Breaking Bad: the Lady Who Taught Heisenberg Everything
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 he cooks in the show. But this chemically driven show has a real life chemistry professor, Donna Nelson, who advises on how to make sure that the science in the show matches up. Nelson is the lady who taught Heisenberg everything about cooking meth.
Professor Nelson, is a lecturer for the University of Oklahoma. She teaches organic chemistry and she approached the show’s creator Vince Gilligan after reading an interview in American Chemical Society’s magazine. She wanted to keep the show on the right track with its emphasis on science and chemistry.
She felt that Gilligan wanted to keep the science as real as possible. She admitted that she could not stand it when shows got things wrong. She said that these mistakes were like fingernails on a blackboard. So rather than have the show rely on the chemically astute audience for feedback, she offered to do so in her spare time.
Donna had a few misgivings about being the scientific technical advisor on a show all about meth manufacture. But, she discovered that the show did not glorify the manufacture and dealing of drugs. While showing Walter White’s meteoric rise as Albuquerque’s biggest meth kingpin, the show focussed on the seedy and negative side of the drugs trade.
After seeing what happened to Walter in one episode, where he is drug through the desert, beaten up and being threatened by another gangster, she felt viewers would not be inclined to join in on the criminal activity. So she got into the Breaking Bad meth driver’s seat and used her chemical knowledge to teach Heisenberg everything he needed to know about methamphetamine production.
While the show’s producers can be proud that they got things right more often than not. There were a few chemical inaccuracies now and then. For instance, as Nelson herself pointed out, Walter White’s powder blue meth. In the real world, if it was such a high grade of purity, it would be clear or have a yellow hue. But it would definitely not be blue.
Another inaccuracy had to do with the poisonous gas that Walt creates in the pilot episode. When he and Jesse are threatened in their RV mobile meth lab, Walter throws red phosphorus in hot water to make phosphine gas. In reality, red phosphorus interacts with hydrogen, but not hot water.
But Nelson had her work cut out for her. Writers wanted to know how many pounds of Walt’s powder blue meth could be made from their stolen 30 gallons of methylamine. Nelson was stumped, as a chemist she worked in drops of chemicals not gallons. But once she realized that the formula would not change, despite the amount of methylamine they had, she could come up with a figure.
In order to figure how much could be made, she needed to know what reducing agent was being used by Walter White/Heisenberg in the formula. Mercury aluminum was the answer. Not, because it was the most effective, which was the way she figured her formula’s. But because it was easier for the actors to say in dialogue.
It was then that Donna realized that the Breaking Bad world was not like the real world. She had been utilizing formulas that gave the greatest yield, purity and cost effectiveness, as well as best reaction time. None of her calculations included ingredients that were easy to pronounce.
In Breaking Bad, the lady who taught Heisenberg everything and learned to dance the fine line between fact and fiction is Professor Donna Nelson. It has been her chemical and scientific input that has helped the show seem so real and compelling. Vince Gilligan used her knowledge to create the murky world of meth production and it feels almost real. It is not difficult to imagine that the professor will be as sad as the rest of us when the show ends tonight.
By Michael Smith