Breaking Bad #2: the science

How accurate was science in breaking bad?
In general it was pretty good. It is clear that the producers of the show have put some effort into ensuring scientific credibility, and appear to have consulted the scientific community.

But having said that, however, there were a few problems.

  1. Walter White is a physical chemist. We know that because his expertise is X-Ray Crystallography. The manufacture of Crystal Meth is very much the realm of a synthetic organic chemist. It is therefore rather unlikely that a physical chemist would be able to, off the top of his head, manufacture crystal meth to >99% purity on his first attempt. Most synthetic organic chemists wouldn’t even be able to do it without a substantial amount of research, trial and error
  2. In one episode Walter White makes a battery out of some acid, coins and bolts that he has lying around, and then uses it to start the RV. Even if he somehow managed to get the right voltage, there is no way that such a small “battery” would generate the several hundred amps required to start a car.
  3. On several occasions Walter pinches Hydrofluoric Acid from the school store to dissolve bodies.
    As the strongest acid in existence, and the most dangerous (S7 Poison, DG Class 8 (6.1), PG 1) there is no way in hell that a school would use such a dangerous chemical, and certainly not sitting loose on its shelves. Most industries that use this stuff (I used to work in a place where we used it to make a brick cleaner) store in a dedicated cage that is kept under lock and key, with warning labels plastered across it.

Breaking Bad #1 – the Evil Scientist

Breaking bad was a groundbreaking series in many ways. For me, the attraction of it was the fact that the central character was a scientist. I cannot think of any other TV show where this was the case.

The story is that Walter White is an overqualified high school chemistry teacher who discovers that he has lung cancer. Wanting to leave behind some money for his family when he dies, in desperation he begins cooking crystal meth.

Spread over six series, we see Walter White go from being an upstanding high school teacher who is racked by guilt about the fact that he is breaking the law, to a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, who on one occasion orders the execution of 10 people in the prison who he thinks may rat on him, and on another occasion he poisons one of his enemies by substituting ricin for her artificial sweetener

In later posts I will discuss some of the science involved, but it seems to me that the first question to be addressed is the ethical and philosophical one. Specifically, did he become bad because he was lured into it and he changed, or was he always this way, and it only needed the opportunity to be presented for this part of his character to be seen?

There is of course no absolute answer to that for the simple reason that the series is entirely fictitious. If we were able to find the same thing happening to a real person then perhaps the question would be worth considering, but in the case of the fictitious Walter White it is a waste of time.

But it gets me thinking about a related issue. Every synthetic poison and every explosive was invented by a chemist. That is, someone with a university education made the decision to set their mind to inventing something that was going to kill people, although I should add a caveat here – in many cases explosives were invented accidentally. That is, when the chemical was invented it was invented for another purpose and it just happened to be explosive. A case in point here is ammonium nitrate – the world’s first synthetic fertiliser (note – I only refer to it as synthetic because it is manufactured in a factory, not because the chemical does not exist in nature, because it does – just not in large enough quantities to be commercially viable). In fact, they only realised how explosive ammonium nitrate was after the Texas city disaster occurred

But poisons are another story. Chemicals used in chemical weapons and biological material used in biological weapons were the work of scientists. I have asked myself many times how an intelligent person could devote their energies to such evil. When you study at tertiary level you are exposed to a higher form thinking. You ought to develop an ethically rounded view of life. You should be the type of person who will place great value on human life. But somehow, someway, these people turned their intelligence to evil.

And I don’t really have an answer as to how or why this occurs. Every scientist I know, myself included, works tirelessly to make the world a better place, whether it be by the development of new drugs, new medical procedures, new assistive technologies, or whether it be just simply telling people how to clean their homes, (as I do).

It is these things that most scientists devote their effort to, because we want to leave a legacy. I used to read the obituaries in the monthly editions of Chemistry in Australia, where the life work of a particular scientist was described in memoriam.

How is it possible, I have often asked myself, to live your life in such a manner that you know that you will leave behind a legacy that you will be ashamed of – that you know that your relatives will disown you and avoid speaking your name.?

It reminds me of the story of Herod Antipas, one of the most hated Roman provincial rulers, who ordered that on the day that he died, 100 people were to be randomly executed. This was so that he could be assured that there would be some people weeping on the day that he died…

The only answer I can come up with as to why intelligent people devote their efforts to evil is that they have swallowed wholesale a perverted view of the world that justifies their actions. An example might be Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor of death. No doubt he really believed that Aryans were the master race, and Jews were on to Untermensch (sub humans) and were not worthy of the same dignity as normal humans are.

