Behind the Scenes of 'Breaking Bad': A Quick Discussion With the Show’s Chemistry Adviser


When Dr. Donna Nelson read in a magazine that Breaking Bad producer and director Vince Gilligan was looking for a chemist to advise them on their scripts, she called to volunteer.

Nelson, a professor of organic chemistry, was initially put off by the methamphetamine usage and was concerned it would encourage students to try to synthesize the drug at home. But, she explained, Gilligan had made lead character Walter White’s life look so awful that she hoped it might actually have the opposite effect on students.

The relationship between Nelson and the Breaking Bad producers went smoothly and they always took her advice, she said. The Breaking Bad crew called her up when they needed to know how much a certain amount of methylamine could yield, how to pronounce something, how chemists speak to each other, or to better understand personalities of scientists.

One time, they called her up to get a name for a re-agent (reactant chemical) and she sent them a list of about 10 ideas: catalytic hydrogenation over palladium; sodium cyanoborohydride; catalytic hydrogenation over cupric oxide; and a few others. But they went with mercury aluminum because it was the easiest for the actors to say, Nelson said laughing.

She certainly sees the upsides of taking the gig. “We want our youth to participate in science in any way possible,” she said. If Breaking Bad gave them that interest, she’s fine with it. “So many students have embraced the show.”

Plus, she was thrilled that producers were so concerned with getting the science right, she said. That was rare, and she gained a lot of respect for them because of it.

Also, as a chemist herself, she thought Walter White’s character was “absolutely brilliant.”

But she added that she had no inside scoop on what would happen in the Sunday night finale – though she was excited to find out.