The science of Breaking Bad: Bullet Points

Breaking Bad | Season 4 | Episode 4 | “Bullet Points”

Walt alone in the Chemistrycave - perhaps permanently.

Walt alone in the Chemistrycave - perhaps permanently.

Walt and Skyler conspire to tell their family that they suddenly have millions of dollars (inadvertently leading Walt to discover just how close Hank is to cracking the Heisenberg case), while Jesse finds himself on the wrong side of the ever-cautious Gus. In this post, I’ll be talking about the goodies in Gale’s laboratory notebook.

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

Random thoughts

Hank correctly identifies rhodonite as a manganese inosilicate, while Walt rattles off manganese‘s oxidation states (-3 to +7, with +2 being the most common). The oxidation state indicates the degree of oxidation (number of electrons lost or gained) of an atom, and is determined by applying a set of rules to do with atoms’ electron-attracting properties.

Gale’s lab notes

Gale keeps the cleanest, neatest notebook ever (Hank only has a photocopy, but the original has clearly never been near a working laboratory). Perhaps it’s a hand-copied compendium of his plans and schemes.

Walt Whitman‘s When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer – required reading for most scientists – appears several times in the notebook (at least, in the parts that we are able to see). Gale clearly had a minor obsession with it.

The Chinese characters that we can see look like 滿場飛 (mǎn chǎng fēi), which Google tells me translates as flying over the court (or if you fly less in Japanese). I have no idea as to the accuracy of those translations, nor as to the significance of the characters. Update August 10th: Commenter David points out that this is the name of the song playing when Gale was shot by Jesse. Great catch!

The reaction diagrams we (briefly) see look to be part of a compilation of final steps in a cooking process – Gale was probably working backwards to see what materials could potentially be used to make methamphetamine. First up, we have what appears to be a decarbonylation:

Decarbonylation to methamphetamine.

Decarbonylation to methamphetamine.

I think that there might be something missing from this reaction – decarbonylations typically involve complex ion catalysts, and it’s usually better to avoid breaking a carbon-carbon bond. Reaction with an acid such as HCl would probably produce an alcohol; with the addition of zinc amalgam (Zn-Hg), we would have a Clemmensen reduction. Next, we have Gale’s version of the red, white and blue process:

Gale's red, white and blue process.

Gale's red, white and blue process.

It’s essentially the same method that Walt and Jesse used way back in season one (Pilot). Next, Gale tries a Birch reduction:

A Birch reduction to methamphetamine.

A Birch reduction to methamphetamine.

The Birch reduction is an extremely fun experiment to carry out, as it involves dissolving a metal such as sodium or lithium in liquid ammonia (to give an intense blue colour, caused by free electrons). Its deployment seems a little excessive given that Gale is only trying to remove an oxygen atom, but scientists should be thorough and the chemicals required are not highly restricted. Finally, we have a chlorination followed by some kind of catalytic reduction:

Chlorination to a haloalkane, followed by dechlorination.

Chlorination to a haloalkane, followed by dechlorination.

Thionyl chloride (SOCl2) and phosphoryl chloride (POCl3) are often used to halogenate alcohols to give haloalkanes, which are highly reactive. I’m not sure what the PdAl2 is for, as removing the chlorine should be a relatively simple step and such an expensive catalyst would not be necessary.

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
Giancarlo Esposito Einsteinium
JonAthan Banks Astatine
David Costabile Cobalt
JEremy Howard Erbium
Kelley Dixon Potassium
Mark FreeboRn Radon
MiChael Slovis Carbon
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
Sherry Thomas Thorium
BrYan Cranston Yttrium
Diane MerCer Cerium
Moira Walley-Beckett Molybdenum
Thomas SchnAuz Gold
George Mastras Germanium
PeTer Gould Tellurium
Sam Catlin Calcium
Melissa Bernstein Beryllium
MicHelle MacLaren Helium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
StewArt A. Lyons Argon
Moira Walley-Bekcett Tungsten
Colin BuckSey Selenium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

2 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Bullet Points

  1. David says:

    滿場飛 is the name of the Chinese song that Gale was listening to when he got shot by Jesse.

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