Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemistry professor, used to help a notorious drug dealer. Fortunately, the criminal in question was the mythical meth maker Walter White of AMC's Breaking Bad fame. “I actually had a lot of concerns,” said Nelson at STEM Summit 3.0 on August 4 in New York City, an event sponsored by Scientific American and Macmillan Education to foster ideas about teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering and math—including the public communication of science, for example, on television shows. “I was thinking, ‘This is going to ruin my reputation. Professionally, I'll be dead.’” (Spoiler alert: Nelson is professionally just fine—she's been elected the next president of the 160,000-member American Chemical Society.)
Nelson was joined at the STEM summit by another TV veteran, John Sotos. If you recognize the catchphrase “It's never lupus,” then you'll know that Sotos, who trained as a transplant cardiologist, was the medical consultant for the Fox show House M.D. (Hugh Laurie's Gregory House scoffed at the diagnosis because lupus shares symptoms with many other conditions.)
When Breaking Bad began in 2008, Nelson saw an article in Chemical & Engineering News in which series creator Vince Gilligan appealed to the chemical community for technical help. She was the only expert who responded. Despite the negative subject matter, Nelson decided to volunteer—no fake-drug money exchanged hands. “I considered it a service to the community,” she said. “To the science community, not Hollywood. I helped get the science correct, but they already had in mind how they were going to depict the scientist.” Not to worry. Bryan Cranston's Walter White may paradoxically be the favorite TV scientist since the Professor on Gilligan's Island. No relation to Vince.
Besides, Nelson was primarily signed on to help keep the chemical reactions and structures correct on the blackboards in the high school flashbacks—although she was also consulted about White's signature meth. “Vince asked me what I thought about making the meth blue,” Nelson recalled. “And I said I wouldn't do it. And he said, well, wouldn't really pure meth be blue? And I said no, really pure meth would be white. But Walt had to have a trademark. It's fiction—it's not a science documentary.”
Nelson also mentioned that the technical consultants for White's Winnebago and the other meth labs were DEA agents. “That wasn't my doing,” she made clear. “I do not make meth in my garage. Never have, never will.”
While still in medical school, Sotos wrote Zebra Cards: An Aid to Obscure Diagnosis (American College of Physicians, 1989). The book's title refers to the diagnostician's adage that when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. That is, a runny nose is most likely a run-of-the-mill cold (that's a horse), unless you've been running around a mill, in which case you might have be having an allergic reaction to some unfamiliar dust. There's your zebra.
In 2004, “when House came on the air,” Sotos said, “I sent them a copy of my book. And they said, ‘Why don't you come down and visit the show?’” And so an adviser was born.
Sotos talked about his tasks: “The writer would call and say, ‘The patient faints in scene two, and then in scene three we have to find a reason the patient is going to be in the MRI machine.’” At times Sotos came up with theoretically possible scenarios, “never reported in the medical literature but with enough of a justification for us.” Also, because of the requirements of each hour's dramatic arc, Greg House, the world's greatest diagnostician, had to be wrong the first four times each episode.
When I asked Sotos, “It's never ever lupus?” he revealed that in one episode, which I'd apparently missed, they did give the patient that autoimmune condition. Sotos then told the producers, “Hey, we should now have lupus two weeks in a row!” But as any TV doc from Ben Casey to ER's Kerry Weaver knows, it's never lupus on consecutive episodes.