The Science Behind 'Breaking Bad'

Cooking crystal meth is just "basic chemistry" for Walter White, the fictional chemistry teacher and anti-hero of the TV drama "Breaking Bad." Organic chemist Donna Nelson serves as science adviser to the show; she explains how the series' writers work to get the science right.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you haven't seen the TV show "Breaking Bad," get it on your Netflix queue because at the center of the action is Walter White. He's the show's chemistry teacher turned meth maker turned anti-hero. This month the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, even NPR's FRESH AIR named the show as one of the top 10 TV shows of 2011.

The show's fourth season just ended, and if you haven't seen it, you'll have a couple of months to catch up before the last season, Season 5, gets started. And if you have seen the show, you know a bit about science. You've probably been pleasantly surprised about how accurate the science is.

Well, that is no accident. Joining me now to talk more about it is the show's science advisor. Donna Nelson in her day job is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. She joins us from there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DONNA NELSON, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA: Oh, thank you so much. It's a real pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: How'd you get such a good job like that?

NELSON: Oh, it's been - it's just been amazingly fun. I'm a member of the American Chemical Society, and in its magazine, the Chemical and Engineering News, there was an interview of Vince Gilligan when he had first started the television show "Breaking Bad." And in that interview, he was stating how important it was to him that he get the science right for the show.

But he talked about how he didn't have that much of a science background, and none of his writers had an extensive science background, and so they were having to go to the Web and Wikipedia in order to get science content.

And he made a statement in that article that he would welcome constructive criticism from knowledgeable sources. And in looking at that, I realized it was organic chemistry, and I've been here, this is all I've ever done is teach organic chemistry, and I thought: I can do that. So I volunteered.

FLATOW: That's great. Let's play a clip from the show so people get a little bit of flavor, if they haven't seen "Breaking Bad," about what's happening there. So let me cue that up now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON, ACTOR: (As Walter White) I know alkynes, diolefins, trienes, polyenes. The nomenclature alone is enough to make your head spin. But when you start to feel overwhelmed, and you will, just keep in mind that one element, carbon. Carbon is at the center of it all. There is no life without carbon.

FLATOW: Now that is the teacher, the character Walter White, played by...

NELSON: Yes, by Bryan Cranston.

FLATOW: Bryan Cranston, and that is sort of a tame part of the program, where he's actually teaching chemistry to the class there, right?

NELSON: Yes, that was one of the scenes in which he was actually teaching organic chemistry to the high-schoolers, and that scene is very interesting, at least to me, because they appealed to me and said, you know, we want to teach - we want to present him teaching about alkynes to these high school students, what would be appropriate for him to say?

And they had written a few things, and there were, you know, some errors, and I mean that's really basic organic chemistry. And so I just wrote them back a little bit about the nomenclature of alkynes and, you know, tried to fill them in a little bit.

And a lot of what I said was used in that very introduction. It was really amusing to see them, you know, use the material. And at the end of that, they had said, well, is there anything that he would have written on the blackboard? And so I drew out some structures and sent them to them by email.

And I was just amazed. They drew up on the blackboard exactly what I had sent them.

FLATOW: Of course this is a chemistry teacher who finds out that he can make a lot more money making methamphetamines using his chemistry knowledge than he can teaching school.

NELSON: Yes, and he's a very good organic chemist. He's an excellent organic chemist. And so he makes excellent meth. And I'm always very fast to say that that is not what we do in our labs at the University of Oklahoma or in any of our classrooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Are you ever fearful that he'll give away the recipe, the real way - does he ever give away the real way to chemically make meth in a lab on the show?

NELSON: Oh, do they do that? Are you asking that? No, they don't. That was actually one of the concerns of a lot of people, but Vince Gilligan has been very clever. You know, there are multiple ways to make meth. And so although his scenes are very accurate, he will sort of (unintelligible) together parts of different syntheses, so that if you just simply followed the one synthesis as it's presented, you wouldn't come out with methamphetamine.

FLATOW: I've got another cut I want to play here that sort of gives a little bit more of the flavor of the show, when - on the darker side.

NELSON: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")

CRANSTON: (As Walter) They use reductive amination to yield methamphetamine, four pounds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN, ACTOR: (As character) No pseudo?

CRANSTON: (As Walter) No psuedo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) So you do have a plan? Yeah, Mr. White! Yes, science!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: That's one of his drug dealers telling him that he's very happy to know science because it's making him a lot of money.

NELSON: Yeah, yeah, and so, you know, it's a very unusual show. And when this first came about and I had to decide whether I wanted to, you know, try to assist them, originally I was thinking, well, you know, would I want to get involved in something like this?

And then after watching a few episodes of the show I realized this is not glorifying drug-making at all because he has a very hard life. You know, I mean, starting out he was in his underwear in the desert, and you know, the sand and getting scraped up, and then later he gets, you know, beat up and shot at and all sorts of fights.

