‘Breaking Bad’ chemistry is good science, yo

The cast of AMC’s Breaking Bad has always had great chemistry, as the Emmy’s have noted, but is the science any good?

Organic chemist Donna Nelson of the University of Oklahoma hopes so. She’s the one who has made sure the methamphetamine musings penned by screenwriter/producer Vince Gilligan for Brian Cranston’s character Walter White, (a.k.a. Heisenberg, the show’s anti-hero) are correct.

So it’s not just Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) shouting “Yeah, science!” in the first season’s Episode 7 (“A No Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”) after Mr. White says they no longer need pseudoephedrine pills because: “We’re going to make phenylacetone in a tube furnace. Then we’re going to use reductive amination...”

Or as the meth-addled Skinny Pete (Charles Barker) told his smoking cohort, Badger (Matt Jones), in the Star Trek pie-eating episode: “Look it up. It’s science!”


Nelson viewed her task as preventive medicine to keep her and her colleagues from a collective eye-roll: “Whenever we see science presented inaccurately, it’s like fingernails on the blackboard. It just drives us crazy,” she told the American Chemical Society’s Bytesize Science folks, who produced a video interview with her.

Nelson fielded such questions as how much methamphetamine could be synthesized from a standard-size barrel of methylamine. “It’s a simple stochiometric calculation,” Nelson told Bytesize Science.

Gilligan sought what he called “constructive comments” about the chemistry in the early days of the five-season drama, which comes to a conclusion Sunday. Nelson headed from Norman, Okla., to Burbank, starting her long-running role as science advisor to the show.

So when Walter, then still a nebbish high school chemistry teacher, talks about alkynes with his less-than-enthusiastic class, the drawings on the chalk board are pretty much what you’d see in beginning organic chemistry.


There were artistic compromises, though. In the P2P method of making Heisenberg’s signature blue-tinted meth, there were several reducing agents that could have been used. The one that made it into the script was the one that was easiest to pronounce, aluminum mercury, according to Nelson.

Oh, and the blue hue to Heisenberg’s meth? Let’s just say that’s more a product of a university’s arts quad, rather than the science quad.

Gilligan also appeared with Paul on an episode of Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” that examined the science behind whether Walter could really have blown up a room by tossing mercury fulminate crystals, and whether hydrofluoric acid would really dissolve a body (of a pig, in this case), then eat through a tub and floor.

Before you dive into AMC’s marathon showing of old “Breaking Bad” episodes to find out how to make your own meth, the Drug Enforcement Administration made sure some key steps were omitted or blurred, Nelson said.

The video is worth a full viewing, particularly if you want to know Nelson’s favorite character. No spoiler, but I’ll give you a hint: there’s no chemical bond involved.

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