I really enjoyed AMC’s Breaking Bad.
As a chemistry teacher, let me share one of my favourite scenes.1 In broad strokes, Jesse (Pinkman), Gus and Mike are taken by the Mexican cartel to a secret lab south of the border to prepare a large quantity of Walter White’s secret recipe — read: high purity methamphetamine. It doesn’t take long for the cartel’s chemist to realize that Jesse doesn’t know the first thing about chemistry — he simply follows Walt’s instructions — dumbed down to something like, “Take the contents of barrel B and add it slowly to 2 kg of compound A in #2 reactor, heat it for 30 minutes at 50 ºC, stirring constantly.” When Jesse follows Walt’s instructions to the letter, he obtains a super-high quality product.
Rather than back down to the cartel man’s insults, Jesse says, “We’ll do it my way . . . the right way.” Jesse goes on to disparage the state of their dirty lab, while ordering everyone to join in the clean-up. A clean lab is, after all, a requirement, no matter what one is synthesizing.
I show this short clip to my grade 11s. We talk about Jesse’s hands-on methodology derived from recipe-driven chemistry, versus Walter’s brains-on approach. We discuss the importance of a clean lab. And I mention that we will work with proper technique.
That is, we’ll do it my way — the right way.
Call me old-fashioned, but good chemistry involves proper technique. When I was an undergrad in the late ’70s – early ’80s at UTSC,2 superb lab instructors like Lynda deGeer, Ann Verner, Janet Potter and Karen Henderson made sure that we did things their way… the right way. These dedicated educators showed us how to do things properly, which produced excellent results.
Chemistry-wise, I am molded in their image.
Here are a few of their highlights: using one’s thumb on the top of a volumetric pipet is verboten; titrations do not involve turning the stopcock of the buret like it’s a tap; filtering a precipitate properly is more complicated than it may seem.
In a day of short-cuts and quick fixes, we need to teach and demonstrate chemistry’s hard-won, often time-consuming or inconvenient — but proper — techniques.
- Season 4, episode 10.
- University of Toronto, Scarborough.