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Breaking bad communication

Posted 06/02/2014 by sevans

The film and tv industries have not gained a very complimentary reputation among scientists for their portrayal of science, but in fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not necessarily the fault of producer and writers – they are, after all, looking to entertain. The blame does partly lie at the feet of scientists, as was revealed at the recent Informex event in Miami Beach by the scientific adviser for a major US tv series.

The case in point was Breaking Bad, the hit tv show that aired in the US from 2008 to 2013, and in the UK on cable television. The crime drama depicted the downward journey of a US high school chemistry teacher, Water White, who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to secure his family’s financial future by applying his expertise in the production of illicit drugs, in this case methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth.

Unusually, the producers of the proposed series had asked for volunteers to provide ‘constructive criticism’ of the science they planned to feature in the American Chemical Society’s weekly magazine Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). ‘Because we are very concerned about getting more students interested in science,’ Donna Nelson, a professor in organic chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, told delegates at the Informex conference that she jumped at the chance to help put science in front of a ‘hip young audience’.

‘When I first got a copy of what they had written, I thought they really are going to need me. It was really messed up,’ said Nelson. But she added that she was also worried about being affiliated with a show about crystal meth – ‘most of us are conservative about drugs’ – but she saw that it did not glorify drugs or the drug culture. ‘In fact, we watched Walt being punished for what he was doing.’

One of the first things Nelson was asked was: why would someone would become a scientist, to provide background for the main character. She was also asked about chemical structures that would be used on a classroom blackboard, about alkenes and also about nomenclature. Nelson saw her role as ensuring that nothing would jar with anyone in the audience that had a scientific background. ‘They wanted everything to be correct therefore I had to give information in a way that was easy to understand – I tried to change as few words as possible in the scripts as I had to respect their needs.’

One particular incident stood out for Nelson, who had accidently used the term ‘precursor’, which the production leapt on and used, correctly, on a number of occasions during the production.

Another issue Nelson highlighted was the fact that the production team used non-SI measurements, for example, she was asked how much crystal meth could be produced from 30 gallons of methylamine, which the main character was going to steal. At this point, the production team also had the involvement of agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration involved as they wanted to ensure that while the details were accurate, they were not sufficient for anyone watching to be able to go out and start production themselves.

On checking the literature, Nelson found a variety of routes for the synthesis, but eventually homed in on the aluminium/mercury route ‘as it was easy for the actors to say’. Once the route was decided, Nelson was then able to calculate the yield.

Ultimately, Nelson said there was only one major error in the show: crystal meth, a white substance, was actually coloured blue in the show, but Nelson said the producers were looking for something to ‘brand’ it so she let that go through.

Nelson believes that her involvement demonstrates three benefits: scientists get to increase accuracy; writers get to learn about science; and the public is exposed to correct information.

The outcome from her involvement in the six-series show was for Nelson to put together a symposium Hollywood Chemistry for the ACS in Anaheim, and again in Denver, and she has since been involved in other projects, even consulting with law enforcement agencies – ‘reality following fiction’, as she expressed it.

The twist to the story, however, is that after Nelson had become involved in the tv production she discovered that she was the only person to have volunteered their services, out of 160,000 readers of C&EN. 

Communication is about getting involved and if scientists want to see their particular speciality portrayed correctly on out screens, then they have to get involved. 

But perhaps the most telling comment from Nelson was that while she had seen a dramatic increase in the discussion about chemistry and the tv series among young people, no-one among her chemical contemporaries has even seen the series, something that was echoed across her audience!

I have actually now bought the DVD box set of Breaking Bad and will watch it with new interest! Please don’t telephone me at home for the next few weeks!

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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