Breaking Bad Tool for Teaching Students about Chemistry
Breaking Bad Tool for Teaching Students about Chemistry

by Karen Grava
Director of Media Relations

As graphic as the show Breaking Bad is, it is also a teaching tool for chemistry, says Tiffany Hesser, a UNH chemistry lecturer.

In fact, she says, the show, which ended Sunday after five years, actually might encourage students to study chemistry.

“The show CSI caused an increase in interest in forensic science and criminal justice among students,” Hesser said. “Maybe Breaking Bad can do the same for chemistry.”

Tiffany Hesser

Hesser is a fan of the show, which depicts Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher with a pregnant wife and disabled son.  White finds out in the first episode that he has terminal cancer and decides to earn money for his family by producing methamphetamines.

“I have faithfully watched each episode since the show began in 2008, tuning in to see what trouble Walter White would get himself into next,” Hesser said. “As gruesome and violent as it is, Breaking Bad is a refreshing introduction to a more accurate science being portrayed on television.”

Television shows such as CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds have made the forensic science field popular with today's high school and undergraduate students even though they are notorious for the inaccurate portrayal of what crime scene investigators or forensic scientists do, she says.

Breaking Bad has a more factual portrayal of chemistry, down to the pronunciation of chemical terms, the distinction of double bonding in the nomenclature and the instrumentation testing the purity of the methamphetamines produced,” she said.

The show is a delight for her, despite how graphic it is. “While most of the deaths on Breaking Bad are not very creative,” Hesser said, “we do get to see some bonus chemistry footage that takes part in the early demise of those in Walter's path.”

In Season 1, for example, White gets rid of someone by creating phosphine gas. Phosphine is an extremely toxic gas. It is often seen in commercial agriculture as a product of fumigants that is used in cases of rodent infestations, Hesser says.  It's also a by-product created during the manufacturing of methamphetamine, which has caused deaths in real meth labs.

Some of the chemistry portrayed includes the poisoning of another character, Brock Cantillo, with Lily of the Valley, which is highly toxic; the destruction of dead bodies by breaking down the tissue in hydrochloric acid; and using mercury fulminate as a quick explosive.

“While these incidents are scientifically exaggerated,” she said, “I can somewhat uncomfortably say the creatively scientific deaths are ‘neat’ and the introduction of these scarcely known but naturally occurring chemical situations are truly interesting.”

Most of the science in the show is well-advised by University of Oklahoma organic chemistry professor Donna J. Nelson, Hesser says, and is scientifically accurate. Ironically, though, there is one inaccuracy in the show: the color of the meth that Walter produces is blue when actually pure crystal meth is a clear or colorless crystal, Hesser says.

“I often feel a bit guilty for enjoying the show,” she admitted. “After all, it really is disgusting, but despite all he has done, I still wanted Walt to win. I wanted him to get his money, to set his family up comfortably and keep control of this product he has so painstakingly created.   Apparently, I have fallen victim to exactly what the producers want—an audience that sympathizes with a drug dealing criminal antihero on a rampage.”

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