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Television Entertainment Science

Breaking Bad's Scientific Consultant On Making Meth and More 118

Posted by timothy
from the not-a-howto dept.
sciencehabit (1205606) writes "Science sat down with Breaking Bad science consultant Donna Nelson, an organic chemist at the University of Oklahoma. Nelson was one of several expert advisers for the show who began consulting several episodes in on multiple topics, including how to make Walt a realistic chemist. She discusses the accuracy of the show, whether making meth is as straightforward as it seems on the series, and her favorite scene."
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Breaking Bad's Scientific Consultant On Making Meth and More

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    AKA shake n bake.

  • Brings back memories (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jtownatpunk.net (245670) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @05:51PM (#46910251)

    Years and years ago, I worked for an environmental lab and some local law enforcement agency (Sheriff's department, I think) asked us to help determine whether they'd found the dump from a meth lab. Step one was to figure out how meth is made. So I found every recipe I could (using Steve's computer, of course) and ran them by the chemists. "Poison, poison, poison, death, that could work, poison, poison, that could work." Then they took the potentially valid recipes and worked out what the byproducts would be created at each phase and gave the cops a list of chemicals to test for.

    Oh, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through to [legally] obtain a meth standard. Had to put in a lock box and access protocol to store an amount that was too small to give a rat a buzz.

  • My baby blue (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spy Handler (822350) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @05:54PM (#46910259) Homepage Journal

    One time I was out on a set visit and Vince said, "What do you think about making the meth blue?" I advised him not to do it. He said, "Is there not some way it could be blue?" And I said again, "No, don't do it."

    So apparently, there is no actual chemistry basis for making Walt's meth blue... even the P2P/methylamine process does not yield a blue color. Vince Gilligan just really wanted the meth blue so he can use these cool 60's songs:

    Crystal Blue Persuasion - from Gliding Over All, music playing over montage showing Walt's new meth operation with Todd and Lydia and DeClan. Parodied by the Simpsons.

    My Baby Blue - from the last episode, final scene, when Walt gets what he deserved. The special love I had for you.

    • Re:My baby blue (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @06:10PM (#46910309)

      I always assumed its possible it could be nanoparticulate aluminium contamination. Metals are a pretty good way to give things odd colors.

      • It's a testament to the writing of Vince - he totally made it believable that the meth COULD have came out blue.

        • It's a testament to the writing of Vince - he totally made it believable that the meth COULD have came out blue.

          I read somewhere that meth labs are actually adding blue food coloring to their product to match the show. Now THAT'S a testament to the believability.

    • Pure meth is white/clear. But you could explain the blue color as the result of some additive they put into it, as a "trademark" of sorts.
      Not entirely different from how some whisky makers add substances [blogspot.com] to make their product darker.
      • Re:My baby blue (Score:5, Insightful)

        by abhi_beckert (785219) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @06:34PM (#46910393)

        Pure meth is white/clear. But you could explain the blue color as the result of some additive they put into it, as a "trademark" of sorts.

        Yes but a key part of the show was nobody else could cook blue meth. Walt had power over the drug dealers because he could give them something unique.

        If all it took was an additive, the story would not have worked.

        • Yes but a key part of the show was nobody else could cook blue meth. Walt had power over the drug dealers because he could give them something unique.

          If all it took was an additive, the story would not have worked.

          The hook wasn't the color; it was the purity. Walt and Jessie already had a hit product before they started using methylamine and turned it blue.

    • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @06:48PM (#46910439) Homepage

      It was necessary to have Walt's product be immediately distinguishable from everything else on the street. Otherwise, the DEA would need to run samples of every batch seized through the lab to check purity etc. to determine if a given product was cooked by "Heisenberg". While this might have been interesting to the science geeks here on /., it would have been boring to the average viewer.

      I have a feeling that pinning the blue color on the P2P cook process was done by the writers before they had a scientific adviser onboard. By then, it was too late, and they were stuck with it.

      The big scientific screwup on the show is exactly how Walt was managing to get nearly 100% purity from a process that in real life would result in 50% purity at best. Unlike starting from pseudoephedrine, the P2P process results in a racemic mixture of 2 different stereoisomers of methamphetamine, only one of which has any recreational value.

      This bit of chemical magic could have been passed off as Walt's "secret process", but on the show both Gale and Declan's crew were also shown creating meth at significantly better than 50% purity using the P2P route, without benefit of Walt's knowledge.

