonne’s MIRA supercomputer that is attempting to “capture” the evolution of the universe. “Tracking more than a trillion particles over billions of years allows us to visualize the density of matter and better understand the formation of stars and galaxies,” Stan said. “Scientifically, the scale of this simulation is truly extraordinary, but I also see it as a work of art.”

New callings

Stan encouraged those attending the “Argonne OutLoud at UChicago” event to audition for a play, try out for a movie or pursue some other artistic endeavor. “In addition to a scientist, I’m an actor and a writer—as well as a father and a better-than-average soccer player,” he said. “Don’t let your profession or field completely define you. Try different things.”

At the same time, he encouraged attendees to better appreciate, study and support science. “Science is cool and should not be considered scary,” he said. “It’s an especially rewarding field today due to a new emphasis on having an impact in the real world.”

Stan made a few predictions about the impact his work and that of other scientists might have within five years:

  • Automobile owners will be able to exchange depleted batteries for recharged ones, much as consumers exchange an empty propane tank for a full one at their local hardware store.
  • 3D printing will become so inexpensive and commonplace that you will be able to make objects at your corner CVS.
  • Power plants will become more environmentally friendly.
  • The recently launched Material Genome Initiative—aimed at facilitating the discovery, development and manufacture of new materials—will allow scientists to query an advanced version of the periodic table for information about materials best suited to their needs.

Stan hinted that he might snag another acting gig but declined to reveal any details. If it does come to pass, he would like his appearance to come as a surprise to his friends and coworkers, just as it did when they were surprised to see him portraying Bogdan in “Breaking Bad.”

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