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Technicolor Science
Oooh! Shiny!
Beakers? Of colored liquids? But that means... there's SCIENCE going on here!
Running Gag from the movie review website Cold Fusion Video

When the subject of a TV show includes the use of deadly toxins, radioactive materials, or biological or chemical agents, you can almost be sure Special Effects artists will make them look a lot more interesting than they are in real life. This is because the vast majority of chemical compounds are colorless, odorless, tasteless and could easily be substituted with a glass of water or a spoonful of salt. Since that doesn't look exciting or menacing, they tend to get totally unrealistic spruce-ups.

Radioactive elements tend to have a Sickly Green Glow, despite the fact that only radium paint does this in Real Life. And even then, it's the zinc sulfide in the paint reacting to high-energy alpha radiation that causes the pale green glow, not the radioactive element itself. Pure radium is an ordinary-looking silvery metal. Since radium paint was once used to make glow-in-the-dark watch faces and instrument gauges before the health risks became known, "radioactive = glowing green" has stuck in the public mind.

For that matter, acid is almost always depicted green and frequently boiling too. While it's true that acid solutions in the real world can vary widely in color from green to red to everything in-between, the acids most often used for modern industrial purposes (sulfuric and hydrochloric) are colorless and clear. Furthermore, boiling them would not be a tremendously useful or wise thing to do. Incidentally, skin contact with most industrial acids will cause a potentially serious and painful chemical burn; but it won't dissolve someone instantly to the bone.

Note, however, that there are several kinds of Deadly Gas in Real Life that are colorful — most notably, fluorine (yellow), chlorine (green), and bromine (red-brown), though bromine is a liquid at room temperature.

Electricity, too, is more colorful and dramatic than in the real world, even more so in animation. Anything electrically charged, such as an electric fence, is more likely than not to light up the surrounding area with crawling arcs of jagged blue fire accompanied by a sizzling noise, even though in the real world such a display requires a charge of tens of thousands of volts and a separation from an electrical ground that is within rather narrow limits. If a person on TV is being electrically shocked, there will almost always be an extremely impressive display of buzzing and crackling arcs of flickering blue fire and perhaps even a display of X-Ray Sparks.

While mains electricity at 100-250 volts is more than capable of killing a human being in the right circumstances, it isn't nearly enough for impressive displays of St. Elmo's Fire.

The center of a nuclear reactor does glow, but it certainly doesn't pulse up and down—and again it's not green. The glow is called Cherenkov Radiation and it's a pleasing steady blue colour. Of course, it's only safe to view that blue glow through water, at the bottom of a "swimming pool" reactor—if you see it in air, and not on the other side of thick leaded glass, then to quote Winchell Chung, "...the good news is you can probably live long enough write your last will and testament. If you write very quickly."

Dropping a chunk of dry ice into a beaker of water will cause it to appear to boil and give off a ghostly white fog; this isn't all that useful (sometimes small pellets of dry ice are used this way in order to exclude air from a container briefly), but it is a staple of the Mad Scientist Laboratory. If you add a bit of universal indicator to the water, adding the dry ice will make it turn red and start smoking.

Oddly, the one color you don't often see, but is actually common in laboratories, is hot pink. Phenolphthalein turns bright pink in a basic solution, and is frequently used in acid-base titrations. It will also go red in very strongly acidic solutions, though this is seldom used for anything in a laboratory.

Electronics are not exempt from this either- high-tech machines will often be covered with pretty but seemingly pointless blinking LED lights (which old-school computer types refer to as "das Blinkenlights"), glass pipes full of glowing energy, and meaningless screens displaying bright symbols. Modern technology, especially things that need to be covert, don't usually have these; with the exception of MP3 players.

However, if you go into a lab that works with transition metals, it will be very colourful. It's one of their noted properties.

See also Technicolor Toxin and Science Cocktail.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comics 
  • The University of Leicester once synthesised a krypton compound named "kryptonite" for a lark. It was a colourless crystal with a green light under it, but at least it's fairly harmful (it's a powerful oxidiser), unstable, and contained some radioactive krypton.

