Take Two for August 9, 2013

'Breaking Bad': The real woman behind Walter White's meth chemistry

Donna Nelson

Donna Nelson

University of Oklahoma professor Donna Nelson, who is also a science consultant for the show, "Breaking Bad."

At first glance, Donna Nelson looks like the last person you'd ask for the perfect recipe for methamphetamine.

But the University of Oklahoma organic chemistry professor has been acting as the "science consultant" for the hit AMC series "Breaking Bad" since just after season one, providing the real-life chemistry behind the show's fictional meth cooking. ("Breaking Bad" returns for the first of its final eight episodes this Sunday night.)

"My intention was only to give advice on the high-school organic chemistry teaching things. … But the show moved away from that pretty rapidly," Nelson told KPCC. "When it came to balancing equations — such as, if you had 40 gallons of methylamine, how much meth would be produced? — they turned to me to calculate that."

Nelson's involvement in the show all started after she read an article with "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan in the trade publication Chemical and Engineering News. In it, Gilligan mentioned that he and his writers were struggling with the science, often turning to Wikipedia. Nelson saw an opportunity to help. 

"I contacted the editor and said, 'Please communicate to Vince that if he's really serious, I volunteer,'" said Nelson. "Then I heard from him, and he said, 'If you really want to help us, we would be delighted to have you help. How frequently do you make it out to Burbank?' And I said, 'Oh, all the time!'"

Luckily, Nelson happened to have a trip to San Diego planned for about a month after Gilligan contacted her, so she decided to stop in Los Angeles to meet with his team of writers. 

Showing real meth production

Though she was excited to be involved in a hit TV show, she did have reservations about getting involved in a show about meth production. 

"I thought, 'Well, we don't want to give students the impression that the teachers are making meth in their spare time,'" said Nelson. "When I saw the first few episodes, I thought, 'The way Vince is presenting this, no student in their right mind [would] say, "Yeah, that's the lifestyle I want."'"

Nelson says she was surprised about how specific and accurate Gilligan wanted to be when it came to the method used on the show to cook meth. The method used on the show was actually patented in Germany back in the 1950s. Nelson had to look up the patent to make sure she was getting the formula right. 

"I asked them, 'Do you just want me to approximate this?' They said, 'Oh, no, we want that exact method.' They really wanted accuracy," said Nelson. "I went back and looked it up, and, thankfully, I had taken some German courses, because the patent was in German."

Nelson has been a big fan of the show from the beginning and plans on tuning in for the final season — which kicks off on AMC Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT — even though it has definitely taken a more sinister turn in recent seasons. 

"The show has gotten a little bit dark," said Nelson. "I don't think that most science teachers behave like Walt does all the time, but I'm still very interested."


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