The science of Breaking Bad: Live Free or Die

Breaking Bad | Season 5 | Episode 1 | “Live Free or Die”

Walt embarks upon another sure-to-work-with-no-consequences scheme.

Walt embarks upon another sure-to-work-with-no-consequences scheme.

The most hotly-anticipated show since season four of Breaking Bad returned to our screens this week, with a classic flash-forward cold open. Things pick up right where they left off, with Walt scrambling to deal with the aftermath of his victory over Gus and Hank unwilling to drop the bone he’s been chewing on. What scientific escapades await? In this post, I’ll be talking about magnetism.

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

Random thoughts

Walt makes a reference to Boston’s Museum of Science, home of the world’s largest Van de Graaff generator.

Walt is buying a M60 machine gun in the cold open. It’s probably coincidence, but the inventor of the barrel gas expansion cutoff system used in the M60 was Joseph White.

“String theories and God particles” – our scrapyard owner apparently has plenty of time to bring himself up to date on theoretical and particle physics.

Magnetic escapades

The car-lifting crane at the scrapyard is essentially a movable electromagnet and generator. Walt’s plan is a pretty good one, assuming that the evidence room is above-ground and accessible by road (which it is). The owner’s security briefing is pretty thorough and completely warranted (Walt’s assertion that his glasses are “non-ferr” indicates that they are made of a non-ferrous metal, probably titanium, and will not be attracted to the magnet). The magnetic stripe on most credit cards will be irreversibly corrupted by a magnetic field, but most cards these days use smartcard chips and/or RFID, which may not work in the presence of a strong magnetic field but won’t be damaged by one.

21 12 V car batteries wired in series (which is effectively additive) is indeed 252 V. Adding a further series of 21 in parallel will keep the voltage at 252 V, but double the available current. Since the magnetic field generated by an electromagnet is proportional to the current, Walt is effectively doubling the strength of his magnetising weapon by insisting on more batteries.

A magnetic field won’t harm a laptop computer too much, but it is death to a hard drive (which stores data by magnetising parts of a disk). However, modern and expensive laptops may use a solid-state drive (Flash memory), which would be unaffected. It’s likely not going to be an issue, but it’s a significant risk if Gus kept backups on a USB stick or like to have the latest, quickest technology. Speaking of which, I’m not sure whether laptop frames contain much ferrous metal – perhaps Jesse’s laptop went flying due to the hard drive?

The LCD screens on Jesse’s laptop and the police computers wouldn’t be affected much by a magnetic field, but the computers would certainly shut down. I’m not sure whether the screen would “pixellate” out like we see or whether it’s just go blank like it’d been switched off.

When Walt cranks it up to eleven, I assume that the magnet is being attracted to steel rebar inside the concrete walls, pulling the vehicle over. The goings-on inside the police station might be slightly unrealistic (everyone still has their guns, for example), but don’t detract from it being fun television.

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
JonAthan Banks Astatine
ChristopHer Cousins Helium
Steven MicHael Quezada Hydrogen
Jim BeavEr Erbium
Larry Hankin Lanthanum
JB Blanc Boron
Skip MAcdonald Actinium
Mark FreeboRn Radon
Marshall AdAms Americium
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
Vince Gilligan Vanadium
MiChael Slovis Carbon

23 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Live Free or Die

  1. Vor Tex says:

    Thanks to you for this site. I had a problem with the “magnet” thing but like you said it is fun TV. And why were the guns carried by the policemen not affected? Good point.

    BTW Walt will get ID’d by the lady in the room adjoining Tio’s when he was standing on the ledge after planting the bomb I’ll betcha.

    Great site…again …thanks.

    • John says:

      When I have some time, I’ll try and figure out just how powerful the magnetic field generated by the car batteries was likely to be and whether it could have done what we saw. ;)

      Would Heisenberg get outed by an old lady? That would be a pretty fun twist (though they haven’t finished writing the rest of this season yet) – perhaps Walt wants that machine gun to go shoot up the nursing home. 8S

      • Vor Tex says:

        Heisenberg would not get outed by an old lady but Walt would. When their personalities merge the fireworks like matter and anti-matter will be explosive.