    Film 
  • In The Rock terrorists threaten San Francisco with VX nerve gas, portrayed as ominous green goo inside glass balls.
  • The Trope Maker here would likely be Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The description of the Mad Scientist's lab in the script stated the laboratory is "as much a place for alchemy as science, a magician's lair."
    • Of course, the 'color' part isn't so visible, with the movie being black and white.
    • Metropolis also featured the Jacob's Ladder electrical demonstrator, that later became famous as the "science-y" thing in the 1931 Frankenstein.
  • Back to the Future plays this straight with the lightning and some effects around the DeLorean, along with showing the plutonium as being bright red.
  • Played straight in The Nutty Professor. Of course, it was a comedy.
  • Lampshaded in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams. One character notes in "Mount Fuji in Red" that the clouds of radiation were colored by scientists to act as identifiers for certain elements; instead, people just associated them with hideous radiation and refer to them as "Death's Calling Card."
  • In Cats & Dogs, Professor Brody's basement laboratory is wall-to-wall with glass beakers of brightly-colored fluids.
  • In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Frank N Furter's lab features a tank that he fills with rainbow-colored chemicals to bring Rocky to life.

    Literature 
  • Averted and lampshaded in Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay. Vimes is very surprised to find out that arsenic is not green, since that is how he imagined a deadly poison.
    • A dwarf who succumbs to poison in Thud! does salivate green, however.
    • Terry Pratchett is very familiar with this trope: when he was press officer for British Nuclear Fuels, he got used to TV journalists bringing their own green smoke and bubbling test tubes so power plants would look right.
  • Averted in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's Thinner, where a gypsy is threatened with a glass of acid that is actually clear.
  • One of R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt novels prominently featured a giant green glowing pool of acid sitting in a cave for no reason. Walking above it was perfectly safe, but fall in and you instantly dissolved.
    • Salvatore, it should be mentioned, wasn't making this up. Such pools of acid, along with oddly retiring lava, were staples of the Forgotten Realms Underdark campaign setting he'd been comissioned to write for.
  • The Legend of Rah and the Muggles has purple haze generated by nuclear fallout. Apparently, the moon can shine through it or something. Yeah...
  • The potion in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starts out red and then turns purple before settling on green.
  • Done infamously in Twilight: In her world, driftwood fires are blue. Supposedly because of the salt. Salt, for those who don't know, turns fire yellow. At least, it does in Real Life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Applied Phlebotinum in The 4400 is the neurotransmitter Promicin, which is the neon green of a chemlight in color — possibly as a Continuity Nod to its discoverer, Jeffrey Combs, who rose to B-Movie stardom wielding nearly identical glowing syringes in the Re-Animator movies.
  • Doctor Who, "Age of Steel": The Cybermen's electric shocks fit the "crawling blue fire" description, both when the Cybermen use them as an attack and when they malfunction.
    • The Dalek apparatus in "Evolution Of The Daleks" has both multi-coloured liquids in all sort of containers and similar a "crawling blue fire" effect for the lightning.
  • In an episode of Just Shoot Me!, Maya gets covered in Toxic Waste while in the sewers and is later found to glow green in the dark. The chemicals are specifically described as "phosphates," none of which have this property in real life.
    • The element phosphorus, on the other hand, does at least in its white form. It is also highly toxic and can (and does, though its use is controversial) serve as an incredibly lethal firebomb.
    • This property is where the name "phosphorus" comes from, after all.
      • And it does so because it's just slowly burns in the air.
  • The third season premiere of Heroes, almost in the same breath as 90% of Your Brain
  • Also avoided, oddly — and inaccurately — enough, in the recent TV film Einstein and Eddington. Scientists are shown testing the 'new' poison gas chlorine on a number of doves. The gas is colourless. In real life, chlorine actually is green. That's why it's called "chlorine."
  • Sci-fi channel original Megashark vs. Giant Octopus featured this trope in the We're Doing Science! portions. The scientists are trying to find a solution to the problem posed by, well, look at the title. This seems to involve large amounts of pouring liquids from test tubes into larger test tubes. All of these liquids are colored. What are they pouring? Why are they pouring it? Something sciency, I'm sure! Later they come up with the idea of making pheromones, so it's back to the lab! More colored chemicals are poured! Finally, success is achieved. How do they know? Because they pour two chemicals together and they change color to glowing green! Obviously, this means they have achieved shark and squid pheromones. Right?
  • Battlestar Galactica. Nuclear missiles always having glowing red tips; although this could be some kind of safety measure so ordnance doesn't get mixed up, even the Cylon nukes have this. Averted though with the disassembled nuclear warhead in Baltar's lab which doesn't glow at all.
    • The glowing tips are actually little red lights that are presumably there so the audience can see the missiles at all.
  • Subverted subtly in The Big Bang Theory when Leonard walks into the kitchen to find Sheldon working with beakers full of colored liquid. Turns out he was using flavored Jell-o to make growth media for bacteria.
  • The IT Crowd's Richmond has no idea what those machines are that he looks after, nor what the flashing lights mean.
  • In Breaking Bad the meth starts out as the colorless crystal it is, but later in the series Walt changes how he cooks and gets Blue Meth. Presumably this trope is at least part of the reason for the change.
  • Batman usually follows this trope, especially with endless colorful variations of Knockout Gas.
  • In the old Grenada Sherlock Holmes series Jeremy Brett's Holmes usually had a bunch of these scattered around his desk. Usually they didn't do anything but bubble in the background, but sometimes they were used as a setpiece for solving a crime, or a bit of comic relief.

