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The Science of Breaking Bad - Dave Trumbore and Donna Nelson ***

At first sight I'm probably not the best person to review this book as I have never watched Breaking Bad (apart from repeatedly seeing bits of episode 2 when I played it more than 50 times while battery testing laptops) and have no desire to do so. However, I am very interested in how fiction portrays science and the claim this book makes is that Breaking Bad was uniquely impressive in the amount of real science it contained.

The format of the book is more than a little odd. One of the contributors, Donna Nelson, is a chemistry professor who responded to a call for a science consultant to the show. Each chapter starts with a section of reminiscence from Nelson about the joys and tribulations of the role. That's fine and often gives interesting insights, but for some reason it's printed in tiny text, significantly smaller than the rest of the book. I think the idea is to make it look like an email, but it just makes it hard to read. I remember chatting to a physicist who had just been science consultant on a science fiction movie and he was full of the production team's enthusiasm for science - but the movie was later slated for terrible science content. Nelson seems similarly beguiled by Hollywood and perhaps is a little too starstruck not to over compliment the production team for their dedication to science.

We then get two versions of an explanation from science writer Dave Trumbore of the Breaking Bad science on a particular topic, often focussing on one or two episodes. The first version is a high-level summary, labelled '101' after the odd US way of denoting basic university courses, and the other is 'Advanced'. These are well written and can be quite interesting - for example in the discussion of explosives and of producing a DIY battery. Although Trumbore probably gives the Breaking Bad people more credit than they deserve for being accurate, he is careful to point out where the demands of good storytelling or filming were reasonably thought to outweigh the requirement for scientific accuracy. I did feel, though, that some sections - for example the ones dealing with medical conditions from psychology to oncology - were just there to fill things out and weren't really about the presentation of science in the show.

Overall, despite the odd format, it's quite a good example of the 'science of...' genre. Though not as interesting as, say The Science of Middle Earth (which inevitably was a considerably harder task for the writer), it puts across quite a lot on that under-represented science chemistry - and though occasionally there was a little too much detail for this kind of book, it was generally well presented by Trumbore. There was too much obsession with the drug that was central to the storyline - the reverence the writers of the book had for the TV show occasionally verged on the sickly, and this particularly came across in the word count given over to the creation of the drug.

Realistically, few others will try reading this just for the science content. It will be read by fans of the show - the kind of people who watch the DVD again with the commentary switched on (I don't know if Breaking Bad has this, but other shows with cult followings do) - and such readers will certainly enjoy picking over the fine details of what happened in particular episodes, even if some of the heavier science points perhaps don't interest them. A good effort.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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