      • by TapeCutter (624760) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @07:27PM (#46910563) Journal
        You can turn anything you like blue by reversing the polarities and fine tuning the sub-space frequencies. I think it's fantastic that popular shows such as BB/Simpsons/Futurama/BBT are not only doing a good job of getting the science right but are also making it a feature of the show. Fiction writers have poetic license and have always researched their work to some degree, particularly the historical and geographic bits. What the author is trying to do in a drama is make the characters real and for that to happen his audience must be willing to suspend disbelief.

        The ability/willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief depends on their own experience and worldview. For example the infinitely zoom-able pictures on a detectives computer, most people groan when they see it today but 20yrs ago it was an acceptable plot device because the punters simply did not know what a "pixel" was..
      • I have a feeling that pinning the blue color on the P2P cook process was done by the writers before they had a scientific adviser onboard.

        So you're not buying what the article said about that?

        • The first season was written and filmed before Dr. Nelson came on board, I think.

          The blue meth was introduced in the last episode or second to last episode of the first season, which was only 7 episodes long due to the writer's strike that year.

      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        The big scientific screwup on the show is exactly how Walt was managing to get nearly 100% purity from a process that in real life would result in 50% purity at best. Unlike starting from pseudoephedrine, the P2P process results in a racemic mixture of 2 different stereoisomers of methamphetamine, only one of which has any recreational value.

        Off-topic, but hydrogenation of fats results in a similar thing (it's a process used to saturate fats with hydrogen).

        Hydrogenation can create two forms - "cis" and "tra

        • But it isn't trans-fats that makes food "taste good"

          So all those FOX [wikia.com] cartoons [wikia.com] lied to me?!

          Does this mean... the content of a commercial network may be influenced by its advertisers? Oh my..

    • Re:My baby blue (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Hortense Yaya (954830) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @08:58PM (#46910897)
      The real cooks are trying to make it blue now and making their customers sick http://www.washingtontimes.com... [washingtontimes.com]
  • Hide the Knowledge (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Macrat (638047) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @06:32PM (#46910387)

    They helped so that we wouldn’t be presenting a cookbook on how to make meth and told him what steps to leave out so that anyone mimicking the procedures would fail.

    Yup. A TV show giving inaccurate information is going to prevent people from making meth.

    • by Shados (741919) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @07:02PM (#46910497)

      No, but a TV show giving accurate information certainly encourages people to try that would not normally. That happens all the time, with everything you see on TV.

      • i wonder how the show "Moon Shiners" gets away with this -- they even have diagrams on how the stills work. (Granted, alcohol isn't as hard or illegal to make, but moonshine AFIAK is illegal to produce, even for personal use)

        • Well exactly, it's not fundamentally illegal to make alcohol, and in that case it's probably more important to give accurate information so people who might try it don't in advertently poison themselves with methanol.

          Whereas conversely, the way it's presented in Breaking Bad you'd go right down the wrong path trying to obtain precursor compounds (and set off a bunch of red flags at chemical companies) anyway.

          • it's probably more important to give accurate information so people who might try it don't in advertently poison themselves

            the way it's presented in Breaking Bad you'd go right down the wrong path

            Basically the producers of the show want people to poison themselves when they try something illegal. Technically it is not captial punishment.

        • by mark_reh (2015546)

          So-called "reality TV" is just entertainment. It's all BS. There's no moonshine, no "revenooers", and nothing illegal being done. Anything that looks that way is staged.

          Like the Talking Heads sang back in the 80s:
          "I don't know what you expect, staring into the TV set..."

          • by sumdumass (711423)

            It seems to me that if those moonshiners were really making illegal moonshine and outrunning the law, the film crew would be considered conspirators and subject to criminal charges as well. People have been sent to prison for longer terms in conspiring to commit a felony than the actual offense tendered. People have also been sent to prison for conspiring to commit a felony without the felony actually taking place. and failing to report a felony is misprison of a felony which itself is a felony under US cod

    • Worked for the X-Files. No one suspect a thing, except for the conspiracy theorist nut-jobs (who are thus obviously alien fugitives).

    • You see evidence all the time on the news and if you want to see a ton more, read police reports. Most criminals are morons.

      So, if a TV show shows them how to make meth, you'll get some dummies that'll say "Hey let's do that!" Thus, best if it doesn't actually work.

      Of course people can just go and look it up, if they are really interested, but this helps weed some people out.

  • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @06:40PM (#46910409)

    “Now is catalytic hydrogenation, I forget, is that protic or aprotic?"

    Man, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that...

  • Never mind all that. How did it feel to travel thirty years into the future from 1984 after winning first place in the Mary-Beth Lacey look-a-like contest? And how much meth were you on at the time?

