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University of Oklahoma chemistry professor lent expertise for 'Breaking Bad'

Donna Nelson has been serving as science adviser for the AMC crime drama “Breaking Bad” for the past five years.
by Silas Allen Published: September 29, 2013

“I can't imagine somebody looking at Walter White getting beat up and shot at and stabbed and dragged through the desert sand in his underwear and saying ‘Yeah! That's the life I want,'” she said.

So Nelson volunteered to be a science adviser for the show, and the producers accepted. Since then, she's helped the show's writers with questions ranging from how certain chemicals react with each other to how a faculty researcher and a student might relate to each other in a lab.

Occasionally, she'd come across a question that stumped her. Once, for a scene in which Walter White broke into a storage shed and stole a 30-gallon drum of methylamine, the writers asked her how many pounds of methamphetamine the barrel would make.

For a moment, Nelson was at a loss, she said. Chemists usually deal in drops, not gallons, she said. She'd never used 30 gallons of anything all at once.

Still, the formula is essentially the same for 30 gallons as for three drops, she said. So she asked which reducing agent the writers wanted to use, since that would affect the yield. She sent them a list of possible reducing agents. The writers chose mercury aluminum — not because it would work the best in the real world, but because the actors would have the easiest time saying the name.

‘A different world'

“I've chosen (chemicals) based on percent yield, safety, cost, reaction time, product purity, but never how easy it is to speak the name,” she said. “It's a different world.”

Questions like those gave Nelson a view into a world far removed from the lab at OU where she goes to work every day. She got to see different perspectives, and thought about chemistry in a way she never had before. If she got the chance to do something similar again, she said she would consider it.

“I'm not saying that I would want to quit my job as a professor of chemistry,” she said. “If the opportunity came up again, I would probably take it.”

by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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