The science of Breaking Bad: Pilot

Breaking Bad : Season 1 : Episode 1 : “Pilot”

Walt performs the coloured flame experiment.

Walt performs the coloured flame experiment.

The first episode of Breaking Bad kicks things off in a promising way for scientist viewers, with references scattered liberally throughout. In this post, I’ll be talking about Walt’s contribution to the Nobel Prize, electrons and light, the coloured flame experiment, glassware and the manufacture of crystal meth.

You can read more about this episode at AMC, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

The 1985 Nobel Prize

After the climactic opening scene, we are taken back to a more peaceful time and are shown Walt’s certificate for contribution to research awarded the Nobel Prize. The 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Herbert Hauptman and Jerome Karle for their achievements in determining the structures of crystals (crystallography) – we aren’t told exactly how Walt contributed to the field, but might assume that his data was used to test statistical models (the basis of Hauptman and Karle’s theories). Proton radiography is similar to X-ray radiography (using radiation to make images), but uses highly penetrating protons (p or 1H+) to “see” farther inside objects.

In 1985, proton radiography was a relatively new technique (it wasn’t until 1995 that researchers figured out how to make it work properly), and, as Los Alamos was then primarily used for military research, Walt would probably have been studying weapons.

Electrons and light

Helium electron cloud

Helium electron cloud

Fast-forward Walt’s life to the present day, and we arrive at a high school teaching laboratory with some general information about electrons and the properties of light on the blackboard. On the left, we can see that electrons in atoms exist in separate orbitals (regions where we are likely to find electrons), and that the number and energies of these orbitals depends on where the element is in the periodic table.

For background information on this topic, see the primer on atomic structure.

On the right, we can see:

\nu = \frac {c} {\lambda}

Which tell us that the frequency (ν) of light is equal to the speed of light (c) divided by the wavelength (λ);

E = h \nu

Which tell us that the energy of a photon (E) is equal to the Planck constant (h; also written on the board as 6.626 x 10-34 J s) multiplied by the frequency;

\lambda = \frac {h} {mv}

Which tell us that the wavelength is equal to the Planck constant divided by the momentum (mass m multiplied by velocity v (this is known as the De Broglie relation).

For background information on this topic, see the primer on electromagnetic radiation.

Coloured flames

Walt gives a classic demonstration as he talks about chemistry being the science of change, misting solutions into a Bunsen burner flame to produce bursts of coloured light. The solutions contain metal ions (salts) dissolved or suspended in a flammable liquid (such as ethanol) – when this mixture enters the flame, the liquid ignites immediately and leaves the metal ions behind.

When our ions are sent into the flame, they absorb thermal energy (heat) and the electrons jump into an excited state. These states are unstable, though, and our ions must quickly relax back to ground state. As we are going from a high-energy state to a low-energy state, some energy must be released (energy cannot be created or destroyed) and this takes the form of light. Each element has a unique set of energy levels, and thus a unique wavelength (colour) of light that it emits on relaxation. In this episode, Walt produces green and red flames which probably come from copper or barium and strontium.

For background information on this topic, see the primer on energy levels.

Thermal energy excites an electron; light is emitted on relaxation.

Thermal energy excites an electron; light is emitted on relaxation.


After Walt raids the school supply room (presumably he’s in charge of it, or someone would notice all the missing equipment), he reveals himself to be a glassware nerd by showing off his haul to a less-than-enthusiastic Jesse. He rattles off a Kjeldahl flask (a round-bottomed flask with a long neck to trap splashes when distilling), a Griffin beaker (in the UK, we just call these beakers; like a straight-walled jug without the handle), an Erlenmeyer flask (what we call conical flasks; a beaker with sloping walls and a narrow neck to allow swirling and trap splashes) and a large round-bottomed flask before Jesse shocks him back into teacher mode by saying that he cooks in a volumetric flask. Walt is suitably affronted – volumetric flasks are precisely calibrated to contain a known amount of liquid (you need to know this to work out the exact concentration of a solution), and heating them will change their shape (and therefore their volume) slightly, due to thermal expansion.

Crystal meth



Sensibly, we aren’t shown many specific details of how Walt and Jesse cook up their first batch of methamphetamine – but we can tell from the labels on the chemical containers that they’re converting ephedrine (a component of some decongestant medicines such as Primatene) using the red, white and blue process to hydrogenate (add hydrogen to) the -OH group. This will produce water (H2O), leaving the methamphetamine molecule behind.

Reduction of ephedrine using hydrogen iodide

Reduction of ephedrine using hydrogen iodide

Phosphine gas



With a couple of violent drug dealers breathing down his neck, Walt reverts to his Los Alamos days and creates a crude but effective chemical weapon. As he later explains to Jesse, phosphorous will form highly toxic phosphine (PH3; phosphorous trihydride, or phosphane) in the presence of heat and moisture (or any acid) – this is a real hazard in meth labs, as the process uses phosphorous to generate hydroiodic acid (HI) from iodine.

The jet of flame we see is probably due to the phosphane itself igniting (it is highly flammable as well as toxic), and the clouds of smoke would be the remaining phosphane reacting with the air to form phosphoric acid (H3PO4). This explains the chemical burns we see on Krazy-8′s exposed skin later on.

Elements in the credits

Breaking Bromine
Bad Barium
Created Chromium
Bryan Cranston Bromine
AnNa Gunn Sodium
AAron Paul Argon
DeaN Norris Nitrogen
Betsy Brandt Beryllium
RJ MitTe Tellurium
LynNe Willingham Neon
Robb Wilson King Tungsten
JOhn Toll Oxygen
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
SherrY Thomas Yttrium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
Karen Moore Molybdenum
Vince Gilligan Vanadium
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2 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Pilot

  1. [...] Weak Interactions: The Science of Breaking Bad 45.523452 -122.676207 Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponTumblrPinterestDiggLinkedInEmailRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted on September 23, 2012, in TV and tagged Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, pilot, review, season 1, Walter White. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment [...]

  2. […] to Research Awarded the Nobel Prize.” Fans of the show know that the citation refers to actual Nobel-prize winning research (which, again for fans, gives it a little glow of authenticity). But the series does not return to […]

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