The Chemistry of “Breaking Bad”


She may not be a criminal mastermind chemistry teacher, but Donna Nelson, PhD ’79, has been instrumental in helping television viewers believe that Walter White, the main character of AMC’s Breaking Bad, is the real deal.

An organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, Nelson serves as a volunteer science advisor for the hit show, which won the Emmy for outstanding drama series this past Sunday night.

Nelson landed the position after seeing an article in Chemical and Engineering News in which show creator Vincent Gilligan asked for help from the scientific community to make sure the science in Breaking Bad was solid.

“Chemists for a long time have wanted science to be presented differently on TV and movies, because a lot of times the science is totally inaccurate,” Nelson says. “When I read the article from Vince saying he wanted the science to be accurate, I thought it would be a fabulous opportunity.”

The producers send Nelson pages from the script that deal with science and she tweaks the terminology or information to make sure it’s completely realistic.

A fan of brain teasers, Nelson says the producer’s science questions have allowed her to be creative and find solutions differently than she normally would, including calculating how much meth could be made from 30 gallons of methylamine based on the most easily pronounced reducing agent. The writers mix and match different ways to produce the drug so that if a viewer was to attempt it based on the steps in the show, they would not end up with methamphetamine, Nelson told NPR.

“I had never chosen a reducing agent based on how easy it was to speak the words,” she says with a laugh. “But I calculated it, followed instructions using their criteria, and I got to be creative.”

Before beginning her work on the show, Nelson had no expectation of what she would need to do, but always understood she was there for the science, and wanted to affect the dialogue and writing as little as possible.

“I wanted to be flexible and fit into their world. I know I don’t know how to write award-winning scripts. They’re artists and I respected that,” she says.

She explained that the producers sent her a scene in which Walt was teaching his organic chemistry class about a type of chemical compound called alkenes. Nelson helped develop the dialogue and sent over a diagram to go on the blackboard that would make sense for a classroom setting.

“That made me feel good,” she says. “[When] a student who is studying that in their high school organic chemistry class or in college watches it on the show, they will be able to believe it.”

While she normally spends her day teaching or working in the lab, during her set visits to Burbank, Calif., Nelson got a taste of the glamorous Hollywood life.

“I got to peek into an entirely different world—Hollywood versus a chemistry lab,” Nelson says. “Usually in science, you’re alone in the lab running reactions, so not only was the topic different, the nomenclature was different, and there was tremendous amount of teamwork.”

From left: Bryan Cranston, Donna Nelson, and Aaron Paul on Nelson’s set visit to Breaking Bad. Photo courtesy Donna Nelson.

Featured photo: Todd (Jesse Plemons), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) in Season five, episode 6. Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.


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