  • How do people even make meth in this country? Anything with Pseudoephedrine in it requires them to scan your drivers license.

    • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Saturday May 03, 2014 @07:51PM (#46910661) Homepage

      Once Walt and Jesse moved beyond making a few ounces at a time, they couldn't get enough OTC pseudoephedrine pills through their small network of "smurfs".

      They had already committed to providing 4 pounds of product to a rather psychotic distributor, so Walt decided to use a different synthetic route (P2P from phenylacetic acid via high temperature catalyst, then reductive amination with methylamine and aluminum amalgam), rather than the standard pseudoephedrine reduction using red phosphorus and iodine that they started out with.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 03, 2014 @08:41PM (#46910851)

        Once Walt and Jesse moved beyond making a few ounces at a time, they couldn't get enough OTC pseudoephedrine pills through their small network of "smurfs".

        Which is unfortunately historically accurate.

        The War on Drugs fighting the smurfs means that the large-scale operations can bring it in by the 40-gallon barrel. Meth supply to the street is unaffected, and the only change in my quality of life is that I have to "voluntarily" enter myself into a DEA tracking database for pseudoephedrine if I get a cold and want a decongestant more than the (indistinguishable-from-fucking placebo) phenylephrine.

        I hate meth cooks more than I hate meth heads, but neither of them has inconvenienced me in the way that the DEA does every fucking cold season. Legalize it and let the meth heads kill themselves off. Then the cooks will have no customers. At least I'll be able to limit the symptoms of my fucking cold without feeling like a criminal.

        • by sjames (1099)

          I wish I had mod points now. The DEA should have no say whatsoever over a highly useful and perfectly legal over the counter medication. I have never cooked meth and have never been found guilty of cooking meth. Therefor, as I am innocent until proven guilty, the proper assumption is that I am not going to cook meth with a box of decongestant.

          Law enforcement is supposed to cause less harm than criminals.

          • Law enforcement is supposed to cause less harm than criminals.

            as we've come to LEARN, LE is not about protecting or serving anyone other than the rich and powerful.

            you and I don't enter into this.

            not. one. bit.

            the sooner folks 'cop' to this fact, the sooner we might be able to actually fix this age-old problem.

          • by sudon't (580652)

            I wish I had mod points now. The DEA should have no say whatsoever over a highly useful and perfectly legal over the counter medication. I have never cooked meth and have never been found guilty of cooking meth. Therefor, as I am innocent until proven guilty, the proper assumption is that I am not going to cook meth with a box of decongestant.

            Law enforcement is supposed to cause less harm than criminals.

            The DEA shouldn't exist, period. How adult people choose to spend their free time should be no concern of government. Prohibition always creates crime where none existed.

        • Legalize it and let the meth heads kill themselves off. Then the cooks will have no customers. At least I'll be able to limit the symptoms of my fucking cold without feeling like a criminal.

          If you did any research on this problem you'd realize that it isn't nearly this simple. You're argument boils down to the classic, "If they are only hurting themselves, why do I care?"

          But, that isn't the case. Because of the way meth is made, when it goes wrong, shit explodes, and/or the rooms are filled with dangerous chemicals that require specialized training, time, and money to repair. In small towns, where meth gets popular, local sherrifs simply don't have the time/man power/and budget to deal wit

    • ...of how to cook hard-to-obtain Sudafed by starting with readily available methamphetamine...

    • by sudon't (580652)

      How do people even make meth in this country? Anything with Pseudoephedrine in it requires them to scan your drivers license.

      Clearly you've never heard of "smurfing." The large-scale operations have mostly been taken over by Mexico, where this pesky law doesn't exist. As always, where there's a will, there's a way.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I was always impressed by the accuracy of the show, but there are a few small flaws. They're so small that I'm not even really disappointed though.

    1. Methylamine isn't *that* difficult to make
    2. After switching to a "P2P" cook, they are showed sourcing phosphorus, a material no longer required since aluminum amalgam was the reduction agent used instead.
    3. They show a graham condenser in the wrong orientation
    4. Even if methylamine *was* that difficult to make, theres a method that generates it in-situ using

    • 2. After switching to a "P2P" cook, they are showed sourcing phosphorus, a material no longer required since aluminum amalgam was the reduction agent used instead.

      I don't remember them sourcing phosphorus, but I do remember Walt dressing down a wannabe for buying the wrong kind of matches, before kicking them out of his territory.

  • Look at the picture! She took something, too!!!! ;)

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