Today I was offered a great opportunity to air my grievances about Breaking Bad, the award-winning AMC dramatic series that I have avoided watching. As it turns out, I’m glad I waited until now! Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma who has garnered a bit of fame in the chemistry world as a consultant for the series, was the opening speaker at Informex this morning. I hit her with my reservations regarding the show, more-or-less like a ton of bricks, moments before she got started.
My reservations, I told her, arise from the following perceptions:
1) Science nerds (we will visit the word nerd below… relax) took to the show with immense enthusiasm for living vicariously through an outlaw chemist—an outlaw chemist who is making crystal meth for money!
2) The science enterprise latched on to this show’s popularity as a chance to finally get science right on TV with a show… about making crystal meth!
3) A fundamental question: What do the details of chemistry have to do with drama? I never cared about the authenticity of Carmella’s recipe for tomato gravy when I watched the Sopranos (twice) because it had nothing to do with the drama. I doubt David Chase brought in a chef to consult. Why should I be interested in the details of the chemistry in Breaking Bad when it is the dramatic element of how the chemistry is used that should hook me?
In my view the Chemical Enterprise has shown too much enthusiasm for a story of science’s amorality tipping heavily into the immoral. What kind of anti-hero role model is Walter White?
Nelson effectively disarmed me in our brief chat before she went on. I could tell intuitively that she saw something behind the kind of objections I raised, objections comparable to those of colleagues who pulled her aside when she got started and said… “Do you know what that show is about? Don’t do it!”
She did it, and I’m impressed with what she’s done. And C&EN had a bit roll in her contribution to the Enterprise as a volunteer adviser on chemistry:
Nelson saw a story in C&EN written by Jyllian Kemsley in which Vince Gilligan, the show’s writer and producer, told her he would very much welcome input from chemists. The story ran after the first few episodes. Nelson decided to take him up on it, and got an introduction through Rudy Baum, then editor-in-chief of C&EN. Nelson says she was satisfied that the series did not glorify illicit drug production—she tells me that the protagonist is dragged through the desert in his underwear, among other degradations, and is finally (spoiler alert) killed. She added that the U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency also consulted on the show, advising on the look and feel of a real bathroom meth lab and making sure that the series did not broadcast a recipe for making the drug.
Well, OK. Walter is portrayed as a bad guy who gets his comeuppance. Just like Jesse James, who is still considered a mythic hero. Nelson, in fact, showed in her presentation that students in the Oklahoma University Affiliates of the ACS ran around with T shirts that said, “We do stuff in labs that would be a felony in your garage!”
(Science nerds living vicariously through an outlaw chemist, etc.: Check).
But Nelson alerted me to a practical consideration having to do with the science community communicating with the public. Think about it—C&EN broadcasts a request for a scientist to consult with Hollywood on a hot new TV series. How many chemists respond? One. Just one! Donna Nelson. Think also about how many TV shows and movies involve science. Now, how many producers put out the feelers for real scientists to consult? Well who knows? But only one has done so through C&EN. Gilligan, a professed amateur science nerd, deserves a lot of credit for reaching out. And he had a hard time finding a response. Nelson, who flew to Burbank, Calif., for an initial meeting, expressed some shock that the show got no input from any of the nearby universities. Gilligan said they all snubbed him. Nobody wanted to risk getting involved.
Nelson took a pragmatic view of her options. “They had a hit,” she told me. “It was either going to be a hit with good science or a hit with faulty science.”
I appreciated Nelson’s willingness to listen by my spiel about how the science community is its own worst enemy when communicating with the public. She agrees with me! Such communication is all about taking the kind of risk she took in getting the blackboard in the classroom right on a TV show. Getting the dialogue right. Getting the reactions straight. Apparently they loved her at Breaking Bad. They relied on her heavily, and the show benefited greatly. So did chemistry. It worked because chemistry became an integral aspect of the drama.
Since working on Breaking Bad, Nelson has appeared on panels with writers and actors from shows like CSI, House MD, and others that deal with science and medicine.
There is no lack of science in popular entertainment. And entertainment is pervasive in our culture. Think of TED Talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. These are presented as the pillars of highbrow contemporary discourse! I much prefer an edgier venue called Nerd Nite, which is probably an even more entertaining venue for science. Nelson says she hopes to dispel the notion that scientists are nerds, and here may be the one area on which we disagree. The term nerd is now synonymous with hip in the good sense of hip. Nerds are smart and cool. Nerds are nothing like the elitist science hermits I’ve seen giving TED talks or the ostensibly non-nerd folks in the audience at these things.
Maybe the real outlaw, the one with the white hat in Breaking Bad, is Donna Nelson. What a step she has taken outside the collective comfort zone! Even if my dystopian vision of a future in which chemists on the cover of C&EN have to wear ski masks along with their protective eyewear and lab coats is realized, we know from Nelson’s example that science can be communicated accurately and entertainingly to a broad, really quite smart audience.