Breaking Bad is almost over. As the end grows nigh, let's take a few minutes to recognize some of the real science that's gone into making it one of the best shows on television. Donna Nelson – University of Oklahoma chemistry professor and Breaking Bad chemistry advisor – will be our guide.
When we spoke with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan about Nelson, he had glowing things to say about her contributions to the show, and there are many. For example: anyone who watches knows how often the word "precursor" gets thrown around. You can thank Nelson for that.
Recently, the American Chemical Society sat down with Nelson to talk with her about her experience on the show, and picked her brain for any insights she might have on its chemistry – from why she first reached out to Breaking Bad (she read about their need for scientific experts in an issue of Chemical & Engineering News) to the accuracy of W.W.'s trademark sky-blue cook (one of the few non-scientific, creative liberties taken by the show writers, she says):
"To us who are educated in science, whenever we see science presented inaccurately, it's like fingers on a blackboard," says Nelson. "It just drives us crazy, and we can't stay immersed in the show."
Recognizing this, Nelson says the showrunners went above and beyond to ensure that the show's chemistry was as accurate as possible:
I remember when they first asked me some question about the P2P method. And I said "we know there are two steps. The first step is always the same, but the second step can depend upon the reducing agent." And I said "which reducing agent do you use?" and they said "we don't know, what could we use?" and I sent them a list. And there was one that was just simply "Aluminum Mercury" and they said "Oh! Use that one – it'll be easier for the actors to say."
As a result, all of the equations and figures used in the show to determine how much meth could be produced from a certain amount of methylamine is 100% accurate, with aluminum mercury as the reducing agent.
Of course, says Nelson, the show can't be too accurate:
Vince has involved DEA agents from the very beginning. I mean they approve everything that he puts on the screen. They know exactly what an illicit meth lab looks like; they helped him know which critical steps to omit or, you know, slight changes, or in some cases, things to discuss that really don't make any difference.
"It's great to have a hit show," says Nelson, "a hit Hollywood show, that covers chemistry at this level."
We couldn't agree more. For more on the real chemistry behind Breaking Bad, check out these two essays by Nelson [here and here] over on AMC.