The science of Breaking Bad: Gray Matter

Breaking Bad : Season 1 : Episode 5: “Gray Matter”

Jesse in the mobile lab.

Jesse in the mobile lab.

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.

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




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.

Scientific American

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.

Molecular switches

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.

Stilbene - a simple molecular switch

Stilbene - a simple molecular switch

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).

Synchrotron radiation

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

Breaking Bromine
Bad Barium
Created Chromium
Bryan Cranston Bromine
AnNa Gunn Sodium
AAron Paul Argon
DeaN Norris Nitrogen
Betsy Brandt Beryllium
RJ MitTe Tellurium
Adam GOdley Oxygen
Jessica Hecht Helium
Matt JoNes Neon
KelleY Dixon Yttrium
Robb Wilson King Tungsten
Rey Villalobos Rhenium
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
SherrY Thomas Yttrium
Melissa Bernstein Beryllium
StewArt Lyons Argon
Patty Lin Protactinium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
Karen Moore Molybdenum
Tricia BrocK Potassium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

9 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Gray Matter

  1. snoopie says:

    Pseudoephedrine is not the enantiomer of ephedrine, only a diastereomer because the configuration on the C1 is the same (S) in both molecules. Only the configuration of the C2 changes from (S) in pseudoephedrine to (R) in ephedrine.

    • John says:

      Yep, good catch – easy to forget the other chiral centre. I’ll update the post accordingly.

      Interestingly, the enantiomer of pseudoephedrine is actually pseudoephedrine! Both (R,R) and (S,S) are considered pseudoephedrine, while (R,S) and (S,R) are considered ephedrine.

  2. Josh Lipton-Duffin says:

    Synchrotrons aren’t reserved exclusively for rich research groups. Applications are called for (usually biannually) and proposals get rated by a committee based largely on the quality of the proposed science and the feasibility of the measurements. If the application is successful, the applicants are awarded the requested beamtime at basically no charge if they are academics (industry users are expected to pay). The only associated costs pertain to transportation of the researchers and their equipment to the synchrotron source. The correlation between a large budget and successful science doesn’t imply causation.

    Love the blog, thanks for all the posts.

    • TH Yo says:

      Of course, synchrotrons aren’t reserved exclusively for rich research groups.

      Sometimes the big boys, from the charity in their hearts, allow others to use them, if they win their oh so open lotteries and kiss their asses accordingly.

  3. When I went to take my ACS exam in organic chemistry, I was joking that I wanted to channel my inner Walter White…and then the comparison of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine was actually on the test. Diastereomers, for sure.

  4. Also, is that molecular switch thing you are talking about the same thing that happens in cells for vision? The cis to trans (or vice versa, can’t remember) switch in retinal?

    • John says:

      Yes, that happens in phototransduction with 11-cis-retinal converting to 11-trans retinal and back again. I still think it’s pretty amazing that we can work that out!

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