No two shows on television burst the perceived bubble of scientific pretension like “Breaking Bad” and “MythBusters”; it's a dream team of the sort you might see in a Marvel comic, but not something you'd ever expect in the real world. Whatever comic book-style shenanigans occurred to get Vince Gilligan (“BB's" creator) and Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman) to visit Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman on this week's "MythBusters" special, we're grateful.
Two myths from Season 1 were taken on: Can hydrofluoric acid eat through a body, a bathtub, and then the entire floor (like in "BB's" second episode, “Cat's In the Bag...”)? And can mercury fulminate blow up a room (like in “Crazy Handful of Nothin'”) and leave one man standing?
To test the bathtub myth, the "MythBusters" team first breaks down a bathroom into its constituent elements (sawing little squares from the iron of the tub, the linoleum and wood of the floor, and a little pork to simulate the body) and subject it to hydrofluoric acid — with less than impressive results. They then amp it up with sulfuric acid and a “special sauce” (“because we're not actually in the business of showing people how to dispose of bodies,” says Hyneman) that turbocharges the acidic reaction.
They then head off to the middle of nowhere to test the wicked concoction. They build a bathroom, and with a hazmat team onsite — in case things start to look more like a “Breaking Bad” episode than everybody's comfortable with — they cover a slab of pig in six gallons of acid. And while it looks pretty cool on the thermal camera (“like hell in a bathtub”):
And there's a lot of activity:
In the end, the tub (to say nothing of the linoleum and the floor beneath) remains intact.
But wait! Gilligan says there were critical incorrect assumptions made. It wasn't six gallons of acid; it was enough to cover the body, so more like 20 gallons. And it wasn't a cast-iron bathtub. So it's back to the field with 36 gallons of acid, a fiberglass tub, and a whole heap more safety precautions.
The resulting inferno is spectacular. The acid quickly bubbles over the sides of the bath, and enormous clouds of gas spew up, obscuring nearby cameras. In five minutes, it's all over. The exothermic reaction has reduced the pig, like the bathroom from earlier, into its constituent elements. Only this time, instead of tiny squares, it's a reeking tub full of black goo.
However, though the floor is scorched, both it and the tub itself remain fully intact. So myth busted. But, in the immortal words of Adam Savage, “Any experiment that has a plume of smoke shooting up into the sky is, by definition, awesome.”
On to Myth 2! In Episode 6, Walt throws 50 grams of mercury fulminate on the ground, blowing out all the windows of dealer Tuco's hideout and incapacitating his henchmen. As the hero, of course, Walt is unharmed.
To test this myth, Grant, Kari, and Tory find a guy named Jesse who makes high-grade illicit chemicals in a trailer. Only this guy's name is Taylor, not Pinkman, and the chemical isn't meth, it's the dangerous explosive.
It actually looks like a grey powder, not the lovely blue crystals from the show, but Walt says in the show “fulminated mercury, with a little tweak of chemistry,” which is scriptwriter shorthand for “suspend your disbelief — it's a TV show.”
Here's what five grams of the stuff can do:
Promising, yes? So they build a “throwbot” to fling the stuff on the ground, along with a complete room to simulate the hideout. They calculate the speed that an ordinary guy could throw and set up pressure-sensitive burst disks to simulate injury. Then they take 50 grams of grey powder and… no explosion.
But wait! Ah, don't wait. As previously established, it's not about busting or not busting, it's about plumes of smoke shooting up into the sky. So they try it again after cranking up the throw speed, then just decide to set it off with blasting caps. 50 grams of mercury fulminate is a powerful explosion: There are some “injuries” to the burst disks, but the windows are still intact.
So they use five times the amount. Because SCIENCE! The results speak for themselves:
This brutal exposé of “Breaking Bad's" use of dramatic license will surely be the show's death knell. We predict it'll last another seven episodes, max.
- Jesse Pinkman
- Adam Savage
- Vince Gilligan
- hydrofluoric acid
- Jamie Hyneman