    Video Games 
  • Comes up in Civilization 4, where the map icon for uranium is a bunch of green rocks. Of course, they did have to distinguish it from the silver, iron, and aluminum (yes, I know aluminum and iron wouldn't look like that anyway - y'know what, it's just a game).
    • Uranium is among the most interesting elements, with a variety of exotic compounds including the bright-yellow, highly corrosive and highly poisonous Uranium Hexafluoride, which meets all the criteria of Technicolor Hollywood science. It's the stuff that the "Bad Guys" want to obtain in Real Life.
      • Also, while uranium ores are mostly black or yellow, they could be bright green, if some additional impurities are present — usually gold, which is quite frequent in such ore bodies.
      • Truth in Television the minor uranium ore mineral autunite actually is that color. What's more, it glows green under UV light. Also,near what is left of Urivan Colorado, the abandoned Uranium mines can be easily spotted by the clear contrast of the green tailings against the red rock in the area.
    • Civilization 5 avoids 4's use by making the icon the radioactivity sign, but now the terrain graphic is green.
  • Many futuristic First-Person Shooter games have pits of deadly green acid and radioactive waste, usually glowing green. Doom is the most notable example.
  • Earth 2140 is a notable aversion of the radiation subclass. Radioactive fallout doesn't glow green — or anything else. It's invisible, and indicated on the minimap with an overlay of black-and-white squares so you can actually tell where it is.
  • In the Command & Conquer: Red Alert Series series, radioactive areas are recognizable by the green glow.
    • It is important to note that the red alert series doesn't take itself seriously in the slightest.
  • TimeSplitters: Future Perfect plays this for laughs - in one level Cortez and Harry Tipper are trapped in a room filling with green gas, and Tipper comments that green gas is the worst kind.
  • In role-playing games with item icons Health potions are often bright red and Mana potions are often bright blue. Poison is green, or if it's particularly deadly, black. Some games may choose other colors. Other types of potions and elixirs come in all manner of colors and shades as well.
  • The chemistry set in The Sims yields potions of various bright colours.
  • In Half-Life radioactive no-walk zones were Radium-glow green and set off the HEV suit's geiger counter. In Half-Life 2, the same zones are marked by a dark green non-glowing (yet still geiger-crackling) pit of sludge, and can be traversed safely with the air-boat.
    • In Half-Life 2: Episode One, the Citadel's Reactor Core glows blue because of what we can only assume is Cherenkov radiation. However, it is neither a fusion nor a fission reactor; it was built by Starfish Aliens from Another Dimension and generates dark energy, so any assumptions regarding its mechanics are pointless.
  • This trope is played straight and averted in Borderlands. Corrosive elemental weapons and effects are day-glow green, including the expectorants of Spitter Skags. On the other hand, the obviously acidic projectiles from the Soldier, King and Queen Spiderants are clear fluid in a gel envelope.
  • Lost Pig: "Mysterious bubbling liquids in strangely shaped glassware is the heart of alchemy."

