In the AMC cable series, which kicked off its fifth and final season Sunday, Bryan Cranston portrays Walter White, organic chemistry teacher by day, meth manufacturer by night. Since nearly the start, Breaking Bad staff writers call upon Nelson to ensure their series’ science is solid.
“It was a little bit of a difficult decision at first, because of the content,” said Nelson. “You realize this is about illicit drug manufacturing and illegal activity, which those of us who work at the university are against. We absolutely abhor it. But when I watched it, I thought, ‘This does not glorify the drug life.’”
She earned the gig after reading an interview with the show’s creator and executive producer, Vince Gilligan (writer of Hancock and TV’s The X-Files), in the American Chemical Society’s membership magazine.
In it, he revealed he had no training in chemistry, and was relying on the word of Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Wikipedia articles to achieve some semblance of scientific accuracy.
Gilligan welcomed feedback from the “chemically inclined,” so Nelson volunteered her services.
“For decades, we’ve been bemoaning the fact that students aren’t going into chemistry and science in general,” she said, “and we’ve been saying, ‘What we need is a prime-time television show about science!’ And suddenly, here it came.”
Even among the journal’s thousands of readers, the response to Gilligan’s distress signal wasn’t exactly overwhelming.
“Turned out,” Nelson said, “I was the only person that said, ‘Yes, I’ll be willing to help, for the sake of science and inspiring students.’”
A fine meth
While in California on unrelated matters, Nelson and her son, a chemical engineering grad, dropped by the Breaking Bad offices on invitation. She expected to do no more than speak to Gilligan’s assistant; instead, they spent the entire day fielding questions from Gilligan and his writers — before, during and after lunch.
Now she regularly receives emails and phone calls from them requiring her chemical expertise, from formulas to be drawn on Walt’s blackboard to the correct ingredients to synthesize various narcotics.
“I’ve never synthesized drugs,” Nelson said. “I had to go look those things up.”
Whatever the assignment, Gilligan said he is pleased to have her help.
“Professor Nelson’s love for science and passion for making chemistry accessible to a larger audience is really inspiring, and she’s been invaluable to our show,” Gilligan said. “We really try to keep the science on Breaking Bad as accurate as possible. Professor Nelson has been a big part of that, from helping us with diagrams in Walt’s classroom to suggesting the ingredients for a battery made entirely from the parts of an RV. No matter what the problem, she always tackles it with enthusiasm and humor.”
She receives no screen credit for her contributions, nor pay — and she’s perfectly fine with that.
“It’s a small part, but I take pride in knowing I helped them with the realism, to help change the perception of scientists,” she said. “I’m paid by tax dollars, so I view this really seriously. I think it’s our obligation to do things like that. If we’re going to complain about the attitudes people have about scientists — some regard us as evil — each of us needs to do what we can to reverse that.”
Plus, she said, the TV work is “really fun.”
“I like to make science more unusual and interesting, and make students realize that science touches our lives every day,” said Nelson. “It’s relevant — what you wear, what you eat, what you drive, everything. And chemistry is right there in the middle of it.”