The Science of Breaking Bad: Professor Donna Nelson Explains How the Show Gets it Right

There’s noth­ing fun­ny about the rav­ages of high­ly addic­tive nar­cotics or gang­land turf wars. Nev­er­the­less, Vince Gilligan’s riv­et­ing hit Break­ing Bad man­aged to start on a (yes, dark­ly) com­ic note that still sounds occa­sion­al­ly as the show hur­tles toward its fate­ful con­clu­sion this Sun­day. (Conan O’Brien has had a lot of fun with these moments in par­o­dies of the show’s char­ac­ters’ quirks and its some­times-grue­some desert absur­di­ties.)

What anchors the show, even when it veers into gal­lows humor, is its sense of authen­tic­i­ty. Despite Break­ing Bad’s theatrical—almost Shakespearean—plotting, Gilli­gan and his writ­ers have tak­en care to build a very believ­able scaf­fold­ing behind every out­ra­geous set piece, even when it comes to the sci­ence of per­fec­tion­is­tic chem­istry teacher Wal­ter White’s super high-qual­i­ty crys­tal metham­phet­a­mine. In order to get the sci­ence right, Gilli­gan approached Don­na Nel­son, Pro­fes­sor of Organ­ic Chem­istry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa.

Nel­son doesn’t only con­sult on the nature of illic­it chem­i­cal com­pounds; she has also pro­vid­ed the show’s writ­ers with insights into the moti­va­tions and meth­ods of chemists and teach­ers. As Nel­son says, “to us who are edu­cat­ed in sci­ence, when­ev­er we see sci­ence pre­sent­ed inac­cu­rate­ly, it’s like fin­ger­nails on a black­board. It just dri­ves us crazy, and we can’t stay immersed in the show.” As a Break­ing Bad fan who is, I’ll be hon­est, large­ly chem­istry-illit­er­ate, I’d still cred­it some of my immer­sion to how real the sci­ence feels, a by-prod­uct, sure­ly, of how gen­uine it is. Watch Pro­fes­sor Nel­son in the video above, pro­duced by the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal Soci­ety, explain how the show cre­at­ed its illu­sions with the stuff of 100% real sci­ence.

Well, okay, it’s maybe more like 96%. As you might have sus­pect­ed, the sig­na­ture pow­der blue col­or of Walter’s prod­uct is pure dra­mat­ic inven­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Orig­i­nal Audi­tion Tapes for Break­ing Bad Before the Final Sea­son Debuts

The Break­ing Bad Theme Played with Meth Lab Equip­ment

Inside Break­ing Bad: Watch Conan O’Brien’s Extend­ed Inter­view with the Show’s Cast and Cre­ator

Down­load Free Online Chem­istry Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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