The Science of Breaking Bad, book review: Walter White's chemistry explained

This is an entertaining way to learn more about science, and an excuse to rewatch a classic show.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

The Science of Breaking Bad • by Dave Trumbore and Donna J. Nelson • MIT Press • 231 pages • ISBN: 978-0-262-53715-5 • £14.99 / $19.99

Image: MIT Press

"Chemistry," Walter White observes in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, "is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change." The following 45 minutes are exactly that kind of study, with Walt himself as Exhibit A.

In an interview with the American Chemical Society's weekly in-house magazine early in the show's first season, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said that it was important to him to get the science right, and that he would welcome help from the chemistry community. With no real idea whether he was serious, the University of Oklahoma professor Donna J. Nelson, who had long wanted to see TV use its broad demographic reach to bring an appreciation of science to a wider public, checked out the first five episodes of the show. Satisfied that it was not glorifying either methamphetamine or the drug trade, she stepped up to offer to help. 

In The Science of Breaking Bad, Nelson and Dave Trumbore tell the story of her ongoing contribution to the show over the following five years. The book itself appears to be written by Trumbore, who incorporates passages containing Nelson's recollections and comments into his explanatory text.

First thing to know: this book is not a manual. Neither Nelson, nor Trumbore wants you to try this at home. Any of it, not even the stuff they say doesn't quite work or was unscientifically enhanced for dramatic reasons (such as the signature blue of Walter White's 'product'). So, sorry if you're disappointed, but this book will not teach you how to dissolve a human body for untraceable disposal, make crystal meth in blue or any other colour, or blow up a nursing home room so precisely that only the right three people are killed. You will, however, learn the secrets behind some of the more harmless effects on the show, such as the red and green flames Walt shows his bored chemistry students in the pilot.

Authentic and safe

In this, the authors are following the show's lead. The authors note that Gilligan consulted the Drug Enforcement Administration to ensure both authenticity and safety. As detailed as Breaking Bad's account of cooking meth appears to be, the show deliberately left out some steps and elided others so that it neither broke the law nor provided usable instructions. 

Trumbore's and Nelson's interests are not limited to what most people think of as 'chemistry': from the chapters on meth, fire, and phosphine gas they move on to explosives, psychiatry, pediatrics, insecticides, cancer, poisons, and addiction. In the chapter on psychiatry, for example, they explore brain chemistry, and re-examine Jesse Pinkman's behaviour and choices on the basis that the events he experiences lead him to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In other chapters they recheck Walt's calculations regarding the right amount of water to replace the stolen methylamine, explore Walter Jr's cerebral palsy, and catch the show out in a dramatic exaggeration: most people recover from ricin poisoning, given proper treatment. All in all, an entertaining way to learn more about chemistry -- and an excuse to rewatch the show.

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