Once you swallow wholesale that mindset, then anything is possible.Then again, other motivations may simply be money. That was certainly the case in Breaking Bad.

Whatever the reasons, the story of Walter White is a very dark one. And like I think many viewers, you feel yourself being drawn into the dark world in which he lived, driven by a morbid fascination with what was going to happen next. They managed to create this dark suspense which I think was the success of the show, and the reason that it won so many awards.

But it’s not the kind of show where I feel any desire to watch it again…

But of course we now have the prequel on Stan – Better Call Saul (based on the Saul Goodman character in the series). It’s very clever and very funny.

In the next post I’ll start looking at some of the science behind Breaking Bad – just how accurate was it?


Bicycle Day

Before there was “ride to work day” there was Bicycle Day. Ask any hippie.

This commemorates the day back LSD was first administered by its inventor, Albert Hofman.

he had been developing a drug for use with psychiatric patients, so it was intended to influence the mind, but it worked better then he ever had hoped.

He administered 250 µg to himself (which is an awful lot) and then headed for home on his pushbike.  The account of what happened next is here:

4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless. 17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh. Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle. From 18:00- ca.20:00 most severe crisis. (See special report.) Here the notes in my laboratory journal cease. I was able to write the last words only with great effort. By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors. In spite of my delirious, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear and effective thinking – and chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for poisoning. The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forrns. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask. Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will. I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife, with our three children had traveled that day to visit her parents, in Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, an-d that such a result was in no way foreseeable? My fear and despair intensified, not only because a young family should lose its father, but also because I dreaded leaving my chemical research work, which meant so much to me, unfinished in the midst of fruitful, promising development. Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this Iysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world. By the time the doctor arrived, the climax of my despondent condition had already passed. My laboratory assistant informed him about my selfexperiment, as I myself was not yet able to formulate a coherent sentence. He shook his head in perplexity, after my attempts to describe the mortal danger that threatened my body. He could detect no abnormal symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils. Pulse, blood pressure, breathing were all normal. He saw no reason to prescribe any medication. Instead he conveyed me to my bed and stood watch over me. Slowly I came back from a weird, unfamiliar world to reassuring everyday reality. The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past. Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color. Late in the evening my wife returned from Lucerne. Someone had informed her by telephone that I was suffering a mysterious breakdown. She had returned home at once, leaving the children behind with her parents. By now, I had recovered myself sufficiently to tell her what had happened. Exhausted, I then slept, to awake next morning refreshed, with a clear head, though still somewhat tired physically. A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.

Of course, Hofman had no idea back his drug would fuel the entire hippie counterculture.  How could he?  Recreational drugs were not a big thing back in those days, and he would not have been aware of the explosion of use of recreational drugs that LSD would initiate.

So what effect did LSD have? Here’s the result of an experiment on a housewife.

How Much Fuel Did Kent Roberts Save?

The other day on 6PR Kent Roberts said that on his way into work he turned off his rear window demister, to save, he said, a bit of fuel.

He made the point that he realized that it was probably inconsequential, but he did it anyway.

So let’s do a ballpark calculation to work out how much it was.

I have no idea where Kent lives, or what car he drives, but for the sake of the calculation, let’s assume he lives 50km away and drives a car that gets fuel consumption of 10L/100km.

If we assume that his rear window demister draws 5 Amps, and it’s a 12V system, this means that this requires 12 x 5 = 60W (Watts, the unit of power).

Let’s now assume that his car, while he is driving it, is generating 60kW of power. This is 60,000W.

Now, if the rear window demister is using up 60W of power, this is 1/1000th of the power that the engine is producing. So the engine must work harder, by a factor of 1/1000 to operate the rear window demister.

So this is also the same factor by which the fuel consumption increases.

If he is driving 50km, and his car uses 10L per every 100km, this means that he has used 5L of fuel.

Now, since his engine has to work harder by a factor of 1/1000, this means that his engine will use an extra 5L/1000 = 5mL

So by using his rear window demister, he has used an extra 5mL of fuel. Or to put it another way, by not using it, he has saved 5mL.

Which equates to about 0.75c, at current fuel prices.

So if he did it for a year, he would save himself about enough for a packet of chips.

I reckon that’s worth it Kent, don’t you?