All About Oscar March 18, 2002
Roll Out the Red Carpet
On Sunday evening, some 70 million people in the United States will switch on their TV's to savor the four-hour extravaganza of intrigue, glamor, and drama that is the Academy Awards® ceremony. Up to 60 filmmakers will leave the sumptuous new Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles with a golden Oscar® in hand.

The Oscar statuette was designed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) art director Cedric Gibbons, and it was made by out-of-work sculptor George Stanley for $500 back in 1927. The design depicts a knight holding a crusader's sword, standing on a reel of film with five spokes that signify the original branches of the Academy: actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians.

When the first Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1928, the statuette had no official name; it was nicknamed "the Academy statuette," "the golden trophy," or "the statue of merit." No one is certain how the nickname Oscar became popular, but here are the three most popular stories about its origins:

  1. Academy librarian — and eventually Academy executive director — Margaret Herrick claimed that the nickname came from her exclamation that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar.
  2. Actress Bette Davis claimed to have commented that the statuette's backside reminded her of her husband Harmon Oscar Nelson, and others who heard her comment passed on the nickname. However, Davis later relinquished her claim when the nickname was found in print dated three years before her 1937 win.
  3. Hollywood writer Sidney Skolsky used the name in his column in reference to Katherine Hepburn's first Best Actress win. Skolsky said he chose the moniker "to negate pretension." (How can someone named Oscar have a big ego?)

The Academy didn't officially adopt the name "Oscar" until 1939. Today, the name is synonymous with achievement in the movie industry and the gold figure is a major icon in popular culture.

Learn About the Problem
The facts and figures about the Oscar statuette offer an interesting context for solving math problems and learning about metal plating.

Math: The Oscar statuettes stand 34.3 cm (13.5 inches) tall, and each weighs about 3.8 kg (8.5 pounds). Between 50 and 60 statuettes are crafted each year. Each award is individually packed into a Styrofoam container slightly larger than a shoe box. Eight of these are then packed into a larger cardboard box, which is shipped from Chicago to the Academy offices in Beverly Hills via air express.

Students can review basic skills using Destination Math and then solve various problems. (Destination Math requires a subscription. Get a free trial subscription.)

  1. Quantities and weight
    Mastering Skills & Concepts IV: Multiplying Decimals: Calculating Products
  2. Volume
    Mastering Skills & Concepts IV: Multiplying Decimals: Finding the Volume of a Prism
  3. Surface Area
    Mastering Skills & Concepts V: Fundamentals of Geometry: Calculating the Volume and Surface Area of a Right Cylinder
  4. Ratio and scale
    Mastering Skills & Concepts V: Ratio: Defining Ratio

Chemistry: The original statuettes, which were cast in bronze and plated with 24-karat gold, stood on a base of black marble. Over the years the materials have changed, and today the statuettes are made of britannium — an alloy of tin, copper, and antimony that is similar to pewter — and plated with four metals.

Those four metals are copper, nickel, silver, and gold. First, the brittanium statuette receives a light copper electroplate, followed by heavy copper. Next, nickel plating is used to seal the pores of the metal. Third, the statuette is washed in silver plate, because gold adheres well to it. After further polishing, the statuette receives its final coat of 24-karat gold.

The following activities require Logal Express. Get a free trial subscription.

  1. Electrolytic Cells
    Students can learn about the principles underlying electroplating in the Chemistry Gateways activity, Electrolytic Cells.
  2. Electroplating
    Students can explore the process of electroplating in the Chemistry Gateways activity, Electroplating. Advanced students can also use the Chemistry Explorer activity, Electroplating with Copper.

Stealing Oscar
One of the most famous incidents in Oscar's history occurred in 2000 when 55 statuettes disappeared en route to California. The reward offered for the 55 missing statues was set at $50,000. Junk dealer Willie Fulgear received the award after he found the Oscars next to a trash dumpster. In an interesting plot twist, police later arrested Fulgear's half-brother and charged him with the crime of stealing the Oscars. Read more in "Oscar Heist: Case Closed" from E! Online.

Ask students the following:

The statuettes have a basic value of $330. However, the reward for the 55 Oscars missing in 2000 was $50,000. How much more was each statuette valued by the reward?

What percentage of the reward value is the basic value?

What could account for this difference in the two values?

