Watch the Pilot of Breaking Bad with a Chemistry Professor: How Sound Was the Science?

Even the grit­ti­est, hard­est-hit­ting TV dra­mas require will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief to enjoy. This is espe­cial­ly true if you, the view­er, hap­pen to be an expert on such sub­jects as emer­gency med­i­cine, police pro­ce­dures, crim­i­nal law, FBI pro­fil­ing, crime scene inves­ti­ga­tion, etcetera. Those of us who don’t know any­thing about these fields may have an eas­i­er time of it, pro­vid­ed the writ­ers do their dili­gence and make the actors sound con­vinc­ing. I nev­er much ques­tioned the sci­ence of Break­ing Bad, for exam­ple. Sure­ly, the hit show accu­rate­ly depict­ed how a des­per­ate high school chem­istry teacher would build a meth lab in the desert? How should I know oth­er­wise?

I might watch the show with a chemist, for one thing, like Pro­fes­sor Don­na Nel­son or the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nottingham’s Sir Mar­tyn Poli­akoff, who had him­self refused to watch Break­ing Bad until “one day when I’m old.” That day has come at last: he final­ly sat down with the pilot and dis­cussed his impres­sions on YouTube chan­nel Peri­od­ic Videos. Poli­akoff approached the exper­i­ment with almost no pre­con­cep­tions. He knew the show was about a chem­istry teacher who made “some sort of drug, I didn’t know which one,” and that “there were a lot of episodes.”

He also knew that “at some point, HF, hydro­gen flu­o­ride, played a part.” But before the chem­istry cri­tique begins, Poli­akoff notices that Wal­ter White’s pants float­ing through the desert air in the pilot’s icon­ic open­ing are a phys­i­cal impos­si­bil­i­ty giv­en their orig­i­na­tion. Bum­mer. He loved the open­ing sequence spelling out the show’s title with ele­ments from the peri­od­ic table, and even imag­ined how his own name (includ­ing “Sir”) might be spelled the same way.

As you might expect, Poli­akoff has some nits to pick with the les­son White gives his stu­dents in the first few min­utes. For one, White—who shows him­self to be very safe­ty-con­scious, if not risk-averse, lat­er in the episode—wears no safe­ty gear while spray­ing chem­i­cals into an open flame. The direc­tor can be for­giv­en for not want­i­ng to obscure Bryan Cranston’s expres­sive face in this cru­cial scene of char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. But what of the les­son itself? Over­all, he says, it’s “quite good.” He likes White’s def­i­n­i­tion of chem­istry as “the study of change,” but thinks it should more ful­ly be “the way that mat­ter changes.”

The dis­cus­sion prompts Poli­akoff to reflect that no one’s ever asked him to define chem­istry before. (When asked to define “inor­gan­ic chem­istry” in high school, his son answered, “it’s what my dad does.”) We quick­ly begin to see the ben­e­fits of watch­ing a well-craft­ed show like Break­ing Bad with an expert. The dra­ma of the show, and its unusu­al approach to what we nor­mal­ly con­sid­er a dry sub­ject, draws out our chemist’s enthu­si­asm and helps us make con­nec­tions we might not oth­er­wise make, such as Wal­ter White’s resem­blance to well-known British sci­en­tist and sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor Robert Win­ston.

Hear­ing Poli­akoff dis­cuss the Break­ing Bad pilot turns out to be so enter­tain­ing that TV exec­u­tives should take note—this could become a new, easy-to-pro­duce genre when we final­ly run out of shows, pro­vid­ed there are enough emi­nent pro­fes­sors will­ing to offer com­men­tary on hit series of the past. But as we can sur­mise from Pro­fes­sor Poliakoff’s gen­er­al lack of inter­est in TV, and from his thriv­ing career as a chem­istry pro­fes­sor, he’s prob­a­bly busy. He’s already done more than enough to make chem­istry inter­est­ing to us lay­folk by con­tribut­ing to Peri­od­ic Videos for over a decade now.

Fur­ther up, see a fun demon­stra­tion of explod­ing hydro­gen bub­bles (“the title pret­ty much says it”). Just above and below, see Pro­fes­sor Poli­akoff enlight­en us on the prop­er­ties of ele­ments 35 and 56, Bromine and Bar­i­um, and watch Peri­od­ic Videos full series on the peri­od­ic table here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

The Break­ing Bad Theme Played with Meth Lab Equip­ment

How Break­ing Bad Craft­ed the Per­fect TV Pilot: A Video Essay

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

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