The science of Breaking Bad: Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad : Season 2 : Episode 8: “Better Call Saul”

Walt and Jesse prepare for illegal activity.

Walt and Jesse prepare for illegal activity.

Just when Walt and Jesse think it’s safe to buy a money-counting machine, one of their dealers (or are they considered thoroughbreds now?) is nabbed by the cops. Time to call in the next essential component of a smooth-running drug operation, the criminal lawyer. In this post, I’ll be talking about Walt’s exam paper.

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

The midterm exam

Towards the end of the episode, just before Saul enters the classroom, it’s possible to sneak a look at the exam papers Walt is marking. This term’s topic is apparently physical chemistry (thermodynamics and the properties of gases).

A mass of air occupies a volume of 5.7 l at a pressure of 0.52 atm. What is the pressure if the same mass of air at the same temperature is transferred to a 2.0 l container?

This question is a straightforward application of Boyle’s Law, which states:

p_1 V_1 = p_2 V_2

\therefore p_2 = \dfrac {p_1 V_1}{V_2}

Hence:

0.52 \text { atm} * 5.7 \text { l} = p_2 * 2.0 \text { l}

\therefore p_2 = \dfrac {0.52 * 5.7}{2.0}

p_2 = 1.482 \text { atm}

The gas inside a piston was heated until the volume of gas had increased from 125 ml to 850 ml. If the temperature inside the piston was originally 15 °C, calculate the new temperature in °C. Pressure remains constant.

This time, we have a straightforward application of Charles’s Law, which states:

\dfrac {V_1}{T_1} = \dfrac {V_2}{T_2}

\therefore T_2 = \dfrac {T_1 V_2}{V_1}

The slight twist in this problem is that Charles’s Law, and indeed virtually all relationships in the sciences, require the temperature to be expressed as a thermodynamic temperature. This is an absolute temperature scale, measured in kelvins (K) where 0 K (absolute zero) represents the complete absence of any thermal energy. We can easily convert to the Celsius scale, as the scale divisions are identical and 0 K = -273.15 °C (hence 0 °C = 273.15 K).

Hence:

\dfrac {125 \text { ml}}{(15 + 273.15) \text { K}} = \dfrac {850 \text { ml}}{T_2}

\therefore T_2 =  \dfrac {288.15 * 850}{125}

T_2 = 1959.42 \text { K}

T_2 = 1686.27 \text { C}

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
BOb Odenkirk Oxygen
DJ QuAlls Aluminium
Krysten Ritter Krypton
MAtt Jones Astatine
Steven MicHael Quezada Hydrogen
Skip MAcDonald Actinium
Robb Wilson King Tungsten
MiChael Slovis No such element
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
SherrY Thomas Yttrium
Sam Catlin Calcium
StewArt A. Lyons Argon
Melissa Bernstein Beryllium
John ShiBan Barium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
Karen Moore Molybdenum
PeTer Gould Tellurium
TErry McDonough Erbium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

I’m not sure why Michael Slovis wasn’t assigned iodine (I), carbon (C), hydrogen (H), sulfur (S), oxygen (O) or vanadium (V).

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