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See Inside April 2011

Killer Science Portrayed on Dexter and Breaking Bad

This may be the golden age of small-screen science



Matt Collins

One of the great things about life in 2011 is the technology of television. When I was a kid if you had a Cub Scout meeting when the Flintstones was on, you missed the Flintstones. Of course, those days are long gone. If you miss a show now, you can watch it later at your leisure on a DVD or via Hulu or iTunes or Amazon or various other ways that violate numerous international copyright laws.

Taking advantage of these new opportunities, I have recently started watching two science-heavy programs of relatively recent vintage: Dexter and Breaking Bad. Readers who don’t know the shows may be driven to try them by what follows. Readers who are up-to-date on the programs should not send me any spoiler information!

Dexter is the story of scientist Vincent Masuka, the lead forensics expert for the Miami Metro Police Department. (The character called Dexter is a lesser forensics worker, who concentrates on blood spatter.) Masuka, who gets little respect from the police he helps, is a generalist well versed in all major forensic techniques.

The series—I’m up to the early episodes of season three—depicts him pursuing his normal job activities but also advancing the entire field of forensics as the sole author of a journal article for the Forensics Quarterly. His paper is of such quality that it is accepted and fast-tracked for publication. I can think of no other TV scientist who achieves such a feat.

When the paper is published, Masuka passes out copies to the rest of the police station staff, who ignore it. Masuka even finds a copy in the trash, clearly dumped there by one of his unappreciative colleagues. But the journal article leads to an invite for Masuka to give the keynote address at a forensics conference. He gets tickets for all the cops and other co-workers, but not even his subordinate Dexter is willing to go.

Now, this is going to be some talk. I’ve gone to many science conference lectures, including one by a sitting president of these United States, and none of them ever required a ticket. Masuka even offers people a free doughnut along with a ticket, but the legendary cop-doughnut affiliation holds no sway. His paper and keynote address will be forgotten.

The disrespect with which Masuka is treated is demonstrated in a meta way by the production of the series itself. Because Masuka actually gets just far less screen time than does Dexter, who, spoiler alert, is also a psychopathic serial killer! The producers thus brilliantly illustrate the scientist, in the person of Masuka, as a modern-day Sisyphus, working tirelessly to advance civilization amid an environment of violence and chaos. Bravo.

I have seen only the first three episodes of Breaking Bad, the adventures of a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White. But the series has already featured a wonderful lesson about treating chemicals with respect.

White tells an immature associate to purchase a specific kind of plastic bin, the only kind that will hold hydrofluoric acid safely. White’s young charge disregards his instructions and simply pours two large containers of hydrofluoric acid into a bathtub. (The tub holds the remains of a methamphetamine dealer whom White killed. He and the kid are trying to dissolve the body, but never mind that.) The acid eats up most of the contents of the tub, as well as the tub and the floor. When the remains of everything hit one level down, what’s left of the acid begins eating away at that floor, too. I would like to see a forensics master like Vince Masuka try to make sense of that scene!

Hydrofluoric acid is in fact incredibly corrosive and dangerous. When I took chemistry in college, we students could pour the hydrochloric or even sulfuric acid with impunity. But we were not even allowed to touch the containers of hydrofluoric. On the rare occasions that we needed it, the lab instructor would don protective gear and pour out a few precious milliliters for us to use under a fume hood.

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