        Another thought I had was Hank will eventually find out that all the things that were done in the way of crime were the result of someone who had more that a basic fundamental knowledge of science. He will find out (and keep it to himself) that Walt is the bad guy, confronting him privately..I think it will be between Hank and Walt. Epic story of good confronting evil.

        BTW..I’m wondering what to make of the vial that Saul gave back to Walt. Was it the Ricin? Did Saul give the Lily of the Valley poison to Brock? He knew where Jessie lived and had access to his house more then Walt did. I just don’t see his character doing it however.

      • John says:

        Yeah, I actually thought the “Hank figures it out” story was going to show up last season, with Hank refusing to turn Walt in due to embarrassment and wanting to protect his career/family.

        The vial that Saul gave Walt was his ricin, yes. One of Saul’s hired goons lifted it off Jesse last season when he frisked him after Jesse came to see Saul (you can actually see him stuffing it into his pocket), which is why Saul was worried about “fingers like hot dogs” breaking it. The inference from the Brock-poisoning is that Walt did it using the plant by his pool, but we don’t see exactly how he did it.

    • Derek Edmondson says:

      Many police departments carry Glock semi-automatic pistols as a duty weapon. There Is very little ferrous metal integrated into this weapon. In fact 90% of the weight has been eliminated by replacing most of the parts with polymers.
      I don’t think that the guns would have flown out of their holsters, and the police might have noticed some effects only when they drew their weapons (I can’t remeber if/when they did)…however, for the same reason, I don’t think the laptop would have flown accros the room and the junk yard.

      Lastly, not to ruin the fun, but have you ever tried to erase a hard drive magnetically? It is really hard, especially if the laptop is turned off. I also think that an AC powered electromagnet would be a better choice, as that is what degaussers are. DC powered electromagnets don’ have a rapidly collapsing field that would ensure scrambling of all the 1s and 0s. Ok, ok, buzzkill over and out!
      But it really is fun TV!

      • Jareld Sp says:

        And the bullets??

      • Derek says:

        Well, the bullets are composed of brass casings (non-magnetic), or nickel plated brass casings (non-magnetic), a lead projectile (non-magnetic), or copper clad lead projectiles (non-magnetic), and a propellant mixture (non-magnetic).

  2. Vor Tex says:

    OK got it thanks. Hopefully they will get into how Walt was able to get the poison to Brock. The writers are very creative.

    Looking forward to your scientific take on the magnet’s ability to actually wipe a hard drive from 30-40 feet away.

    By the way I came upon a web site that has trivia points for each episode and it says that the next door neighbor that went into Walt’s house to check on the oven was in fact Vince Gilligan mom.

    If it’s not OK to show the link please remove it. I thought it was a very informative site. It even tells you who died and the cause of each death by episode. Sopranos’ and Deadwood have nothing on Breaking Bad.

    I also googled the Aztec that Walt drives…god what an ugly car. It was born from a committee.

  3. Ellis D. Tripp says:

    Doesn’t the magnetic flux from an electromagnet fall off with the square of the distance (inverse square law)? The 30-40 foot distance the laptop was yanked from Jesse’s hands seemed SERIOUSLY exaggerated to me. That was just a simple wirewound magnet, not a superconducting magnet like an MRI machine or similar.

    I found myself wondering exactly how they were controlling a DC magnet and DC power source using an AC variable transformer (variac)…

    • John says:

      Yes, it does; I assume that the pertinent thing is the electromagnetic force acting on the laptop (which decreases with the square of distance), which will be proportional to the flux density. I’ll see if I can do some calculations around how strong of a field the scrapyard magnet could generate.