And I can't imagine somebody looking at that and saying, yes, that's exactly the type of life I want to lead. So I thought, well, you know, they're going to either have a hit show with good science portrayed or with bad science portrayed. And of course for scientists, when we see science portrayed badly, you know, inaccurately on television or in the movies, it's like fingernails on the blackboard.

So I thought, well, you know, I'll help them. And of course I can't help them on the illicit meth scenes, the illicit meth lab scenes, but they get assistance from the DEA. I'm not their only science advisor. They have many advisors, and I think I might have been the only one on the high school chemistry scenes, but they have many DEA agents helping them.

FLATOW: Let's go to a call from Mitchell(ph) in Chicago. Hi, Mitch, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MITCHELL, CALLER: Hi, Ira. I love SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: Thank you. Got a question for us?

MITCHELL: Yeah, actually I wanted to say I've always been interested in chemistry, ever since I was little, but when I started watching this show, I decided to go back to college to study chemistry.

FLATOW: Wow, so that was an impetus, a catalyst, as they would say in chemistry?

MITCHELL: Yeah, a catalyst.

NELSON: That's actually wonderful. That's absolutely wonderful. I think that Vince Gilligan would be thrilled to know that his show is having that sort of an influence.

MITCHELL: I can't wait for the next season. It's not coming soon enough.

FLATOW: It's the last one.

NELSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks, Mitch.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Is he really concerned, the producer, is he really concerned about, you know, encouraging people to learn about chemistry on each episode? Does he have a little bit of real chemistry on it, or has that sort of gone...

NELSON: Yeah, I think so, yes. He really does. And he was very concerned about getting the science right. He was. I was really delighted to see this in him because, you know, for so long there's been this sort of a myth that you can't portray good science or accurate science and actually have an interesting show.

And I think that this show proves that that is a myth. It is entirely possible to present science accurately and have a hit show. And I really hope that what he's done - and of course this has been done by other television shows, you know, "CSI," et cetera...

FLATOW: "Big Bang Theory."

NELSON: But it - I hope that it will inspire others to follow his example.

FLATOW: So you must be sad to see it going into its last season then?

NELSON: Yes, you know, it's been a wonderful show, but I really do believe that others will pick up where he's left off in this one aspect.

FLATOW: Do you believe that science is having sort of a rebirth on - in the entertainment industry, on television, perhaps in the movies with science movies and TV shows coming out?

NELSON: Yeah, I think it perhaps is. I know that many of the scientists are trying to become more available now as science advisors, and the National Science Foundation is really trying hard to further this. And you know, there have been even discussions in Congress about what we need is a hit television show that portrays good science. And that's been said for a long time.

And of course like I mentioned, there are many shows that already fill that, such as "CSI," but this is the first time that we've had one, I believe, on organic chemistry per se.

FLATOW: I would have never thunk it myself, being - having done so terribly in chemistry in my own lifetime, that a hit show would be based around organic chemistry.

NELSON: Yeah, well, I say that, you know, it's a lifetime goal trying to teach organic chemistry, to make it easy, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm ever going to achieve it in my lifetime. But we do try.

FLATOW: Do you use the same teaching methods that he does in front of that classroom?

NELSON: No, not really. Of course I'm teaching at the graduate level, and the chemistry that I'm teaching is more difficult. I'm teaching undergraduate and graduate both, but it's just - it's a little more advanced than what he gets into. His is really sort of a lower level. And when you get more to the higher levels, you have to teach more pattern recognition. It can't possibly be just straight memorization.

I think the key to making it easier is the pattern recognition and, you know, relating just simple rules to be able to absorb the mass amount of material and draw patterns across the material. That's what will make it easier.

FLATOW: And what makes this show interesting to viewers, I guess, is that it deals with the drug world, which a lot of people know a lot about, but it uses that as, so to speak, the catalyst to talk about the science itself...

NELSON: Yeah, I think that much of the science is so spectacular that to me it seemed to almost become a separate character in the show. And when I mentioned that to Vince, he said yes, that he thought that was the case. And so I don't know if he actually intended that from the beginning, but that's the way it's worked out, and I think it's wonderful.

FLATOW: So people would expect, like a character, it to show up every week, right? You'd tune in see what he might be talking about, what the science might be in that episode.

NELSON: Yeah, a different type of science or a different little take on science or, you know, something interesting about science. I think it's been wonderful. It was just so much fun participating in this. I had a terrific time, and I would strongly recommend other scientists who are considering doing this to go ahead; it's a lot of fun.

FLATOW: Well, we'll see what happens, and do you know what happens in the fifth season yet?

NELSON: No, I don't, and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Just between us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank you, and good luck to you. We'll - maybe we'll see you on another TV series. You never know.

NELSON: Well, thanks. I mean, I would love it. It's been a terrific amount of fun. I've really enjoyed it.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Dr. Nelson.

NELSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Donna Nelson in her day job is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and she joined us from Norman.

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