Dave Trumbore and Donna J. Nelson, The Science of Breaking Bad

Dave Trumbore and Donna J. Nelson, The Science of Breaking Bad (Cambridge, MA-London, 2019) 264 pp. 8 b&w illus. $19.95 T | £14.99. ISBN: 9780262537155

Breaking Bad is one of the most acclaimed television shows ever. Created by Vince Gilligan and broadcast by AMC in five seasons from 2008 to 2013, Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a chemistry teacher who, after a cancer diagnosis, turns into a methamphetamine “cook” and drug lord.

The show is full of elements of interest for those who are concerned with the audiovisual representation of science and the shaping of the scientific imagery by film and television. The book The science of Breaking Bad is dedicated to explore this subject. The scientific disciplines involved in the discussion are multiple: chemistry, of course, being the subject in which Walter White is specialised; but also medicine (because of the cancer diagnosis), physics (because of the criminal pseudonym “Heisenberg” chosen by the main character[1]), biology, psychiatry, paediatrics, and even food science.

The two authors, Dave Trumbore and Donna J. Nelson, cross and re-cross these disciplines through the nineteen chapters the volume is composed: in the first chapter we “Meet Walter White”, then we move on to analyse the references to the periodic table of elements in the title credits (“II. Chemical Credits”), to learn how corrosives work (“X. Corrosives: Hydrofluoric Acid”), to study a little bit of toxicology (“XIV. Toxicology: Ricin, Lily of the Valley, and… Cyanide?”), to examine the laboratories where White produces his meth (“XVIII. The Lab Maketh the Meth”), until the last chapter that has the same title as Breaking Bad's last episode: “Finale/Felina”.

The book is not exactly co-written: Nelson writes the small introductions to the chapters, while Trumbore develops in length their contents. This division of work is due to the specific role played by Donna J. Nelson in the production of Breaking Bad itself, as she was the science advisor to the show.

Dave Trumbore has the task to give an “exhaustive list of scientific moments found throughout the five seasons of Breaking Bad” (8), and also to dissect and “test” the realism of its science. This approach, even if quite popular[2], is not very exciting. Following the author through his explanations of what phosphine gas or fulminated mercury really are is not much intriguing. What it is certainly more interesting is hearing the voice of the scientist involved in the production. We could finally read it as a book on the sociology of the relations between scientists and film-makers, as another case study in the series “lab coats in Hollywood”[3].

Donna J. Nelson reports that she decided to contact the Breaking Bad crew after reading an interview with Vince Gilligan where he said he was looking for “constructive comments by a chemical inclined audience” (2). The keyword, frequently repeated through her notes, is “opportunity”: Nelson saw the show as a chance to increase the public interest in science. Influencing a prime-time television show could be a “fabulous opportunity to serve the scientific community” (2). She had a moment of hesitation because of the centrality that illicit drugs had in the show, but she eventually convinced herself that “the show was ultimately moral” (2) and that her helping Breaking Bad get the science right was a “community service” (29). From the perspective of sociology of science, this linkage between science and morality is certainly meaningful, pointing to the traditional view of science as a “defender of good”, to the idea that a “moral” content or plot can develop involvement in science more than an “amoral” or even evil one.

Through her collaboration with the screenwriters of Breaking Bad, Nelson developed a precise idea of her mission: “I decided about the most important message to give. […] This message was that the public didn't appreciate science or scientists as much as they should” (149). However, despite Nelson's (and not only hers) perception, sociological data show that there is an overt and general appreciation for scientists' work[4], and that this feeling of underestimation is mostly attributable to a sort of scientists' paranoia.

In any case, in her effort to seek an audience for chemistry, Nelson gives her blessing, because of their scientifically credibility, even to the most violent Breaking Bad sequences. In Season 4's Episode 1, “Box Cutter”, we hear Walter White trying to impress the drug kingpin Gus Fring with scientific jargon. Nelson loves the correctness of the script, and is proud of her ability to guide the screenwriters' hands. But if we watch the scene, one of the most iconic of the whole television series, we see Gus Fring, at the end of White's monologue, killing one of his own assistants with a box cutter, “cutting up” in the most gruesome way the scientist's buzz talk and at the same time explicitly threatening him. If, for Nelson, “this scene demonstrates the importance of knowing chemistry, and of respecting the talented chemists who do it right” (150), for an external viewer the sequence can assume quite different meanings: this “sharp dialogue awaken[ing] curiosity in viewers, who might try to learn about and understand the chemistry” is for Nelson her final victory, the confirmation of the results she obtained in terms of science popularization; but for another analyst the same sequence can be seen as a visualisation of how power and force impose their (violent) domain over science. Rich media texts, fortunately, give space to interpretation. Walter White uses the scientific terminology as a life-saver, to impress lay people, in order to undermine his possible replacement (Fring could hire other chemists) and solidify his status as master scientist. But the plot shows that Fringe is not so easily impressionable, and, although White obtains his goal (to be kept alive), Fring comes out as the real winner of this psychological battle.

Interpretative ambiguities like this one confirm the love/hate relation between science and the media: scientists know very well the importance of the portraits made by cinema and television, but, fortunately or not, must accept the impossibility to control them in full. Both the authors of The Science of Breaking Bad are well aware that scientific realism may or not fit into a thriller/drama, and science has to be in service of storytelling, not vice-versa. As Nelson writes, “much of the perceptions of science and scientists held by the public have come from Hollywood, and in order to have a chance of changing the way Hollywood portrayed us, we scientists would need to work with them, and we were not in a position to choose or dictate what form that would take” (75). Donna Nelson finally recognizes that her goal had to be “to align my goals with those of the crew” (110).

We can say in conclusion that The Science of Breaking Bad shows how a heartfelt will of dissemination finds its path through doubts, compromises, satisfactions and ambiguities. In this sense the book is instructive, providing a backstage view of an important and productive collaboration.

Alberto Brodesco, University of Trento

[1]    I discussed this characterization in A. Brodesco, “Heisenberg: Epistemological Implications of a Criminal Pseudonym”, in D. Pierson (ed.), Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style, and Reception of the Television Series, Lanham (MD), Lexington Books, 2013, pp. 53-69.

[2]    See for example P. Halpern, “What’s Science Ever Done for Us”. What The Simpsons can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, Hoboken (NJ): John Wiley & Sons, 2007; or A. Gentile, La scienza delle serie tv, Milano: Codice Edizioni, 2014.

[3]    D. A. Kirby, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, Cambridge (Ma)-London: MIT Press, 2011.

[4]    Recent statistics show that 72% of people globally trust scientist: see < wellcome.ac.uk/reports/wellcome-global-monitor/2018 >.