An Interview With Breaking Bad’s Science Advisor

Breaking Bad‘s protagonist/antagonist is Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth-dealing kingpin. His journey is ending soon at the fifth season comes to an end. Along the way, White has used chemistry knowledge for many reasons, mostly nefarious. But, that chemistry has been incredibly accurate thanks to Dr. Donna J. Nelson, an award-winning scientist and professor at the University of Oklahoma. We asked her a few questions about her experience with the show and the importance of accurate science in pop culture.

1. How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?
I saw an article interviewing Vince Gilligan in the American Chemical Society’s magazine Chemical and Engineering News.  In that, he said the show didn’t have funds to hire a science advisor, but they needed one because neither he nor his writers had any formal science background.  I recognized this as an opportunity to do a community service, by ensuring that the science viewed on TV by the public was correct.  I contacted the magazine editor and let hiim know that I volunteered.  He communicated this to Vince, who got back in touch with me.

2. How much do you have to change when you’re sent dialog or scenes? Do the writers get close or are you doing a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to crafting the chemistry dialog?
They did an excellent job.  I respected the writers’ creative capabilities to engage the audience, and so I changed as few words as possible in script pages in order to make them scientifically accurate.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) teaching chemistry in class.

3. When you started helping, did you realize how big of a cultural event the show would become?
There were hints of it, because the show began winning awards almost immediately, but I did not predict how universally popular it would become.

4. How important is accuracy, do you think, in shows that involve not only chemistry, but all science?
It is very important, for the sake of the public, science, and scientists.  It will be very helpful in attracting the next generation of people into science, and that is important for the future of the US.  However, realistically, the primary goal must always be in making the show hold the attention of the viewers.

5. What is the worst example of bad science you’ve seen in a movie or television show?
Rockets traveling in space, moving across the screen (left to right), and exhaust floating up to the top of the screen.

6. What recent advances in science and chemistry are exciting to you?
I am currently blending my research in alkenes and my research in chemical education, in order to determine ways to make organic chemistry easier to learn.  I have been teaching this for a long time, and I now see how to make it easier.

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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) enjoys the science behind their operations.

7. If you could teach one thing about chemistry to everyone in the world, what would it be?
Understanding chemistry helps one to understand the characteristics of materials and how living things function.  It makes life much more interesting.

8. Is blue meth possible or is that artistic license?
Artistic license.

9. Do you want Walt to have a happy ending?
Sure.  However, Walt is such a complex character, that it would be hard to predict what would (or would not) constitute a happy ending for him.

If you want to know more about Dr. Nelson’s studies, achievements, and efforts to help Hollywood write better science, check out her website or Wikipedia page.

– Mark (follow on twitter)