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The Straight Dope: A Q&A with the Prof behind the Good Science in Breaking Bad


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Donna J. Nelson, BB's science consultant, all dressed up for a never-used cameo appearance as a nursing-home attendant.

Since 1983, Donna J. Nelson has taught some 10,000 students as a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. Her research extends to characterizing carbon nanotubes and examining carbon–carbon double bonds every which way and even promoting chemistry education as a means to increase the number of chemists and chemical engineers in the workforce.

On her 31-page, single-spaced CV, one item that leaps out is the notation of her role as a science consultant to the smashingly popular cable TV show Breaking Bad.  Nelson decided to help the show’s writers when she read in Chemical & Engineering News that they were looking for expertise to ensure accuracy of the dialogue and plot devices related to chemistry. Since then she has gone on to suss out answers to questions such as how much meth you could synthesize with 30 gallons of methylamine using the P2P meth recipe.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Scientists often criticize the way that their various disciplines are depicted in popular media. How does Breaking Bad stand up as far as that goes?
I have heard people at professional meetings, such as AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], who were in symposia about taking science to the public. They did not know that I was in the room and they would start talking about Breaking Bad. They asked one of the speakers what was going on with the show because it seems to get the science right, disproving the myth that it’s impossible to get the science right and still have an interesting show.

Can you give me an example of where your input has had an impact on the show?
In season 4, episode 1, there’s a lot of dialogue about enantiomers and diastereomers and how a reaction creates chiral centers, things like that. I did work with them on that scene. It’s where Walt is really trying to impress people, telling them that they’re not going to be able do the synthesis without him and his knowledge.

Anything else?
One thing I thought was sort of humorous was when I was to talking to them about methylamine and I said when you use that precursor—and the writers stopped me and said, “Precursor? What’s a precursor?” And if you notice they now they throw that word in all the time.

Another suggestion I made was when Walt was teaching high school and there was a scene on alkenes. They asked is there anything that Walt would write on the board. I told them I could send a drawing of alkenes and that is indeed what’s on the board. The alkenes are missing a couple of hydrogens but otherwise they did a pretty good job of drawing them.

Didn’t they ask you to calculate the exact yield you get from 30 gallons of methylamine using the P2P method of synthesizing meth?
The story behind that is that the first step in the synthesis is pretty much the same in any P2P method. Step two, the reduction step, can vary from one synthesis to another, and there’s a lot of differences in the reducing agents. And so I said, I don’t know what reagent you want. They said to send them a list, and they liked the one that was aluminum–mercury because it would be easier for the actors to say those words. I looked at the other reducing agents and they would, indeed, have been difficult for the actors to the say on the air.

That’s another example of where I let them be boss. I wouldn’t go back to them and suggest another reagent because it might be safer, cheaper or have a higher yield, I  just said “yes sir.”

That reagent turned out to be obscure, and I had to go to a German patent from the 1950s to get the information to make the calculation. Fortunately, when I was a graduate student, I had taken German. So I was able to get back to them and tell them the quantity of meth produced, in pounds. So it worked out, but it was a little trouble.

A lot of people harp on the fact that meth would not really be blue, the way Walt’s supposedly hyperpure meth is. Did you talk to them about that?
When advising them I didn’t run into the lab to try to reproduce these syntheses. I can only draw on my own experience as an organic chemist making crystals, I did one time make one compound with huge needles, similar to what they show in Breaking Bad. That was 9-Borabicyclo[3.3.1]nonane. Some people call it “banana borane.” I used that when I was a postdoc with H. C. Brown [a 1979 Nobel chemistry laureate] at Purdue. I was usually able to get it very, very pure just like Walt was able to get his very pure. If these large needles are really  pure, they are colorless. But when I looked at them closely, it was almost as if they had a slight bluish tinge.

What Walt is supposedly synthesizing is powder blue. I can tell you the pure crystals I made never looked anything like that. I don’t think that’s realistic. but  it’s part of artistic license that we must allow allow creative artists to have. I think it was just meant to  be Walt’s trademark. There are times I think people try to make too much of these details as if Breaking Bad were a science education show. That perhaps is one time in which we just need to let the writers have a little bit of artistic license and let them go with it. Overall, I was not uncomfortable with the way they showed things because of my own experiences.

Were there things changed to ensure that you wouldn’t teach people how to make meth?
I’m sure there were. Vince [Gilligan, the show’s creator and producer] had DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] agents advising the show and checking everything written. The DEA helped to ensure that certain critical steps were omitted and that everything in this regard was kept legal. That was very smart of Vince. That ensured that any complaints they received could be referred to the DEA.

How did you get involved with the show?
During Breaking Bad season 1, Chemical & Engineering News—an American Chemical Society magazine—interviewed Vince. He said his writers had no scientific background and he would welcome constructive comments from chemically inclined people. I recognized this as an opportunity to help the show and the public, as well as an opportunity to do something really fun. I volunteered to help, and Vince took me up on the offer.

Do you think Breaking Bad has fostered interest in science?
I think it has. My students will say that they just love that show and that they’re so interested in science now. Previously, very few students would come up and talk enthusiastically about chemistry, and now they do.

Did the chemistry-related theme, making meth, ever give you pause?
I hadn’t seen the show before when I read an interview with Vince Gilligan in Chemical & Engineering News. So before deciding to offer to help, I  watched season 1, and  I saw it show Walt getting beaten up and dragged through the sand. At that point, I realized that no kid watching this would want this as a lifestyle, so I decided I could volunteer as an adviser with a clear conscience.

Image Sources: Donna Nelson and Wikipedia

 

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. the goat 11:47 am 08/21/2013

    Thanks for the great story.
    That last question, though? “Have you even seen the show?” would’ve been the second most logical response, just behind, “Are you insane?”

    Check it out someday. & thanks for the gif!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Owl905 9:43 pm 08/21/2013

    This article would have Carl Sagan grinning like a Cheshire cat! It takes the alchemy out and leaves behind a world of chemistry that’s as much fun as Gilbert ever planned. Thumbs up to Ms. Nelson’s input, and to the show’s use of real science in the output.

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  3. 3. karl 7:37 pm 08/28/2013

    I like the show, and especially love the fact that Heisenberg AKA Walt, is always a step ahead of the cops by switching reactions, doing things over and over in different ways…
    Besides, this is the second show I see that has a Science Advisor (the other one was the late Eureka), and that pays a little respect to science in general, and have no wonder cures for anything, like magic.

    Link to this
  4. 4. ssteeven 7:16 pm 09/4/2013

    When the mobile meth lab was stuck out in the desert with a dead battery, Walt used his chemical knowledge to rig up a makeshift battery to get it going. I don’t think his battery would ever have put out enough current density to turn over the engine, but it might have provided an adequate trickle charge to the lab’s lead-acid battery

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