'Breaking Bad' science adviser stresses importance of accuracy in TV science

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Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemistry professor, selects chemical substances for reactions based on safety, cost, percent yield and purity, but when she became the science adviser for “Breaking Bad,” she also had to consider how easy these chemicals were for actors to pronounce.

Nelson gave an on-campus talk Wednesday about working with Hollywood writers to present more accurate science on TV. Nutritional sciences junior Korbin Evans helped organize the lecture as a part of the Pioneering Leadership Lecture Series, which is intended to increase the success of students from underrepresented populations in science and mathematics.

“It is important that we are exposed sometime during our student career to seeing faces similar to our own,” Evans said.

Nelson said she reached out to the producers of “Breaking Bad” after reading an article about the show and seeing that Vince Gilligan, the head writer of the show, was seeking out scientific advising.

“The part that caught my eye was that Vince Gilligan said that getting the science right was important to him,” Nelson said. “They welcomed constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience because he nor any of his writers had science backgrounds, and they were having to research what they wrote on the web.”

Nelson said scientists were constantly trying to figure out ways to build a “bridge to Hollywood,” where scientists have increased input on the facts behind TV science. According to Nelson, “Breaking Bad” presented the perfect opportunity.

“Those of us in chemistry, interacting through the American Chemical Society, were always bemoaning the fact that a lot of science presented on TV and in the movies was wrong,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the classroom scenes of “Breaking Bad” were an important place to ensure the science was accurate. According to Nelson, the information conveyed in those scenes was intended to reinforce rather than confuse chemistry students, and perhaps even generate more interest in the field.

“I don’t think the public appreciates chemistry and chemists like they should,” Nelson said. “If you think about it, the fabric that they wear, their perfume, hair products, the tile on their floor, the ceilings, the carpeting, car parts, computer parts … it’s all chemicals.”

Mechanical engineering junior Stephen Garza said science deserves to be portrayed accurately on TV. He said he thinks Nelson did a good job of emphasizing that.

“People commit their lives to this,” Garza said. “This is their career, to be working on these topics, and it’s almost out of respect to pay it justice.”