This book presents an entertaining explanation and analysis of the science portrayed in the fictional television series, Breaking Bad, from bottle-exploding home-brewed beer to the manufacture of crystal meth, that will appeal to fans and chemistry buffs alike
One of my all-time favorite television series is Breaking Bad. Unlike the vast majority of other popular television series that ran out of steam after a few seasons, the storyline, plotting, writing and characters never break down in this brilliant beacon of a show. Not only that, but the story relies heavily on science! It was the show’s popularity and the interesting science it depicted, that inspired this book, The Science of Breaking Bad by freelance science writer, Dave Trumbore, and chemist, Donna J. Nelson, the science advisor for the series (MIT Press, 2019: Amazon US / Amazon UK.) Marius Stan, who played the carwash owner, Bogdan Wolynetz, with the giant caterpillar-like eyebrows on the show (and who is a senior scientist at the Nuclear Engineering division at Argonne National Laboratory) contributed a foreword to the book.
Over the course of five seasons, the series follows Walt as he transforms from a quiet high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico to a major manufacturer of ultra-pure illicit crystal methamphetamine. Walt has a lot of chemistry-based adventures along the way, from creating explosions to dissolving evidence of criminal activity in acid. Overall, the amount of chemistry presented in this show was quite impressive compared to the usual fare offered on television, and this has led many viewers to wonder how accurate and reproducible it is.
In this fun and engaging book, Mr. Trumbore and Dr. Nelson fact-check, analyze and explain the science portrayed in Breaking Bad, starting with the opening credits for the pilot program and closing by scrutinizing the last moments of the final episode. Reminding us how useful chemistry truly is, Mr. Trumbore and Dr. Nelson discuss everything from the expediency of using hydrofluoric acid to dissolve bodies, the chemistry underlying Walter’s thermite lockpick, and the chemical purification of ricin, to Walter’s DIY battery making, Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair bomb, Hank’s exploding bottles of home-brewed beer and, of course, the chemical manufacture of methamphetamines.
Some of the more harmless chemistry in the series is explained in detail, including chemical reactions and equations, which some fans may find daunting to read. (If you skip these, it will not diminish your understanding or enjoyment of what is described in the book.) But this book, like the series itself, does not provide explicit instructions either for how to cook crystal meth or for how to manufacture explosives — you’ll have to look elsewhere for that information.
Although this was not their main focus, Mr. Trumbore and Dr. Nelson also provide some details about the biology, medicine, psychology and physics of insecticides, psychiatry, addiction, cancer, toxicology and electromagnetism, as well as a discussion of the on-screen portrayals of Walter’s cancer, Jesse’s PTSD and Walter Junior’s cerebral palsy.
The formatting of this book was quite peculiar: co-author Dr. Nelson began each chapter with personal vignettes and anecdotes describing what it was like to work with this series’ creator and writers. These pieces provided a lot of delightful behind-the-scenes insights but were printed in a smaller font from the rest of the book, which made them difficult to read. Although these vignettes were engaging, I was surprised that Dr. Nelson was so clearly seduced by the magic of Hollywood and was, perhaps, a bit too effusive about the production team’s dedication to science, some of which she admits was a bit dodgy.
The remainder of each chapter is divided between a section entitled “101” that provides a breezy overview of some of the chemistry portrayed in particular episodes of Breaking Bad, followed by an “Advanced” section that offers a more intensive treatment of the same topic. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled “Trouble Brewing”, which dealt with DEA-agent Hank’s exploding bottles of home-brewed Schraderbräu beer that sounded ominously like gunshots, which probably was intended as foreshadowing, and chemist Gale Boetticher’s gloriously overcomplicated coffee brewing and delivery apparatus, an amusing and impressive Rube Goldberg glassware set-up that was likely intended to demonstrate that Gale was an extremely cultured and detail-oriented chemistry geek. As was true for his painstaking attempt to figure out the precise function for each piece in Gale’s coffee brewing system, Mr. Trumbore was generally careful to point out where the demands of good filming or storytelling outweighed scientific accuracy.
Weird formatting notwithstanding, this is an engaging book. Fans of Breaking Bad will especially enjoy reading this entertaining and informative book, as will students of chemistry — and even those who teach chemistry — because the book (and the series) makes this valuable scientific discipline so fun and accessible to the public.