November 21, 2014

Breaking Bad’s Bogdan talks cinema, science

Marius Stan, more commonly known as Bogdan on the primetime hit Breaking Bad, shared his thoughts on the parallels between science and cinema last Tuesday evening at International House.

Stan appeared on the show after auditioning with his family to be onset. Prior to this, he had spent his entire adult life researching physics and chemistry in several institutions, and is a senior scientist in the nuclear engineering department of Argonne National Laboratory as well as a fellow of the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute.

“Attraction and reaction between entities is a reoccurring theme…and is an unexpected link between science and cinema,” Stan said. His evidence for this claim lies in the similarity between the graphs of the uncanny valley and the Lennard-Jones potential for particle state transitions.

The uncanny valley, a social science theory that is often applied to films, is the idea that as an entity becomes more similar to a human, it reaches a point where people are repulsed by it before the entity becomes indistinguishable from humans. Directors of some movies, like James Cameron of Avatar, engage this concept by toeing the line between depicting figures that are almost human-like, yet not. Particles follow a similar pattern according to their distance from each other, and the graph of each association is very similar in shape.

Stan also discussed the dogmatic approach that both scientists and artists have when it comes to perfecting their work—another connection between science and cinema. He pointed to how a super computer’s usage schedule was as similarly regimented as that of a movie set. They both place minute-by-minute demands on the actors and researchers who work on them. This underscored his point that scientists and artists approach their work with equal drive and desire for perfection.

When describing how he acquired the role of Bogdan on the show, he noted that it started initially as a family activity. He was living in Albuquerque, NM, the location of the show, and went with his wife and two children to audition for roles as extras.

“I didn’t go with the expectation that I would have such [a big part] on the show,” he said. “They asked me if I could say one line, and I said, ‘Sure,’ and the next day I came back and there were more lines on the page, and after talking to the people in charge, I had a part.”

He ended the talk discussing how young people should pursue a meaningful life, listing a series of if-then statements for how to pursue a life that would make a young person happiest depending on what most interested them.

“My work does not define who I am,” he said, “and neither should yours.”