    Webcomics 
  • According to Tom Siddell's Rant for Gunnerkrigg Court, "...I hereby declare that antigravity is purple and glowy."
  • Colorful chemicals seen in this page of The KA Mics
  • Narbonic: "I find this line of questioning obscene. What manner of mad scientist neglects his flasks of colored liquid?"

    Web Original 
  • Parodied in the Homestar Runner toon, "DNA Evidence":
    Marzipan: Well, it all started several weeks ago. I came home from my toga-yoga class to find that my house had been broken into and the culprit had left behind some DNA evidence.
    Strong Sad: What was it? Hair particles? Skin flakes? Blood crispies?
    Marzipan: No, it was a little test tube just full of green DNA evidence.
    Strong Sad: Oh! Just like in the movies!
  • The eponymous "villain" of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has many pieces of colorful liquid-filled equipment in his lab.
  • Even the semi-realistic lonelygirl15 fell victim to this, albeit at a point when the realism was really starting to slack off.
  • In Italian Spiderman well...
    Scientist: It's very red, isn't it?

    Western Animation 
  • There are plenty of green glowing things at the nuclear power plant in The Simpsons, including Mr. Burns. In "E-I-E-I(Annoyed Grunt)" Plutonium is shown to be a glowing green instead of the real silver color, as well as a fluid instead of a solid (note that most plutonium used in the real world is in a liquid-like powdered form). A Carbon rod used to hold a door on a shuttle closed and seen in the opening is shown as a pale lime-green instead of the real life black.
    • Carbon rods are black, so black that carbon is sometimes used to as a pigment. However, it is also brittle. Unless the full length needs to be exposed, the rods are covered in a protective coating, with only a small amount at the end exposed.
  • The boiling vat of green acid turns up almost too many times to count in Batman: The Animated Series and several times in Teen Titans (see also No OSHA Compliance).
    • Though it wasn't in a vat, The Batman lampshaded this when Batgirl said:
      Batgirl: Why is it that deadly chemicals are always green? Why can't they ever be pink?

