When writers from the addictive drama “Breaking Bad” wanted to know how much meth could be produced with 30 gallons of methylamine, they turned to University of Texas alumna Donna J. Nelson, the show’s science adviser.
Nelson, a scientist and professor of organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, served as guru for all things chemistry for much of the show’s run, flagging science inaccuracies in the “Breaking Bad” script. Nelson’s input throughout the seasons became increasingly important as science emerged as its own character in the Emmy award-winning show.
Nelson says she cringes each time she sees bad science portrayed in movies and television. “It’s like fingernails on a blackboard,” she says. So when she saw an opportunity to change that, she did. Getting the science right meant viewers could believe that a high school chemistry teacher could, in fact, become a drug lord and produce superior quality meth.
Her relationship with the show began after “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan put out a call for volunteer chemistry experts in an interview with the magazine “Chemical & Engineering News.”
“I thought, ‘This is what scientists have really wanted,’” says Nelson, who received a doctorate in chemistry at UT in 1980. “A science show on television that might make kids more interested in science. Not a lot of producers are interested in interacting with scientists, and here was one who was requesting it.”
Viewers have been on a “Breaking Bad” roller coaster ride with each episode since. In advance of the show’s finale, we had a chance to chat with Nelson about some of her favorite moments, working with the writers and whether blue meth actually exists.
“Breaking Bad” has a reputation for being super secret with its scripts. Did you receive complete scripts while advising?
They would only send me the pages that had to do with science, or, sometimes, if it was urgent, they would phone me. In a couple of cases I had to stay up most of the night (to research answers), but I always tried to respond within 24 hours. I knew they were on an extreme deadline and couldn’t hold production. I knew that if I didn’t get an answer to them quickly, they would probably write around the science.
You’ve had input on so many scenes; what’s your personal favorite?
Walt pleads for his life (in Season 4, Episode 1 after Jesse kills Gale), explaining to Gus Fring how critical he is to the chemical process. I helped with the dialogue in that scene, where Walt asks a series of questions and talks about enantiomers and diastereomers. Walt tells Gus how important he is because of his chemistry knowledge, and it’s one of my favorites because I like to think that chemists are important.
How did you guys balance the creative with the scientific?
There are horror stories about science advisers on other shows who try to take over the show and tell the writers what to do. We didn’t experience that. I knew that it was their writing that would make the show appeal to the public. I would try to change as few words as possible but still get the science right.
Did you encounter some differences in how television approached science compared to real scientists?
Well, the criteria is different. When they asked me to calculate how much meth could be produced from 30 gallons of methylamine, I said it’s a two-step process, and the first step is fixed. In the second step, I could use several different reducing agents. Which one do you want to use?
When we scientists choose a reagent, it’s based on the percent yield, expense or the purity of product. They said, let’s use aluminum-mercury because that one would be easy for the actors to say. I thought, this is the first time I have ever selected a reagent based on how easy it is to pronounce.
Walt’s trademark is his blue-colored meth; is that really possible to make?
There are times when Vince took some artistic license, like whenever meth is shown in blue crystals. It wouldn’t really be blue. It would be colorless. But it’s fantasy, so you have to give writers creative license. It’s supposed to be entertainment, not a science education show. I don’t have a problem with that.