Bad Chemistry

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) taking care of business in Breaking Bad. (AMC)

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) taking care of business in Breaking Bad. (AMC)

Walter White has become a bad man. Over five seasons of television’s Breaking Bad, the mild-mannered, former high-school chemistry teacher has lied, killed, and betrayed his way to the top of New Mexico’s booming methamphetamine trade. Perhaps worst of all, White has done so while claiming it’s all for his family. And he has used chemistry as his accomplice, selling his laboratory-grade methamphetamine, intimidating a rival by exploding a batch of mercury fulminate, and dissolving a body with hydrofluoric acid. Without chemistry there’s no Walter White, no Breaking Bad.

So how does a real chemist feel about seeing a (fictional) member of her trade going rogue? Ask Donna Nelson, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and the show’s volunteer science adviser. She first encountered Breaking Bad through the American Chemistry Society’s magazine, which published an interview with the cast. Creator Vince Gilligan, who described himself as a science groupie, admitted that he and his writers—unable to afford a chemistry adviser—had resorted to using the Internet and Wikipedia for research. They wanted to get the science right, though, and welcomed any help.

Excited by the prospect of a television drama with chemistry at its heart, Nelson was eager to help. “Then,” she says, “I went away and watched a couple of episodes and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, is this something I want to get involved in?’ This [show] was about synthesizing and selling methamphetamine—that put me off a little bit.” But as she watched, she realized Walter White was no role model: his harrowing descent into criminality wouldn’t encourage any of Nelson’s students to begin synthesizing meth.

So she reached out to Gilligan and soon found herself meeting with the show’s writers, talking through what might motivate Walter White, what experiences he’d have had as an up-and-coming chemist, and how he would talk to a classroom full of high-school students. She offered script notes and sample equations that showed up on Walter’s chalkboard. Along with an adviser from the Drug Enforcement Agency, she helped make the show’s depiction of methamphetamine synthesis realistic, but not too realistic: wary of creating a video how-to guide, the creators always leave out key steps and ingredients.

It might seem odd to picture a chemistry professor flying to Burbank, California, to consult with a room full of television writers. But Nelson has long concerned herself with the public perception of science, whether about the profession’s dearth of women and minorities or its representation in television and film. Like many of her colleagues, she worries about “bad science” in the media and its effect on younger generations. “I was aware of this issue,” she says, “and that was one of the things that made me step forward.”

Luckily, she’s not the only one stepping forward. The National Academy of Sciences, for instance, has established the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which describes itself as 1-800-FIND-A-SCIENTIST: “When Hollywood needs a scientist, a quick call to us is all they need.” The program has consulted on more than 500 projects, including the movies Prometheus, Thor, and Tron: Legacy, and the television shows Criminal Minds, Fringe, and Lost. Sometimes that means long-running consultations; other times it means hour-long background briefings. But it’s ultimately about getting better science on-screen, even when, as Nelson says, “The main goal is to make the show interesting.”

Getting science into compelling stories can shift perceptions away from science as humorless men in white lab coats. “It’s been quite noticeable that over the past, say, 20 years, the number of U.S. kids going into science has been declining,” Nelson says. Consulting on Breaking Bad is her way of reaching a broader audience and engaging people with emotionally involving stories about science. Of course, she can’t yet show empirical evidence that her outreach has had an effect—“but on down the future we might see some impact.” Her efforts have affected at least one person: a caller to NPR’s Science Friday, inspired by Breaking Bad, says he has returned to college to study chemistry.

Ultimately, Nelson sees reaching beyond the scientific community as an important responsibility. “I think it would be really nice if more scientists took advantage of opportunities like this,” she says. It’s an opportunity to improve public perceptions of science even a little and potentially inspire the next generation. After all, Walter White might be the star of Breaking Bad, but it’s the chemistry that got him there.