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Chemical industry hooked on TV show "Breaking Bad"

Watching the success of AMC's "Breaking Bad" has been a guilty pleasure for the chemical industry.
/ Source: Reuters

Watching the success of AMC's "Breaking Bad" has been a guilty pleasure for the chemical industry.

It is a show that likes to wow audiences by explaining to them how a battery can be jury rigged with potassium hydroxide and spare change, and how hydrofluoric acid eats through bone but not plastic.

With an eye for the smallest technical details, "Breaking Bad" has made it cool to like chemistry again. That explains in part why chemical industry executives, academics and shareholders are addicted.

"It's great to see chemistry become cool again," said Ross Kozarsky, a chemical engineer by training who advises chemical and materials companies at Lux Research.

The show chronicles the downward spiral of Walter White, a 50-something high school chemistry teacher in the throes of a mid-life crisis who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

To leave a nest egg for his wife and two children, White, who is played by actor Bryan Cranston, uses his chemistry knowledge to make and sell methamphetamine, an addictive street drug also known as crystal meth.

"There's a lot of instances in the show where Walter White draws on his knowledge as a chemist, traditionally a nerdy profession, and applies them in kind of innovative and intimidating ways," Kozarsky said.

More than 1.6 million people watched the third-season finale in June 2010, solid numbers for any cable show.

White and cohort Jesse Pinkman, played by fellow Emmy winner Aaron Paul, return to cable's AMC at 10 p.m. ET this Sunday for the fourth season of "Breaking Bad," a title that evokes the crossing of a moral Rubicon.

"I put a premium on us getting the details right in every aspect of the show," said Vince Gilligan, the show's creator. "Chemistry is all about molecules and substances undergoing a change from one state into another."

Some members of the $674 billion U.S. chemical industry are cautious about professing their love for such a dark show. A senior executive at a major chemical producer raved privately about the show.

But the executive did not want to talk openly about "Breaking Bad," worrying that liking a show about crystal meth might not gel with the broader public.

For Donna Nelson, an adviser to "Breaking Bad" and an organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, the show does anything but make crystal meth look cool.

"I don't think it's glamorizing the drug industry at all, or that anybody would walk away from the show thinking, 'Yeah that's how I want to live,'" said Nelson, who has a cameo appearance in the fourth season as a nursing home aide.

Nor does "Breaking Bad" tell viewers how to make crystal meth. Different sequences of more than one process to make the drug are used in the show, Nelson said.

"It's like putting the head of the horse on the tail of a tiger," she said. "There's no way that anybody could follow what's on television and have an authentic synthesis."

What is does do, she said, is get more people excited about chemistry. Nelson organized a panel on science and television at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting last March.

When writers from "Breaking Bad" showed up to give the keynote speech, they met a standing-room-only crowd.

"For decades, chemists have been wringing our hands about how we could reach the general public," Nelson said. "Lo and behold, we get a prime-time television show."

Scott Goginsky, an investment adviser at the Biondo Group, which owns shares of chemical company DuPont, likes the attention that the show is bringing to the business.

"We obviously need more science and math workers in our economy," he said.

Making chemistry a secondary character in the show likely will attract some viewers to science careers and help others better appreciate it, Gilligan said.

"There's only one right answer in chemistry," he said. "In the world we live there's nothing but gray. There's messiness and there's no one right answer.

"I guess that's why I love the elegance and the certainty of chemistry."