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How I Helped Bring Real Science to Breaking Bad

Realism and scientific accuracy—along with exceptional storytelling—explain much about the television show’s popularity


During season 1 of the television series Breaking Bad, I read in Chemical & Engineering News that executive producer Vince Gilligan really wanted to get the science right but had no funds to pay a science adviser. He and his writers were resorting to Web searches and Wikipedia to research science content for the show. He welcomed constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience. Most scientists hate seeing mistakes in science appear in movies or TV, so this was an unusual opportunity. I volunteered to help Vince, and he took me up on my offer.

For five years I was Breaking Bad’s science adviser, helping writers get all their scientific facts right. I answered questions about chemical reactions, provided chemical structures and equations, proofed script pages, and gave background for the show’s characters who were scientists or did science.

I considered my involvement to be a service to the scientific community. The experience also gave me an unusual opportunity to peek into the entertainment world—one that was different than anything I had observed previously. The most enduring benefit was making the science content correct as well as interesting to the public.

Among viewers, professional or trained scientists are of course happy merely for the program to have no glaring mistakes. To this group, flawed science content is like fingernails on a blackboard and ruins the viewing experience. They are already deeply familiar with their fields and are not necessarily excited about the science they see on television or in movies.

Conversely, many nonscientists might not be sufficiently interested to watch a science show in the first place. They might, however, be influenced to do so by enthusiastic novice scientists. The latter likely represent the bulk of the initial audience who are excited by the show’s content and insist others should watch it because of its fantastic science.. Novice scientists like to critique the science in the program and argue with one another about it in detail. They generate interest by arguing extensively about TV and movie science minutia on blogs or other online media. I was amazed at the level of science detail in some blogs. Some novices challenge and push themselves and one another to understand, explain and critique the science they view. Through such exciting discussions they draw in students who have no experience with science. Their excitement becomes infectious.

Recently, research has shown that exposure to science and math among peers and in the culture at large does more than a student’s own achievements in math to influence them to major in scientific subjects. It stands to reason that television such as Breaking Bad might help ameliorate and perhaps reverse our nation’s declining number of students selecting science and technology majors.

Ultimately, though, no one will get excited about a television program unless it tells a good story. The writing must focus on creating a terrific plot that also explains the science and provides context for it. The story must introduce or relate to science, it must convey why science is fun and exciting, and it must relate science to everyday life.

Making the science story more realistic is important to enticing the public. For instance, in Breaking Bad the main character Walter White carries out many chemical reactions; the equipment shown is realistic, as are the reactions, although some critical steps are omitted in order to avoid presenting a cookbook for illegal methamphetamine. Explaining science that interests the public will increase their excitement because they will understand it better. Science advisers make storytelling accurate by providing real science, explained in a way that the public can understand and look forward to talking about.

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