With a few shows that I watch regularly coming to an end (of their current seasons, at least) worryingly soon, I felt no small sense of relief when I was introduced to Breaking Bad – an AMC drama about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who turns to illegal drug synthesis as a way to provide for his family after he dies. While the series will undoubtedly explore such dark issues as venturing from the Albuquerque suburbs into the criminal underworld and the psychology of declining health, it also includes frequent references to the wonderful fields of the natural sciences.
Warning: Although I’m not as concerned with plot developments so much as science in these post and links, there will inevitably be some spoilers. If you’re planning on watching the series, consider ignoring this category until after you’ve seen each episode and check out IMDB or the A.V. Club for information and plot-related reviews.
It’s relatively rare that a scientist appears in a leading role on television (or even in film), and from the looks of the first couple of episodes Breaking Bad is set to break a few stereotypes (though perhaps not some public misconceptions). Over the next few weeks (as I work through season one and catch up to the current season) I’ll be posting my thoughts and explanations on the science introduced in the show, aimed at non-scientists. This will be my first foray into science communication, so as please feel free to send feedback and ask questions.
We’ll begin by taking a quick look at the opening credits. The camera takes us through a screensaver-like field of letters and numbers, made up of “C”, “H”, “N”, “C10H15N”, “149.24” and “meth”. The show revolves around the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine (commonly called meth or crystal meth), and, appropriately, these are all related to the chemical composition of the drug.
C10H15N is the molecular formula, meaning that a single molecule is made up of 10 atoms of carbon, 15 of hydrogen and 1 of nitrogen (note: this tells us nothing about the chemical structure, which is pictured above).
For background information on this topic, see the primer on molecular structure and composition.
149.24 is the relative molar mass (it’s actually 149.233), which tells us how “heavy” the molecule is relative to carbon-12. We can tell that 149.24 is the relative molar mass and not the molar mass due to the lack of units – the molar mass is 149.24 g mol-1, meaning that one mole of methamphetamine would weigh 149.24 g. These two quantities are used interchangeably in general chemistry, though formally they have different definitions.
For background information on this topic, see the primer on molar quantities.