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.
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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