Courtesy of AMC
The changing image of the TV scientist.
At the start of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, Walter White angrily watches an inexperienced meth cook make his trademark blue meth. Walter is afraid that mob boss Gus Fring is going to kill him, so he desperately explains that Fring can’t make the “product” without him. When the amateur cook, Victor, says he knows every step of the process, Walter snarls, “So, please, tell me. Catalytic hydrogenation—is it protic or aprotic? Because I forget. And if our reduction is not stereospecific, then how can our product be enantiomerically pure?”
Walter’s scientific knowledge saves him. The ruthless Fring slits Victor’s throat with a box cutter.
Over the course of Breaking Bad, Walter unravels from a frustrated chemistry teacher to a brutal criminal. But no matter how horrible he gets, viewers can’t help but relate to and care about him. Much of this sense of connection comes from lead actor Bryan Cranston’s skillful portrayal of a troubled family man, but it was Breaking Bad creator and head writer Vince Gilligan who conceived the character. He imagined a scientist who is mad without turning him into a mad scientist.
Part of Walter’s appeal is he knows his science. “Vince tried to get the chemistry correct as much as he could, just to make it more believable,” says Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. As Breaking Bad’s science advisor, Nelson helped him achieve that goal. (Her favorite scene in the series is Walter’s sarcastic rejoinder to Victor.) Although they were careful to never give viewers the exact or complete recipe for meth, the chemical reactions are real, and if someone were to synthesize methamphetamine by altering other chemical’s structures, they would indeed want to make sure the end product is enantiomerically pure: The three-dimensional structure of methamphetamine works on the brain in a certain way to get you high, but the enantiomer, or mirror image, of the same molecule does not.
Scientists were smart and rational, but touched with a sense of evil and peril.
Breaking Bad is among a host of acclaimed shows in recent times with scientists as protagonists. Westworld, Orphan Black, Masters of Sex, CSI, Bones, House, The Big Bang Theory, and several others have all written scientists as diverse and complex humans who have almost nothing in common with the scientists I saw in the 1980s movies I watched as a kid. Gone is the lone genius with a shed full of goofy contraptions and bubbling liquids. Today’s fictional researchers work in realistic labs, with high-tech equipment, and in teams with others. Their dialogue is scattered with words from the latest scientific literature, and they have so much depth and personality that they carry entire shows.
The change in TV offers insight into the image and impact of scientists today, say communication scholars. Although recent headlines may have been dominated by people who bend scientific facts into the molds of their personal ideologies, surveys reveal a deep public esteem for scientists. Viewers now want and demand their scientists to be realistic, and what the viewer wants, Hollywood delivers. As a result, scientists on screen have evolved from stereotypes and villains to credible and positive characters, due in part to scientists themselves, anxious to be part of the action and the public’s education…