Museum of Science and Industry


A critically acclaimed show with perhaps more chemistry per hour than any drama in television history, Breaking Bad is also a show involving nefarious and harmful uses of chemistry, and a show very much for adults. Like the show, this post discusses topics that are not to be glamorized, but only to explain how Breaking Bad respects science while exploring sad and unfortunate topics.

Scientists watch TV too! And folks in the biz have taken notice.

AMC’s hit television drama Breaking Bad has proved itself amongst some science professionals as a show that they can get on board with. The show, now producing its fifth and final season, follows expert organic chemist-turned-teacher Walter White as he quits his day job to produce methamphetamine with his former student, Jesse, in order to support his family after a lung cancer diagnosis.

From the show’s inception, creator Vince Gilligan stressed how important it is that the show is as scientifically accurate and realistic as possible. So while Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are winning Emmys for their outstanding performances, several unsung special advisors are hard at work triple-checking that everything caught on camera would convince even the most-experty of experts. The writers and producers of Breaking Bad work hand-in-hand with real chemists, researchers, and even the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to make Walt and Jesse really good at being bad. Whether it be cooking meth, jumpstarting their RV, or disposing of dead bodies, you can trust that they are doing what’s right. Well, as far as the science is concerned.

Cooking up the blue stuff is a long, detailed process, so to make sure Walt and Jesse look like they are doing it right, the DEA guided their hands along the way, down to every realistic color, noise and reaction. But even though it looks convincing, the actors are not using real methylamine or phenylacetone or hydrofluoric acid. Water, Coca-Cola, baking soda, food coloring and other common household items are used to "make it "look real", and that blue stuff is just rock candy!

But there is a lot more chemistry in BB than cookin’ up drugs. Depending on the week, Walt could be poisoning bad guys with beans, cutting up sponges to make an electrochemical battery, emptying Etch-a-Sketches or ice packs for explosives, wiping out hard drives, or just teaching a lesson to his high schoolers about alkenes. All in a day’s work for Mr. White, but for the show’s team of researchers and fact-checkers, all of these stunts present a difficult and unique challenge. Researchers Gordon Smith and Jen Carroll keep all of the science nerds watching the show grinning by making sure all of the sciencey stuff written in the script is realistic. Neither Smith nor Carroll has a science background, but they do have all of the right connections. They constantly are in contact with experts from a wide range of specialties to make sure everything that happens on the show is plausible.

One of those experts is Donna Nelson, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. Nelson landed this sweet gig with Breaking Bad after reading in a magazine interview that Gilligan needed serious help getting the science in the show right. Nelson volunteered and has since become a critical part of the show’s production. Not only does she help fact check the science content, but the writers actually used her life experience as a chemistry teacher to help shape Walt’s character. Nelson helped the writers figure out why someone would become a chemistry teacher or a scientist, what it is like to work in a lab, and what someone with a “scientific personality” is really like.

In an interview with SmartPlanet, Nelson talks about how important it is to get the science right in TV and film:

Our population generally is becoming more and more science literate. It’s amazing how much kids know when they hit that first science class. They are becoming so smart. [Inaccurate science in film and television] can be misleading… You’re supposed to have this suspension of disbelief in order to get immersed in the show. If you then see something you know is completely illogical, it makes you sit up. You’re brought right back to reality and it ruins the show. I would think that in their own self -interest, the shows that have science in them would want to get it right.

If you’re a scientist and are interested in landing your fifteen minutes of Hollywood fame, you can contact the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization that hooks up the folks in the biz with the folks in the labs.

The final season of Breaking Bad resumes in the summer of 2013.
Photo: © 2012 AMC Networks Inc.

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