The Science of Breaking Bad

Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman use various chemicals and scientific processes while making their way to the top of the drug empire. I felt as though writing this blog would help my severe Breaking Bad withdrawal. (I guess you could say I’m… Breaking Sad. No? Well, I tried.)

(Warning: mild spoilers)

Disposing of dead bodies isn’t something most of us have to do (hopefully), but for Walt, this is a common nuisance that needs to be resolved. As a high school chemistry teacher, Walter supposedly has access to large amounts of hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid is hydrogen fluoride dissolved in water. This chemical can move easily through the skin and tissues in the body (as a result of a highly reactive fluorine ion), where it can cause severe damage to the cells, and ultimately killing the tissue. Hydrofluoric acid also can eat through glass and metals, which is why Jesse’s failure to use a plastic bin for his first body disposal led to the dissolving of the body, his bathtub, and the floor beneath his bathtub. Way to go, Jesse.

Walt also finds other ways to intimidate business competitors: fulminated mercury. This compound consists of mercury atoms surrounded by carbon atoms, each of which is bonded to nitrogen and oxygen. Fulminated mercury has been used since the 17th century as an explosive, primarily used to ignite the powder in firearms. Mercury Fulminate is extremely sensitive; it can be set off by any little amount of heat or friction, which is one reason why Walter’s use of this compound is inaccurate. When he waltzed in, proclaimed “This is not meth,” and blew up the building, he and the rest of the people in the building should have died rather than walked away with mere nosebleeds and shock.

One of the poisons used most often in Breaking Bad is ricin. Ricin is a poison created from castor beans, which are actually safe to touch and ingest (in small amounts) despite Walter’s warnings to Jesse not to touch them with bare hands. The poison works by stopping protein growth inside cells, which causes the cells to die. This process eventually takes over the whole body and potent doses result in death. Walter and Jesse use this poison because its effects are inconspicuous. Symptoms don’t appear until 8-24 hours after ingestion (can be inhaled, injected, or ingested). Just a pinch of ricin can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and low blood pressure within hours, symptoms which can be mistaken for a flu or virus. However, the symptoms escalate as proteins fail to be produced, and the liver, spleen, and kidneys stop working.

Density also comes in to play during the gang’s big train heist. Walter works out a plan to steal 1,000 gallons of methylamine from a train. However, 1,000 gallons of methylamine cannot be replaced with 1,000 gallons of water. Why? Density. Forty percent water weight methylamine solution has a density of 890 kg/m3, while water has a density of 998.21 kg/m3. Therefore, the switch must be made using the same mass, rather than the same volume, in order to maintain the weight of the train car.

Though some scenes contain inaccurate information, the overall use of science is one of the best things about Breaking Bad. One final note: Although not completely scientific, Jesse is onto something about microwaveable lasagna turning into a scab. I’m sure we could create some kind of scientific solution to this problem for our dearest Jesse Pinkman.

About Mr. Mohn

Biology Teacher

This entry was written by Helen P. and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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