Donna Nelson wants scientists to watch television without groaning at inaccuracies. So when Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, heard the AMC series Breaking Bad needed a chemist adviser, she volunteered. (The show centers on a high school teacher who receives a lung cancer diagnosis and begins making and selling methamphetamine to provide financial security for his family.)
Last month at the conference of the American Chemical Society, Nelson talked about her work. I spoke with Nelson last week. Here are excerpts of our interview:
How did you land such a cool gig?
The way it started is a little bit convoluted. I’m an organic chemist. I’ve been a professor of chemistry for awhile. I belong to the American Chemical Society, which most chemists do. The magazine that comes out of the American Chemical Society is a weekly called Chemical and Engineering News. There was an article in which the producer of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, was interviewed. It quoted him as saying they didn’t have the budget for a science adviser. He had to go online to try to pick up the science they needed. He had a DEA agent helping him set up the illicit production part, but they didn’t have anyone to help with the classroom part. Walt, the lead character, is an organic chemistry high school science teacher.
I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Chemists and other scientists are always complaining about poor, inaccurate science that appears in movies and television shows. You just groan as you watch it. This was an opportunity to do something about it. I contacted the people at Chemical and Engineering News and said I’d be willing to help [Gilligan] out in service of the community. They told him and he contacted me. [The show's staff] started sending questions. Anytime they were writing something they weren’t sure of, they would send me a portion of their script and I would look at it. I make some suggestions or change some words to improve it or make it sound like organic chemists sound when they’re talking in the lab.
Have you ever gone to the show’s set?
Before they ever sent me anything, I went out to Burbank. That’s how I met them. I took my son along. He’s a chemical engineer. He was still a student at that time. I told him, ‘Don’t get your hopes up because nobody important will be able to talk with us.’ We go in and there’s Vince Gilligan. He’s the first person who walks up to us. All the writers were there to meet us. My son and I sat down and they asked us question after question for a solid hour. They were all sorts of questions: What makes a person want to be a scientist? What makes a person want to be a chemist? What makes a person want to get a Ph.D.? What makes a person want to be a professor? Why would a person want to be a high school organic chemistry teacher, rather than a researcher? What’s it like working in the lab?
Did you ever see some of your answers written into the character of Walt?
Generally. They were trying to build a general character and get an idea of what a typical scientist personality might be. Scientists are just as different as policemen or beauticians or producers. There’s not a cookie-cutter mold. But they were asking for ideas. I’m happy to help them in that way.
What script changes of yours have ended up in the show?
There was one time when they emailed me [about] beginning organic chemistry. They said, ‘We want to have [Walt] talk about alkenes.’ It’s a specific carbon class of compounds. They had a little bit of the script. Walt is saying, ‘There are mono-alkenes, di-alkenes, poly-alkenes, tri-alkenes. The nomenclature alone is enough to make your head spin.’ I contributed to that.
They came back and asked me, ‘Is there anything Walt would have written on the board as a high school chemistry teacher while he was saying this?’ I emailed them some structures of alkenes. They put it on the blackboard and it looked exactly like what I sent to them. Exactly. They’re trying to be very accurate, which really endears them to chemists.
Is it common for scientists to help TV and film producers ensure scientific accuracy?
It does happen. I think it happens behind the scenes very much. It may be that we just aren’t aware of it on the shows that are getting the science right. It might be that [some producers would] like to, but they don’t know who to ask or they think it might be a lot of trouble. Even worse, they might think that they would run up against some crazy scientist who would be very demanding and insist they change everything in their script.
One prerequisite for being a good science adviser is to realize the non-scientists you’re working with are the people who are very creative. I won’t be the one who writes a script that will draw a good audience. You have to know what your place is. When they send me a script and ask for my input, I try as hard as I can to change as few words as possible. The way I envision myself is just trying to tweak what they’re doing. They are the creative people. I don’t want to ruin the script. It needs to be audience-friendly.
Why is it so important to get science right on TV and film?
Our population generally is becoming more and more science literate. It’s amazing how much kids know when they hit that first science class. They are becoming so smart. [Inaccurate science in film and television] can be misleading. I’m not talking about being creative and putting in space travel at the speed of light. I’m talking about crazy stuff where you see somebody grab a can of baking powder and throw it on somebody’s arm and the arm rots off. Anyone who has any knowledge of science is going to groan.
You’re supposed to have this suspension of disbelief in order to get immersed in the show. If you then see something you know is completely illogical, it makes you sit up. You’re brought right back to reality and it ruins the show. I would think that in their own self interest, the shows that have science in them would want to get it right.
Scientists interested in working with the entertainment industry can contact the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Photo, top: Breaking Bad, Ursula Coyote/AMC
Photo, bottom: Donna Nelson