I rarely write about crime fiction, since most of it seems completely orthogonal to the phenomenon that I’ve spent a career studying. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, and the Brothers Coen are surely gifted filmmakers, but the hyperviolent worlds they create are pure fantasy — bearing about the same relation to the lived reality of crime as the average pornographic film bears to the lived reality of human sexuality. By confronting compelling characters with horrible moral choices, however, the best crime fiction can actually tell us something meaningful about human frailty, morality, and justice.
I think Breaking Bad succeeds on this level, though I still switch over to the Hallmark channel or America’s Cutest Pets during its ugliest moments. I have many questions about the show, but Joe Kleinschmidt’s Minnesota Daily article answered one of the biggies. Forget about the crime, how’s the chemistry? Mr. Kleinschmidt put the question to Bill Tolman, the straight-up brilliant Minnesota chemistry professor and department chair pictured above. I was surprised to learn that the show’s etch-a-sketch explosive might’ve actually worked and that the makeshift battery that Walter White constructs in the desert might indeed have started his stranded mobile meth lab:
Walt uses the RV’s brake pad for its mercuric oxide and graphite. This serves as the cathode, which gains electrons. He also gathers spare metallic parts, nuts and bolts, for the zinc they contain. The zinc serves as the anode, where the other electrochemical half-reaction occurs (loss of electrons). With potassium hydroxide solution leftover from their meth-making process serving as electrolyte (to conduct charge), Walt uses a sponge to separate the anode and cathode. Finally, he connects the cell components with copper wire and connects the parallel batteries to the RV’s jumper cables. “The only question now is, will this supply enough current?” Walt says in the episode, posing the only hang-up in his plan. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s the problem!’” Tolman said. But it worked. As Walt sets the batteries up and connects the wires, he creates a spark and the RV is revived. “It was a perfectly reasonable electrochemical cell using mercuric oxide and zinc,” Tolman said.
Of course, the show takes a few liberties — hastening a body’s dissolution in hydrofluoric acid, for example, and tossing around mercury fulminate like a bag of powdered sugar. All told, however, Breaking Bad does pretty well on the chemistry. As for its portrayal of drug markets, I’d have a few more quibbles…