Oscars for Sale?
Oscar winners must sign a waiver promising never to sell their award. If they or their heirs want to get rid of it, they must sell it back to the Academy for $1.

However, Oscars that were awarded before 1950 are available to buy. Last year, Steven Spielberg spent $578,000 on the Oscar Bette Davis won for her performance in Jezebel. Spielberg was on a goodwill mission — he gave the Oscar back to the Academy. Read more in the BBC news article, "Spielberg buys Bette Davis' Oscar."

Spielberg also bought Clark Gable's Oscar (for It Happened One Night) and returned it to the Academy. He paid a cool $607,500.

Think About the Problem
Math: Here are a series of problems for your students to solve:

  1. Weight and quantities
    Each Oscar is packed in a box roughly the size of a shoe box. These boxes are packed into cartons for shipment, eight boxes per carton. If 60 statuettes are crafted this year, how many cartons are required to ship the Oscars to California? Given that each Oscar weighs 3.8 kg, how heavy is the entire shipment?
  2. Volume
    Measure a typical shoe box and then calculate the volume of a carton containing eight shoe boxes.

    The Oscar is irregular in shape, but the statuette is roughly a cylinder with a 5-centimeter diameter. Calculate the volume of the cylinder to estimate how much britannium each statuette contains.

  3. Surface area
    Calculate the surface area of the cylinder to determine the approximate surface area of the statuette that needs to be plated.

    In the plating process, different thicknesses of metal can be applied. The unit of measurement used is the micron. 1,000 microns are equivalent to 1 millimeter. (For comparison, a U.S. dollar bill is 200 microns thick.) Suppose the Oscar statuette gets a coating of gold that is 0.5 microns thick. Use the surface area calculation you did before to estimate what volume of gold will be needed to plate an Oscar statuette.

  4. Ratio and scale
    There will be giant Oscar statues outside the Kodak Theatre this Sunday night and more statues on stage. The tallest of these prop statues is 7.3 meters tall. The smallest is 0.45 meters tall. How big are these two prop statues compared to the size of the actual Oscar award statuette? Express your answer as a ratio. Simplify your answer so that the ratio is in the form 1 : x, where 1 represents the height of the statuette, and x represents the scaled height of the tallest or smallest prop statue. (Remember that the statuette is 34.3 cm tall.)

Chemistry: Ask students the following questions about the gold-plating process:

  • Is the statuette the cathode or anode?
  • Describe the electrolytic solution. How would the solution be different for each of the four metals used to plate the Oscar?
  • Draw a simple diagram showing the cathode, anode, electrolyte solution, and electrical power source. What happens to the anode over time? What happens to the cathode?

Extending the Problem
Going to the movies: Students who want to learn more about the Academy Awards can visit The Official Academy Awards Site or the site of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In honor of the Oscars, this week the Riverdeep Current has two articles on the movies for students:

  • E.T. the Extraterrestrial is being re-released this week on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. E.T. is just one of many alien characters that have fascinated audiences over the years. Your students can read about popular culture's preoccupation with aliens and the real-life search for aliens in "Alien Fascination."
  • Computer graphics put incredibly realistic worlds on the movie screen — from the Roman Colosseum in last year's Best Picture, Gladiator, to journeys through space in the upcoming Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Your students can learn about some of the tricks used by movie producers in "Special Effects."

Making sculptures: Students can read about the work of sculptor Helaman Ferguson in the Riverdeep Current archive article, "Marrying Math and Art." Ferguson has a Ph.D. in mathematics and he interprets mathematical principles through his works. Students may also read "The Art Angle," which discusses how paintings and sculpture can show mathematics in action.

Further information about sculpture and electroplating is available at the following Web sites:

  • Students will find many resources about sculpture at the Sculptor.Org site. Have students discuss ways that a sculptor uses math and science, e.g., math to calculate necessary materials and to portray perspective; anatomy to depict the human body; and chemistry to understand different types of paints, dyes, and platings.
  • Chemistry students can read an article from on electroplating. Have students bring in various plated objects from their homes, e.g., candlesticks, an old lamp, etc. Have them analyze the objects based on the information in the article. If you have the proper equipment in your chemistry lab, have the students actually electroplate one of the objects.
  • Advanced students can get detailed information about metal plating — such as the different thicknesses of plating used for various applications — from
  • The site also has a good article about the history of electroplating.

  • Students can also read about new electroplating techniques at the commercial REV-ER-UP site.