Breaking Bad : Season 1 : Episode 5: “Gray Matter”
Want a sneak preview of where your science degree will take you? Look elsewhere, as most of the attendees at Elliott’s birthday bash are urbane millionaires and in my experience absolutely nobody goes into science for the money. In this post, I’ll be talking about pseudoephedrine, Scientific American, molecular switches and synchrotron radiation.
In their first cooking session, Walt and Jesse had a handy supply of ephedrine hydrochloride to convert into methamphetamine. Now that this has been used up, Walt assumes it’s simply a matter of finding some more until Jesse brings him down to earth by pointing out that they have no “pseudo”. He’s referring to pseudoephedrine, a decongestant commonly found in cold relief medicine (such as Sudafed), which is
an enantiomer (non-superimposable mirror image) a diastereomer (see comments) of ephedrine that can be converted into methamphetamine just as easily.
For background information on this topic, see the primer on chirality.
Upon entering Elliott’s study, one of the first things Walt sees is a framed cover from Scientific American featuring Elliott and Gray Matter Technologies. Getting the cover story in such a widely-read and respected magazine is no mean feat, and, though it’s not up there with Science and Nature, Walt must have felt a pang for what might have been.
Personally, I prefer New Scientist for my lighter science news.
From the text on the Scientific American cover and article, Gray Matter Technologies has been making significant advances in the field of molecular switches. Simply put, a molecular switch is a lot like a mechanical switch – it has two (sometimes more) states, analogous to on and off, and will change state when the environment is changed.
This behaviour has huge implications for molecular computers (computers that operate on the molecular level using nanotechnology) – rather than building arrays or switches ourselves, where we are limited by the physical tools we can use, we can encode information and transmit data by switching certain molecules “on” (1) and “off” (0). Of course, this requires extremely precise environmental control (e.g. light, pH, temperature), which could well be where Elliott made his breakthrough(s).
As Walt joins the beige-clad scientific elite for drinks, he describes one of his contributions to another scientist’s research as simply informing him of synchrotron radiation. A synchrotron is a type of particle accelerator where subatomic particles (typically electrons) are moved in a circular path by magnetic fields and accelerated by electric fields at the same time. Careful management of these fields allows the particles to reach extremely high speeds (close to the speed of light in large installations).
When a charged particle is accelerated, it emits radiation. As a synchrotron is constantly pushing particles in a circular path, it is constantly accelerating them, and thus constantly producing radiation. This could be a problem in the past when synchrotrons were mostly designed to store particles and maintain their energy, but these days synchrotrons are often used specifically for this effect.
Synchrotron radiation is extremely intense, and may be tuned to almost any desired energy. This makes it ideal for crystallography, as it will deliver more information and a huge improvement in resolution. Of course, synchrotron radiation sources are large and expensive, so only the richest research groups or most crucial experiments get time on the machines.
Elements in the credits
|Robb Wilson King||Tungsten|