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Donna Nelson

A Conversation With Breaking Bad’s Science Advisor

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Donna Nelson

For five seasons, Breaking Badass Walter White has made a habit of believing that he’s the smartest guy in the room. But even Walt wouldn’t stand a chance against Dr. Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma who has volunteered her expertise as a science advisor to Vince Gilligan since midway through the series’ first season. 

In the days leading up to Breaking Bad’s final—and we can only imagine pulse-pounding—sendoff, we chatted up the Oklahoma native about bad science, her work on the series, and how Walter White has inspired a new generation of scientists (in a good way).

Spoiler alert: Dr. Nelson has not seen the final episode, so she has no spoilers. No matter how many (unauthorized) lifetime subscriptions to mental_floss I may have offered.

You’ve long been a proponent of promoting scientific accuracy in the entertainment industry. When it comes to bad science, which films or TV shows are some of the worst offenders?
I don’t think that I would be happy to point anybody out; I might make a lot of enemies. I would say that things are getting better. It used to be, in many old movies, that you’d have a rocket going from Earth to Mars and they would show it flying through space. The rocket would be going from left to right across the screen, and the smoke coming out of the rocket would be going up—instead of behind—the rocket, showing that the whole thing was being done in the Earth’s gravity. A lot of these things are just funny to me. If you’re a scientist, you just groan; it’s like nails on the blackboard. 

It must be a very different experience watching certain movies or shows from a scientist’s perspective.
I don’t think there’s any popular show that gets it 100 percent right, but that’s not the goal. The goal is not to be a science education show; the goal is to be a popular show. And so there’s always going to be some creative license taken, because they want to make the show interesting.

In the case of Walter White, his trademark is the blue meth. In reality, it wouldn’t be blue; it would be colorless. But this isn’t a science education show. It’s a fantasy. And Vince Gilligan did a fantastic job of getting most of the science right. And I am just thrilled with that. I think Vince Gilligan is a genius, and you can quote me on that!

How did your involvement with Breaking Bad come about?
I’m a member of the American Chemical Society, which has a trade magazine called Chemical & Engineering News. And that magazine interviewed Vince Gilligan during season one, it was maybe after five episodes, and in that interview Gilligan said, “I really want to get the science right.” Vince is really interested in science, but he didn’t have a formal science background. He said that he would appreciate constructive remarks from a chemically-inclined audience, and when I read that I thought: This is what we’ve been waiting for! A Hollywood producer who says he wants help and he really wants to get the science right. This is fantastic.

Then I thought: Oh my god, but look at the subject. This is illegal meth production! I don’t want anything to do with that.

But I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I watched the first five episodes and realized that the show doesn’t glorify meth production, and it doesn’t glorify the drug culture. I don’t think that young kids would be enticed into doing illegal activities when they see all the horrible things that happen to Walt. I mean he gets shot at and stabbed and beat up and dragged through the sand in his underwear—all sorts of things. He has a horrible, horrible life, so I just couldn’t see kids watching that and thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I want to grow up to be.”

So I told the editor: Vince is saying he wants assistance; let’s see if he really does. Can you contact him and tell him I’d like to volunteer. And they did. And he got back in touch with me. 

What does being a science advisor on the show entail?
I just try to do anything that they ask. Initially, I went out to Burbank and they asked me all sorts of questions. They were still at a point where they trying to build Walt’s character, so they asked me: What makes a person become a scientist? What makes a student enter science? What makes someone leave science? What makes a person persist all the way through and get a PhD and then become a high school teacher instead of a professor like you? What makes a person leave science? Are there any characteristics that all scientists have?

I had taken my son with me, who is a chemical engineer, and they even asked him some questions. I didn’t think of it as an interview, but I guess it was, because they asked, “If we contact you in the future, would you be willing to answer our questions?” And I said sure! Later, they would email script pages for me to proof or they would phone if something was particularly urgent. So I would answer questions or do calculations or do drawings to go on the blackboard—I did all sorts of things like that.

What’s the most memorable instance of a scene you reviewed and suggested be changed?
I tried to change as few words as possible, because there are stories of a science advisor getting too heavy-handed and just alienating the writers. The writers know how to make a script popular; the science advisor knows how to get it correct. If it was dialogue, I would try to keep the cadence that they had. And I also tried to get it back to them really fast, because I knew they were always on a time deadline. So we got along really well.

