Breaking Bad with its story of mild mannered chemistry teacher Walter White transforming himself into the legendary Heisenberg is as addicting as the meth that White cooks in the show. But this chemically driven show has a real life chemistry professor, Donna Nelson, who advises on how to make sure the science matches up. But in the area of the meth formula, it came down to pronounceable names. Like mercury aluminum, for instance.
Professor Nelson, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, volunteered to be the science advisor for Breaking Bad back in 2008. She lectures on organic chemistry for her paycheck, but her hobby is the drugs trade. Methamphetamine manufacture being top of the list.
Nelson is the one person who ensures that the AMC show doesn’t make too many mistakes. She is on call for the Breaking Bad script writers who contact her to review what they’ve written. The university professor offered her services to show creator Vince Gilligan after reading his American Chemical Society interview.
In the interview, Gilligan expressed his desire to make certain that the science in the show was accurate, but he didn’t have the budget to hire an “on-set” advisor. He was going to rely upon the goodwill of the chemically knowledgeable audience for constructive criticism.
Donna jumped at the chance to get involved since a major pet peeve of hers was any program’s inaccuracies dealing with science and chemicals. She described such instances as “fingernails on a chalkboard.”
She did have qualms about the show’s main plotline of making and selling meth. But she soon realised that Gilligan’s series was not glorifying the drug trade. Even though the Breaking Bad world was fictional, the results of White’s chosen trade were pretty realistic. Although in the area of the meth formula, it boiled down to names that the actors could say easily. Can you say mercury aluminum?
But meth formulas aside, the professor soon saw that people who watched the show would not be overly enamoured of the drug trade lifestyle. Being shot, run-over, blown-up, stabbed etc, would not be something that your average viewer would want to participate in.
She jumped into the job wholeheartedly and only got stumped for solutions to writer’s questions once in awhile. But, Nelson isn’t perfect and a few chemical “boo boos” got through. For instance, hydrofluoric acid will not eat its way through a bathtub. The acid is used in real life to dispose of bodies, but it is not so powerful that it can dissolve a tub like it did Jesse’s in the show.
Another fallacy is the powder blue meth. Nelson herself noted that, in reality, if the meth was really that pure, it would be clear or yellowish in color. Not blue. And sometimes the non-meth chemical formulations don’t add up.
In the Breaking Bad pilot, while the guys are cooking meth in their RV lab, two baddies take over. Walt concocts a poisonous gas by chucking some red phosphorus into hot water. He tells Jesse that this chemical mixture resulted in a poisonous gas called phosphine. In actuality, red phosphorus does react to hydrogen, but not hot water.
Of course sometimes, Nelson was asked things that threw her. Writers wanted to know how many pounds of meth could be made from White’s stolen 30 gallons of methylamine. After a little thought, she realised that despite the sheer volume of the methylamine, the formula for meth would be the same.
To work out her solution, she asked the writers what reducing agent they were going to use. It turned out to be mercury aluminum. Not because it would yield the best result in the lab, but because the actors could say it with less problems than the more complex sounding agents. Nelson realized that Breaking Bad was a “different world” and she’d been basing her formula’s on product yield, lab safety, cost, reaction time, and purity of the end product, but never took into consideration the ease of saying the name.
So in terms of the Breaking Bad meth formula, it is all about whether you can say mercury aluminum and not about what would really be used. The world of Walter White/Heisenberg is based on reality, but is not real. A certain amount of fiction needs to be added to the show’s formula of make believe meth production. Like showing how to hotwire a car, certain things are “made-up” to keep the criminally inclined from learning the wrong things. Professor Nelson has helped the show’s producers walk that fine line between fact and fiction.
By Michael Smith