      I believe that the device that Walt is using to control the magnet is an extremely old-school resistance dimmer, which is effectively a rheostat and would work on DC.

      • Ellis D. Tripp says:

        Device was DEFINITELY a variac. 0-240VAC output (you can read the graduations on the knob in one scene). Have an identical unit in my lab for testing high power electronics.

  4. Dave says:

    My issue with the science in this episode is the fact that many evidence rooms are faraday cages, and this would probably prevent the magnet from effecting anything inside (although I’m not sure if a really strong magnet like the one used might “over power” a faraday cage)

    • Ellis D. Tripp says:

      A Faraday cage will not work against a static (DC) magnetic field, just varying electromagnetic fields such as radio signals or powerline interference.

      The idea that adding an additional string of 21 batteries in parallel with the first set would double the strength of the magnet was incorrect, as well. The intensity of the field is proportional to the current through the windings, which is determined by the applied voltage and the resistance of the windings. Adding an additional set of batteries in parallel will not increase the voltage, so the current through the magnet (and the field strength) would not change.

      What the bigger battery bank would do is to increase the amount of time the magnet can operate for. Double the amp-hours, double the runtime.

    • John says:

      A Faraday cage doesn’t work against static or low-frequency magnetic fields (such as the Earth’s magnetic field), but it’s possible to build magnetically-shielded rooms using something like Permalloy. I’d guess that a magnetic attack against a police evidence room is considered unlikely enough that effective shielding would be prohibitively expensive.

      Regular electromagnets tend to operate at low frequencies, and since Walt is operating his magnet from a DC power source I’d assume that the field will be more or less static at each power (current) level.

  5. Vor Tex says:

    Can the EM force produced by the electromagnet (based on how it was set up in the show) overcome any electrical field produced by a Faraday cage constructed under normal operational circumstances?

    On another topic:
    I wish there was a forensic coroner who can explain why only a portion of Gus’s head and a fraction of his shoulder went missing after the explosion at the end of season 4. The CSI team in Nevada would have a hard time explaining at the moment of detonation when Gus was up from his chair, mouth open (knowing he would soon be toast) both arms raised, yet he was able to straighten his tie with both hands. It was great TV and clearly a WTF moment but the forensics don’t work.

    • John says:

      The electromagnet shouldn’t be producing an electromagnetic field, just a magnetic one. In any case, a “regular” Faraday cage would probably nullify the electric component but not the magnetic one.

      Re: Gus’s injuries, I wrote that one off as Walt being inexperienced at making pipe bombs. ;)

  6. I remember seeing something about a regular hard drive operating with a pair of 1 Tesla (huge) electromagnets next to them.

    Science doesn’t work, cool TV thou.

    • John says:

      Link, or it didn’t happen. ;) Seems at odds with degaussers (magnetic field generators) being used to erase magnetic storage media, so I’d be interested to hear how it was done.

  7. FAKE says:

    what about the vehicle they use to carry the magnet? would all of the metal parts of the vehicle not shift and cause the vehicle to become immobile?

    • John says:

      This is sort of dealt with in the scrapyard when we see the vehicle tilt and hear the owner warn about the driveshaft – presumably so long as you don’t have to drive the van with the magnet on then you’re OK. Something might have gotten bent out of shape eventually, but seeing as they had to abandon the van anyway it didn’t become an issue.

  8. FAKE says:

    seems legit, thanks

  9. FAKE says:

    after reviewing the scrapyard scene, the fact that the laptop was pulled with such force from a substantial distance compared to the distance of the car’s mechanism’s to the magnet.. the dated metal in the engine would definitely have been sharply pulled with force enough to bend it. they should have just done a magnet test without the vehicle attached in the scrap yard and mentioned that once it is activated in the vehicle during the mission, the vehicle will be immobilized.

  10. […] so it was that we found ourselves walking into Boston’s magnificent Museum of Science (mentioned by name in Breaking Bad) – for free — on a gorgeous Saturday in […]

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