    Real Life 
  • Inorganic and Organometallic Chemistry involves attaching small molecules (usually white powders) to the surface of metal ions (usually in clear solutions). The resulting metal complexes are almost always brightly coloured and can be anywhere from orange to green to purple depending on the metal and how strongly the chemicals are stuck to it. Admittedly almost all other chemistry involves white powders, clear crystals or colourless solutions.
  • One easy example of this trope is the "Electric Pickle" experiment, where a current passed through a pickle actually gets the pickle to glow. Though useless, it is fun to watch. The pickle's been featured in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Beakman's World, to name a few instances.
  • The cover of the Corning catalogue features flasks, cylinders, and beakers with lovely shades of magenta, violet, and jade. Perhaps someone was running tests on various combinations of food coloring.
    • High school Chem books love that display. No surprise. However, it can be recreated (without food coloring, that's cheating) with the right bunch of aqueous solutions. Not that there's terribly much use for it, but it looks cool.
  • Some very concentrated acids will give off visible fumes in Real Life, which may be either white or, on occasion, a reddish brown.
    • Red fuming nitric acid is a popular storable hypergolic oxidizer for rocket engines. If you try to store it in a stainless steel container without adding hydrogen fluoride or something as an inhibitor, it will lose performance and turn green via corrosion of the steel.
  • Plutonium pellet glow red with heat. The glow is thermal radiation, visible due to high temperature of the pellet. The pellet has been sufficiently insulated from its surroundings so that it has heated up to glowy temperature by its radioactive decay.
    • In real life, Plutonium is silvery-white, though when it is exposed to air it quickly oxidizes, going from dull gray to pinkish-brown to green.
  • Radioactive cesium chloride (used in medical radiotherapy, among other things) is a white powder that emits a faint blue glow.
  • Some substances actually do change colour when another substance is added. Indicators are an example, best known for changing colour depending on the acidity of the solution they're in. For instance, bromophenol blue turns a lovely range between yellows and purples if enough acid is added to bring the pH between 3.0 and 4.6. Methyl orange produces some great reds and oranges, and phenolphtalein, a solution of which is colourless at normal pH, becomes a wonderful reddish purple if enough base (for instance Sodium Hydroxide) is added to bring the pH up to about 9.
    • This also works with red wine or grape juice. If you add a strong base (such as ammonia water), the red will disappear since the phenolic pigments in red wine and grape juice are pH-sensitive. Just don't try drinking it afterward...
  • Transition metal compounds are a good example: some familiar examples are potassium dichromate (orange), potassium permanganate (deep purple) and hydrated copper sulfate (blue). Nanoparticle solutions often glow brightly or at least have an interesting colour (gold nanoparticle solution is bright pink!); aqua regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid) is clear when made but turns orange in a few seconds.
  • "Electrons are blue". Anything with free electrons whizzing about is bright blue.
    • This is because of intrinsic properties of free electron gas, which tends to absorb photons with energies in the "reds" range, thus leaving blue light to scatter and reflect. Most organic dyes are molecules with strongly delocalized electron clouds, and tuning the properties of these clouds is used to achieve a great variety of colors.
  • An enzyme disorder known as "Porphyria" can cause your pee to turn a bright purple in color.
    • Also, very large doses of vitamin C can turn it orange.
  • Perhaps many of those gooey green acids seen in Hollywood have been used to dissolve copper? Anyone who's done any analytical chemistry has probably dissolved copper using concentrated nitric acid. If the unknown sample that you're analyzing has contaminants in it (it usually does), dissolving it in the acid produces a very sickly-looking blue-green solution, sometimes cloudy. As a bonus, the stuff emits a torrent of putrid brown nitrogen dioxide as the copper dissolves.
    • Analytical chemistry is overall a bountiful source of flasks of colored liquids. Many tests for the presence of a compound signal a positive result with an obvious color change, while the Beer-Lambert law relates concentration to absorbance of light, making it useful to prepare colored solutions of a substance and stick them in a spectrophotometer. However, as instrumentation has advanced, the field has been moving away from visibly colored solutions to ultraviolet or infrared spectrophotometry, or to solutions so dilute the color is imperceptible.
  • A more recent development has been quantum dots, metal particles with well defined sizes; the sizes give rise to specific energy transitions, leading to selective re-emission of photons at specific wavelengths. A very cool way to get specific colours, currently being investigated for use within solar cells.
  • Black bodies are objects that reflect little or no light, though they can emit their own light when heated up, and they change color depending on their temperature- going from red, orange, yellow, white, and blue. Incidentally, this is how the temperature of stars are measured.
  • Most basic lab work of vegetal physiology involves pigmentary extraction. That means that you end up working with bright green liquids.
    • One common demonstration of chlorophyll's photon-absorptive properties involves turning a suspension of chloroplasts from green to deep red.
  • "Molecular Biology is mostly mixing lots of clear liquids together in glassware (it's mostly disposable plastic nowadays)." That said, assays for DNA often involve fluorescent compounds (more specifically, chemicals that glow under UV only if they're within the DNA structure, quite cool) and in vivo experiments usually involve tagging things with GFP and it's engineered cousins, all of which fluoresce various colors when exposed to the right wavelength of light. The results is that the labs aren't very colorful, but the image data is.
  • Chlorine is quite a colorful element. In its common state it's a pale yellowish-green gas, but when cooled and under pressure it becomes a liquid not dissimilar in color to Mountain Dew.
  • Neon lights come in multiple colors, though only neon gas itself produces a bright orange glow when introduced to an electric charge. The other colors are made with Helium (pink), Argon (blue), Krypton (white), and Xenon (violet). Hydrogen and oxygen both have a lavender glow, though hydrogen is brighter. Mercury vapor is used in ultraviolet black lights, and sodium vapor is used for the bright yellow color of street lights.
  • This can be invoked when news sources want colored solutions for science labs (in one instance, toxicology for Purdey's Proof - Dispatches) in order to make the lab look more 'correct'. This is sadly standard practice for TV around the world - if you're in biology or chemistry, even serious news channels demand beakers full of colored liquids in the background during interviews.
  • Histology stains can turn cell parts all sorts of different colors, and some stains, like MOVAT's Pentachrome stain will make you think that you have dropped some acid before heading into the lab. The stains used in the field of histology chemically react with specific cell components and tissue characteristics. This is so that you can turn these structures different colors, making them easier to see for the purpose of microscopic analysis.

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