How Accurate is the Chemistry Portrayed in Breaking Bad?

Image courtesy of AMC.

“The Chemistry Must Be Respected”

That’s what anti‑hero Walter White tells Gus Fring before entering a nefarious deal to cook his trademark blue methamphetamine during an episode of Breaking Bad, the Emmy‑winning AMC series that aired its final episode on September 29.

The hit show centred around White’s transformation from downtrodden high school teacher into a criminal kingpin named Heisenberg (a tip of the black hat to Nobel Prize‑winning scientist Werner Heisenberg), who respects the scientific method even after losing his moral compass.

Here, UBC chemistry professor Michael Wolf talks about the show’s use of chemistry and how it has raised the profile of the “central science” in popular culture.

How accurate is the chemistry portrayed in Breaking Bad?

The science behind the show is solid. There are times when they sensationalize things a bit. For example, the methamphetamine Walt cooks is blue. Meth is not blue unless you add something to make it blue which is something they never mention on the show. That’s definitely a dramatization for TV.

They get into details that the average person would probably miss. In one episode, White talks about chirality, which is the handedness of a molecule. Methamphetamine is a chiral molecule, meaning it is either right‑ or left‑handed. One form is relatively inactive, the other form is the active drug. The second method they use to make meth produces both types of molecules, which results in a lower purity. For chemists it was a nice detail.

Has Breaking Bad raised the profile of chemistry among the general public?

I would say it’s certainly increased interest. A lot of people find out I’m a chemistry professor and have brought up the show and ask me what I think.

I think the fact that it’s a good TV show with a science element has gotten people interested in science. I worry a bit because the show is about making illegal drugs. We don’t want that to be the only perception the public has about chemistry.

Chemistry is a difficult topic to relate to the public because people tend to be a little bit scared of it. They often don’t see what we really do and how important it is to their daily lives.

Does the show highlight the power of chemistry?

Absolutely, everything around us has chemistry in it. We would still be living like it was the Middle Ages if we didn’t have chemistry to bring us to our modern standard of living. It’s made the world what it is now.

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