Yeah, Science! – Breaking Bad on Mythbusters

It seems that the only time that I watch Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters is when they do a pop culture themed episode. They have to be doing something that particularly catches my fancy for me to take the time to DVR the show; while I appreciate what they are doing and recognize that it is an academically useful exercise, I’m just not that into what they do on a regular basis. I did well in science – I skipped a year ahead in middle school and I took AP Chemistry in high school – but I don’t particularly enjoy it like some people do.  Last year I made sure to tune in as they debunked the idea that Jack had to die at the end of Titanic. When I heard that they were doing an all Breaking Bad themed episode to coincide with the final episodes of the series, I knew that I had to watch. For a show that relies so heavily on science, would what happens on the show stand up to the scrutiny of the Mythbusters’ experiments?

For those of you that don’t watch Breaking Bad – and you should hang your head in shame as it is one of the best TV shows of all time – it tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher that turns to cooking crystal meth as a way to make enough money to support his family after he is diagnosed with cancer. He enlists the support of his former student and small time drug dealer/user Jesse Pinkman to assist him in this endeavor. The show chronicles his evolution from mild mannered man to a major player in the drug business; as the show’s creator Vince Gilligan is fond of saying, the arc of the show is taking “Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.” The show is beautifully shot, superbly acted and tells its story in such a compelling way that my heart is in my throat many times nearly every week. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are battling it out for the number 2 slot for my favorite shows in the history of television (if you don’t know what is number one, you must be new to the blog). If for some reason you aren’t watching the show, your assignment is to catch up with it ASAP – all seasons are currently streaming on Netflix. Listen to me – I am not steering your wrong. I’ve had more people thank me for turning them on to this show that almost any other. It’s spectacular.

The Mythbusters selected two famous incidents from the first season of Breaking Bad to test: Jesse and Walt’s bungled attempt to dispose of a body in a bathtub using hydrofluoric acid and Walt’s use of Mercury Fluorinate as an explosive that destroyed a room and let him escape from some bad guys unharmed. I was particularly interested in the first myth, not because I have need for the information on how to dispose of a body, but that scene in particular was when I knew that I was in love with the show. I was on board with Breaking Bad from the pilot – I’m one of the relatively few people who have been along for the entire run of the show instead of catching up with it – but seeing the bathtub full of acid come crashing through the floor of the house, spilling blood and goo everywhere, was the definitive moment when I understood that this was going to be one of my all-time favorite shows.

 

The Mercury Fluorinate was also a cool scene from episode 6 of Breaking Bad; Walt uses his knowledge of science to get him out of a bad situation with drug dealer Tuco. Walt knows that he can’t fight his way out of a situation, so he smuggled some mercury fluorinate into their meeting, disguising it as crystal meth. When Walt needs to make a hasty exit, he uses the mercury fluorinate to create a pretty impressive explosion:

 

The Mythbusters team started off small with both experiments – to test the bathtub scene, they used small amounts of hydrofluoric acid in various petri dishes and submerged samples of the materials that would have to be eaten away: metal, drywall, linoleum, wood cast iron (for the tub) and pig’s meat (to simulate human flesh). When they checked back, the results did not match up with what was portrayed on the show: while the drywall was a little soggy, the rest of the materials were a little altered but were nowhere near as disintegrated as they would have to be to cause a tub to fall through the celling or to properly dispose of the body. They tried the experiment on a large scale, but the same result occurred. After a discussion with creator Vince Gilligan, they tried some alternative materials for the tub and tried a different kind of acid; perhaps the show simply got the acid wrong, but the general principle right. Another chemical may be able to create the results as they appeared on the episode.

The team elected to use a combination of sulfuric acid and an unidentified “secret sauce” that would turbo charge the acid. They also upped the amount of the acid that was used, well beyond the amount depicted in the show. They also elected to use a fiberglass tub. These alterations did completely consume the pig, which became a disgusting liquefied mess, but didn’t eat through the tub or the floor. So while acid can be used to dispose of a body if used in the right combination and quantity, it will not eat through a tub and flooring. Sadly, myth busted.

The first issue for the mercury fluorinate challenge was that mercury, when fluorinated, doesn’t resemble the crystals of the show; instead, it is more of a powdery substance that could not be confused for crystal meth. The crew rigged up a set similar to the room on the show, with robots and dummies taking the place of the actors. They were interesting in if the mercury fluorinate would create an explosion that would blow the windows out of the room and injure the bad guys, but that would leave Walt relatively unharmed. The first run of the experiment did not explode the windows of the room or cause all that much destruction. The stand-ins for the actors were all harmed (including Walt) but probably more from inhaling the toxic fumes from the explosion in the poorly ventilated room.  Gilligan said that he always imagined that Walt used a little silver fulminate to help with the explosion. The test was run again, with the silver fulminate booster, but the same results occur. The team then uses a much larger amount of the mercury fluorinate/ silver fulminate mixture than was used in the show. The explosion this time is quite impressive and does in fact blow the windows off the room, but it also would have killed everyone in the room, including Walt. Myth busted.

I was a little disappointed that both of the myths that were examined were found to be improbable; for a show that has so much to do with science, I guess I kind of gave them the benefit of the doubt that what I was watching was at least scientifically plausible. However, I’m not sure that I want a television show providing a blueprint for disposing of bodies or blowing up rooms, so perhaps it is for the best that they took some liberties with the realism. Kudos to the writers and actors for making it all seem real and believable; it all seemed to make sense to me when I was watching it. In the end, I’d rather have a show that was dramatic and exciting even if it is implausible. A little creative license isn’t a bad thing and knowing that those scenes are not realistic doesn’t take away from my overall enjoyment of them. It just means that I need to come up with a new plan for getting rid of a body (I kid, I kid). Plus the episode of Mythbusters brought a little extra Aaron Paul into my life for the week, which is never a bad thing.

If you missed the episode last night, Discovery will be re-airing it throughout the week and it should be available eventually on demand. The episode is currently up on YouTube, but may eventually be pulled down for copyright issues. If you are a fan of the show, or even just a fan of science, it is worth taking a look.

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2 thoughts on “Yeah, Science! – Breaking Bad on Mythbusters

  1. Drew Dixon says:

    I’m guessing the ‘secret sauce’ was Hydrogen Peroxide. This produces something called Piranha solution.

  2. Bill says:

    It’s Mercury Fulminate (and it’s not fluorinated).

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