The science of Breaking Bad

images-3Breaking Bad is into its final few episodes, with fans already speculating how the story of a teacher-turned-drug-producing-criminal-mastermind will reach its denouement. Now a BBC story asks, “How many of the frequent science scenes reflect reality, asks chemist and physicist Dr Jonathan Hare.

 Walt is a brilliant research chemist who has to leave his work and take up a career teaching high school chemistry. After discovering he has terminal cancer, he turns his skills to methamphetamine production in collaboration with former pupil Jesse Pinkman.

“With his background as a chemistry teacher, there are times when Walt instructs Jesse as if he is still back in the classroom. Jesse was a very poor science student at school, but while “cooking” meth with Walt, he starts to pick up and respect the chemistry that’s so essential for a good product.

“But how do Walt’s “lessons” fare from a scientific point of view? The crystal meth Walt makes is understood to be unusually pure because of the characteristic delicate blue colour of the crystals. This is a useful device for the narrative but generally the colour of a crystal does not suggest a pure or impure chemical compound. Impurities in minerals such as quartz crystal can lead it to look pink (rose quartz) or violet (amethyst) but generally the colour is a result of the way the electrons in the substance absorb light and is not a specific indicator of purity.

“In one scene, in their makeshift mobile meth lab out in the Arizona desert, Walt is being threatened by two gangsters. He improvises a method to gas them by throwing red phosphorus into hot water. Walt manages to run out, locking the gangsters in. He later explains to Jesse that this reaction produced poisonous phosphine gas. Red phosphorus can react with hydrogen to produce phosphine – but not with hot water. White phosphorus can react with sodium hydroxide (a chemical he would have had) but you can see he throws in a red powder, rather than a white substance. Nor is that what he describes to Jesse. I don’t think this trick would work.”

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