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In Breaking Bad, a high school teacher, Walter White produced 99.9% purity blue crystal methamphetamine. Now is that something only a true genius is capable of doing or is any talented/average high school chemistry teacher capable of doing so?

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As far as I remember, the producers chose to use a blue product to differenciate from actual meth. – Olivier Grégoire Feb 3 at 12:25
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I would say that Jesse was a good learner and had patience when he needed to, just recall his wood work. – eYe Feb 3 at 16:37
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@eYe This would be a good question for chemistry.stackexchange.com. – tjt263 Feb 3 at 16:48
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@cst1992 Hey, I don't understand you. The question is does meth imply chemistry genius. Jesse makes meth but is not a chemistry genius. I doubt he would be able to pick up chemistry concepts fast if he were to learn them in school or at (legal) work. Jesse might be a meth cooking genius but not a chemistry genius. Saying Jesse is a chemistry genius for that reason is like saying Warren Buffett is a math genius. – Jack Bauer Feb 4 at 4:09
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No, he's not a chemistry genius, as said by Benicio Fuentes(the cartel master chemist) and himself(when he's unable to make the phenylacetic acid, which is possible to make by any sophomore chemistry student). He's just gotten good at making meth, as he's trained by Walt and is adept at using Walt's formula. – cst1992 Feb 12 at 5:57
up vote 34 down vote accepted

To answer this, we need to look at how accurate Breaking Bad's depiction of cooking actually is. The show relied on Donna Nelson, a Professor Chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. She was the science advisor and gave input to the show's creators. She told NPR:

You know, there are multiple ways to make meth. And so although his scenes are very accurate, he will sort of (unintelligible) together parts of different syntheses, so that if you just simply followed the one synthesis as it's presented, you wouldn't come out with methamphetamine.

In other words, the process Breaking Bad shows is accurate, but is modified or obscured in some key areas so that this can't be followed by wannabe meth cooks.

So next, who could actually produce it, in the real world.

Vice has a very in-depth article with Jason Wallach, a real life chemist who spent over seven years studying organic chemistry. He states:

When it comes to making meth, the difference between cooking and synthesis should be acknowledged. In the same manner anyone can learn how to cook a fancy meal, anyone can be taught to cook meth regardless of chemistry education – cooking meth may be just a little more explosive. In fact, cooking meth can be extremely dangerous because a lack of chemical knowledge puts the cook (and anyone else nearby) at serious risk of injury. As Gus’s assistant Victor in “Box Cutter” (S.4E.1) states, “It’s called a cook, because everything comes down to following a recipe.”

However, he also notes:

These are important points that someone just following a recipe may not be able to deal with. A skilled chemist like Walt understands the chemistry allowing him to alter or adapt the synthesis as necessary.

So to your question:
Does producing blue meth make Walter a chemistry genius?
The answer appears to be no, it does not make him a genius.

Another example of this fact can be seen from this Daily Mirror article, which shows a clever university professor setting his students a Breaking Bad chemistry exam paper, to explain how the meth was synthesised.

So ultimately, two things seem likely:
1. Creating meth does not make one a chemistry genius.
2. Following a recipe doesn't even require chemistry qualifications or knowledge - it just makes it more dangerous as common safety procedures may be overlooked.

However, although I hope this answers the title of your question, in the body of your question you asked something slightly different:

Would it take a genius to produce 99.9% pure meth?

Well, incredibly the answer to that might be no based on the fact quite recently 99% proof meth was found. In 2013, it was reported that five men involved in a North Korean drug ring had produced meth over 99% pure. This was published by Al Jazeera, who commented:

That crystal meth was later seized by law enforcement, tested and found to be more than 99 percent pure — purer than the infamously high-quality meth cooked by Walter White, the fictional teacher-turned-drug-lord in the popular TV series "Breaking Bad."

Business Insider questioned how this was possible, suggesting:

One reason North Korea may be so good at producing it is physical necessity. The Hermit Kingdom is notoriously isolated from any kind of official trade and is rife with starvation and disease.

“It does seem like [meth use] very widespread in North Korea. It wasn’t viewed as an illicit drug, but more as just a kind of medicine,” Isaac Stone Fish, an associate editor at the Foreign Policy, told Al Jazeera. “It’s also an appetite suppressant in a country where malnutrition is very common.”

