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The Science of "Breaking Bad": Behind the Scenes With the Show's Science Advisor

Evening Program with Book Signing

Inside Science program

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1A0082
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
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Donna Nelson at University of Texas, Austin (Photo: Sarah Wilson)

Walter White, the anti-hero of “Breaking Bad” (played by Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston), is a scientist and high school chemistry teacher who displays a plaque that recognizes his “contributions to research awarded the Nobel Prize.” During the course of five seasons on AMC, Walt practiced a lot of ad-hoc chemistry—from experiments that explode to acid-based evidence destruction to an amazing repertoire of methodologies for illicit meth-making. But how much of his science is actually scientific?

In her role as science advisor to the series, Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, explained, analyzed, and evaluated the show's portrayal of science, beginning near the end of season 1. The intent was not, of course, to provide a how-to manual for wannabe meth moguls, but to decode the show's most head-turning, jaw-dropping moments—and make sure they were scientifically accurate. Nelson also found working on “Breaking Bad” an important professional opportunity to bring science into focus within the context of a wildly popular television series.

Nelson discusses the show's portrayal of chemistry, biology, physics, and subdivisions of each area including toxicology and electromagnetism, as well how she became involved in the show and some of the unusual questions posed to her.

Nelson is joined by Marius Stan, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who played car wash owner Bogdan on the show, adding behind-the-scenes color about what it was like to work with the creator and writers of “Breaking Bad.”

Learn how Nelson’s ongoing advisory emphasis on the important contribution of scientists to our daily lives found itself echoed in character by Cranston, as Walt proclaimed, “Without us you’ll have no one to make your product!”

Nelson’s book that she coauthored with Dave Trumbore, The Science of Breaking Bad (MIT Press), is available for sale and signing.

Inside Science