The scientists behind The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad

Chemistry prof Donna Nelson makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad. The DEA makes sure you can’t learn to make it at home. (image: Radspunk via wikimedia commons)

Some scientists do outreach by visiting classrooms, tweeting, or writing blog posts. Others help make sure the science in TV shows and movies is accurate. Recent media coverage highlights the scientists behind the science shown on the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad:

The Big Bang Theory

NPR’s Neta Ulaby interviews UCLA physics professor David Saltzberg about his role as an adviser on the Big Bang Theory. Saltzberg gives the show’s producers advice on everything from whiteboard formulas to the appearance of a grad student’s apartment. He’s even gotten a joke on the show:

That happened in the very first season, when Sheldon and another scientist have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke: When one of the characters describes the fight as “a little misunderstanding,” Sheldon is furious. “A little misunderstanding?” he cries. “Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Breaking Bad

Over at Scientific American, Gary Stix interviews the scientist who makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad–University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson. It’s fascinating to read the lengths that Nelson went to in order to get the science right. For example, the show wanted to use an aluminum-mercury reducing agent since it would be the easiest option for the actors to pronounce. In order to figure out the yield from this particular reaction, she had to go back to her grad school roots:

That reagent turned out to be obscure, and I had to go to a German patent from the 1950s to get the information to make the calculation. Fortunately, when I was a graduate student, I had taken German. So I was able to get back to them and tell them the quantity of meth produced, in pounds. So it worked out, but it was a little trouble.

Before I knew that Nelson worked on Breaking Bad, I asked her to contribute her answers for a AAAS 5 Things About Me Post. Check it out to learn about her love of muscle cars and what she would bring to a desert island.

For more interesting meth related reading:

How Much Meth Does Your State Cook? These Maps Show the Drug’s Foothold In America (PolicyMic)

15 Maps That Show How Americans Use Drugs (Business Insider)


Updated clips page

M mammals
My daughter checking out the large mammals at the Harvard Natural History Museum

I’ve updated the clips page with my posts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science blogs from the last few months.

Here are my most recent posts, which are currently available to everyone (older posts are viewable if you are a AAAS member):

Career exploration resources for grad students and postdocs Driving Force May 22nd, 2013

A look at the NIH sequestration policies Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Is the ‘High Quality Research Act’ the antithesis of science? Capitol Connection May 20th, 2013

Help budding scientists–be a Science Buddy! AAAS Serves May 10th, 2013

The ‘irreproducibility’ problem Driving Force May 1st, 2013

Retractions, Exploring the Zooniverse, Spiders in Guam, and Crowdfunding

I have four recent posts up at the AAAS MemberCentral website:

Should a scientific journal article be retracted if its conclusions are wrong? 
When should a paper be retracted? Certainly if the results were fabricated but what if the results are wrong for other reasons? And what if the results are right but the conclusions are wrong?

Identify new galaxies, explore the deep oceans, and categorize bat calls with Zooniverse: Zooniverse lets citizen scientists analyze large datasets 
These projects are so awesome that sometimes I wish I were retired so I could be a citizen scientist (instead of a real one). In the time since I wrote this post, four new suns were discovered by ‘armchair astronomers’ working on one of the Zooniverse projects and Zooniverse launched a new project where people can classify cancer cells. You don’t need any scientific background to work on these projects, and you might discover something new and really fascinating.  Hat tip to Kyle Willett, a college friend of mine who is a postdoc working on the GalaxyZoo project, for introducing me to Zooniverse at his wedding.

In Guam, more snakes means fewer birds — and many spiders
This post looks at how an invasive species created a “natural experiment” for ecologists studying ecosystems in Guam.

Scientists experiment with a new way to fund their research
Ethan Perlstein really, really, really  wants you to help fund his meth lab.

Some thoughts on community outreach- AAAS MemberCentral post

Kellie Irwin teaches a student about sea life. (U.S. Navy photo)

In 2007 John Holdren, former AAAS president and current science adviser to President Obama, took scientists to task for their lack of community engagement. Holdren proposed that scientists dedicate ten percent of their professional time “to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition.” What are the factors that stop scientists (including me) from being more involved in community outreach activities? And how can we improve this?

Read the rest of my AAAS MemberCentral post here.