My Experiences and Goals as a Science Advisor for Breaking Bad

When I first began helping with science on Breaking Bad, I knew that there were few chemists assisting TV shows in this way. Yet I thought it was critical to build a bridge between scientists and the writers, as well as between science and the public. It seemed essential to insure that the public understood the power of science in order to appreciate all the wonderful things that would be missing from our lives without scientific discovery and advancement.

However, I heard that it was rumored impossible to have good science in a TV show and still have a hit. Producers and writers were afraid that a science advisor might push science too much and that the show could resemble a science documentary more than a drama. That daunting rumor made me determined to respect the writers' scripts sent to me for review, and to change as few words as possible in order to get them scientifically correct. I also thought I should answer questions ASAP so that the producers and writers didn't get tired of waiting and simply write around the science.

Throughout all seasons of Breaking Bad, the science was strong; at times it seemed as if science was a separate character, such as the scene in which Walter and Jesse use thermite to break into the chemical storage building to obtain methylamine. They don't use a hammer to knock off the door handle; in this scene, the actors' faces were covered, and chemistry became the star. In such early scenes, science took the lead due to its "shock and awe" effects.

However, later on my goal of communicating the importance and essentiality of knowing and being able to wield excellent chemistry was communicated more strongly. In the superlab (Season 4), Walt tells Gus that without him and Jesse, Gus will have only an $8-million hole in the ground, no product or income. Walt knows he must convince Gus, and his life hangs in the balance. This is some of the strongest dialog in all the seasons of Breaking Bad, and it also has the highest level chemistry terminology. For example, Walt says, "Please tell me: Catalytic hydrogenation: Is it protic or aprotic? Because I forget. And if our reduction is not stereospecific, how can our product be enantiomerically pure?" He continues, "With 1-phenyl-1-hydroxy-2-methylaminopropane containing chiral centers at carbons-1 and -2 on the propane chain, then reduction to methamphetamine eliminates which chiral center?" I was very happy to help place that high-level science on an Emmy Award-winning TV show, and to insure that the dialog was chemically correct.

The scene symbolizes the essentiality of chemistry and chemists who know their science. Our wonderful modern lifestyle, with all its luxuries, from the cosmetics and fragrances we wear to the automobiles and computers we need daily, wouldn't be possible without chemistry. Literally everything we touch and all the comforts of home are derived from chemicals, whether natural or manufactured.

I am delighted to discuss this work at the USA Science & Engineering Festival to help kids, and the public in general, understand and become excited about science and technology and their benefits to our lives every day.