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. 

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Laura Dimon

Laura graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 2013. She has been published in the Economist, the Atlantic, and the Daily Beast. www.lauradimon.com / @lauradimon

MORE FROM

‘American Horror Story’ creator Ryan Murphy releases a chilling new clue for season 7

It looks like the election won't be the only scary thing in the spotlight next season.

These are the most glowing reviews for 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

It's far from your average summer blockbuster.

The most awkward 2-on-1 dates from 'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette'

We're ready for Rachel Lindsay's two-on-one date with Kenny and Lee.

Will ‘GLOW’ be renewed for season 2? Even the cast doesn’t know what’s going on.

No official word yet on this nostalgia-filled new series.

Beyoncé's BET Awards acceptance speech thanks family, but stays mum on twins

Beyoncé thanked her family during her BET Awards speech but gave no mention of the twins.

We've got a 'Rick and Morty' season 3 update you may or may not like

The show's not canceled, but not much is known about a release date.

‘American Horror Story’ creator Ryan Murphy releases a chilling new clue for season 7

It looks like the election won't be the only scary thing in the spotlight next season.

These are the most glowing reviews for 'War for the Planet of the Apes'

It's far from your average summer blockbuster.

The most awkward 2-on-1 dates from 'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette'

We're ready for Rachel Lindsay's two-on-one date with Kenny and Lee.

Will ‘GLOW’ be renewed for season 2? Even the cast doesn’t know what’s going on.

No official word yet on this nostalgia-filled new series.

Beyoncé's BET Awards acceptance speech thanks family, but stays mum on twins

Beyoncé thanked her family during her BET Awards speech but gave no mention of the twins.

We've got a 'Rick and Morty' season 3 update you may or may not like

The show's not canceled, but not much is known about a release date.