One of my favorite [scenes] is where Walter is talking to Gus Fring and he’s essentially saying, “You need me!” He’s touting his knowledge of science. “And by the way, does the reaction destroy the chirality of carbon one or is it carbon two? My knowledge of chemistry makes me very valuable to you.” He’s being very forceful about his importance there. And I think that that is really a good representation of how important science is, because a lot of people in our society don’t understand that everything—from their food to the fabric of the clothes that they wear, their car parts, the carpeting in their house, the paint on their ceiling—comes from chemistry. Chemistry has benefited our lives so much and a lot of times people don’t think about this. They just take it for granted. Not everybody, but a lot of people just don’t think about it. And so I think that scene is a really good one, especially the way [Bryan Cranston] played it.

Do you watch the show as it airs each week?
Oh yes, I’ve seen every single episode of the show.

How has advising the show changed your experience as a viewer?
Their criteria are entirely different from the criteria that I use in my research lab a lot of times. And so I think any time you stretch and step outside of your own world, it helps in terms of your creativity. It has certainly made me think about things in ways that I never would have before.

For example, there was a scene where Walter and Jesse are looking for a gallon container of methylamine and all they find are 30-gallon drums. So they emailed me and asked, “How much meth could be made from 30 gallons of methylamine in pounds using the P2P method?” And I just thought that was hilarious, because in our lab we minimize the volume of everything—take 10 drops of this, add two drops of that, etc.—because we want to minimize the cost, we want to maximize the safety, we want to minimize the disposal costs of anything we produce, because it’s research. I’ve never used 30 gallons of anything! Discussing illicit drug synthesis just isn’t something I do with students. All of our calculations are done in grams, not pounds. So I had to pause and laugh at that for a while.

I asked Vince if he wanted it to be really accurate or just a ballpark figure and he said he wanted it really accurate. In the P2P method, there are two steps: the first step is fixed, but in the second step I could use one of several different reducing agents. He asked me to send him a list of them, which I did, and most of them were difficult to pronounce. But one of them was simply aluminum mercury. And he said, “That’s the one we want to use, because it will be much easier for the actors to say.” I thought that was hilarious, because I selected these agents based on cost, safety, percent yield, and purity, but never on how easy it was to speak the name of the reducing agent. So it’s looking at things from a totally different perspective, which I think made me a more creative person.

What’s the one subject you would have never imagined yourself researching before Breaking Bad came along?
The amount of meth produced from 30 gallons of methylamine! (Laughs) I still marvel at that. That is just so far away from anything I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve tried very hard to shut down any conversations with students about illegal activities, because I don’t want to give the impression that I would be involved or even interested in something like that. That was really outside the boundaries for me.

Your work on the show has to have made you one of the university’s most popular professors. Do you think the show has changed the perception of science for its younger viewers or stimulated a further interest in pursuing scientific studies?
I absolutely do. There’s just no doubt about it based on what I’ve seen. You can look at these blogs that are up about the show and you’ll see kids arguing about the details of the chemical reactions or details of the science that I wouldn’t have even thought about and I think: Those kids are going to be future scientists. They’re so hooked on science; it’s really thrilling.

What I see all the time is that people who have been watching Breaking Bad talk to someone who hasn’t been watching and say, “You’ve got to tune in. It’s a fantastic show.” So every time someone who is not being regularly exposed to science steps in and takes a look at science, that’s an opportunity to win them over. And that’s exactly what we need. It’s popularizing science.

What about the importance of scientific accuracy in Hollywood in general? Do you think that Breaking Bad has upped the ante in terms of future series and movies really striving to “get it right?”
Some producers will be interested in that and some of them won’t. I think it will help, and that’s something that scientists really appreciate. I think that Vince Gilligan has set a really wonderful example, because before this it was actually said, “You can’t have a blockbuster hit and have accurate science, too.” Vince has disproved that myth.

I have to know: Have you read any part of the final script?
No. That’s under super secrecy. I don’t know how it ends. I’m just as much in the dark as everybody else. And I’m just as excited about it as everybody else, too. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]