Now, whilst North Korea is historically a very secretive country, it seems unlikely that they have Nobel prize winning chemists who are hiding within the country, given their lack of access to so much of the information the rest of the world has.

Therefore, I'd conclude that you do not need to be a genius to produce this level of perfection in meth.

Edit:

Note: Walter White is clearly a genius, and this is demonstrated in universe on a number of occasions (not least than by his Nobel Prize win). However, whilst he's a genius, I believe the out of universe evidence shows that it doesn't take a genius to do what he did.

For example, several sources (such as here and here) note that the formula he follows would actually produce meth less than 50% pure. Of course, in the show's reality, it is conveyed that his techniques are incredible and result in the wonderful blue meth we see. In reality, 99% meth would not even be blue, as the two articles above allude to.

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I disagree on both points. (1) Walter was a chemistry genius not because he followed the recipe for meth, but because he made the recipe. Only the genius can do that. (2) With NK, they may not have any Nobel Prize winners, but they have a lot of people trying basically every combination out there. Its the same with their hacking - they don't have the greatest comp sci minds in the world come up with their hacks, they just put an absurdly large amount resources into it relative to what they have. – David Grinberg Feb 2 at 15:16
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@DavidGrinberg: I'm not sure you're disagreeing with me. I agreed for point 1 that anyone can cook, which is what the question asked ("does producing blue meth make Walter a chemistry genius"). So cooking doesn't make him a genius. His own "variations" are what, in universe, make him a genius - but this wasn't the question. And for point 2, although they try multiple combinations, that doesn't make them geniuses, just like a crossword puzzle solver who tries every possible combination of words isn't a genius - just a brute forcer. – Andrew Martin Feb 2 at 15:19
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I will edit my answer to make point 1 clearer. – Andrew Martin Feb 2 at 15:20
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@AndrewMartin I agree, which goes along with your point that you do not need to be a genius or a Nobel-level chemist, just smart. So I am actually trying to say I agree with your answer, even if I am nitpicking one detail. – Snowman Feb 2 at 16:20
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@stannius: It is, but I deliberately ignored that, as the highest purity Walt ever cooks is actually 99.1%. I'm not sure where the 99.9% figure came from, but it's not canon. – Andrew Martin Feb 2 at 21:01

Any competent chemist could probably do it, but there aren't that many in the business

There are a few issues with the way the show portrayed the meth synthesis. One is that pure meth isn't blue nor do any of the routes used by White and Pinkman pharmaceuticals create blue impurities. So the colour is merely a plot device to highlight the fact that their product is particularly good compared to the generally available meth in the black market.

What matters here is the fact that most meth is very impure as it is produced by amateurs, badly. Walter White adopts an unusual level of professionalism (but not genius) to the process creating a better product. He does this because he recognises the opportunity to do better than the sloppy amateurs he sees in the backstreet lab during his bother-in-law's drug raid; he also puts some professional pride into doing the process well.

Chemically speaking meth isn't that hard to make. However, it may be hard to make without getting caught given the restrictions placed by the authorities on the raw materials required. White is clever several times in finding ways round these issues based on his knowledge of chemistry.

Meth is also hard to make safely as many of the ingredients are poisonous, corrosive or flammable (depending on the specific route). again, though, these are problems that competent chemists deal with every day so no genius is required.

Another issue where some ingenuity is useful is concealment. Some of the reactions (such as the first one used in the show) create a lot of visible and nasty by products (such as the nasty fumes emitted from the van in the first couple of episodes). This is why amateur meth cooks operate best in places where it is possible to get a long way away from being observed. In later episodes White uses his knowledge of chemical apparatus to design labs where there is little external evidence of his activity. Again, though, this is basic synthetic chemistry and not genius-level knowledge.

Another issue with the purity that the show mentions but glosses over is that the active ingredient in meth is chiral (which means the molecule exists in two mirror-image forms) but most syntheses create a mixture of both mirror images only one of which is active. White knows this as he mentions it in one episode, but the show never shows anything that resolves how he gets the pure mirror-image active product. This has been the subject of speculation on chemistry.SE in this question: http://chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/7489/how-does-walter-white-make-pure-crystal-meth-using-a-non-stereospecific-reaction

Whatever the answer, White doesn't need to be a genius, just a competent careful chemist. As for how he turns his knowledge into a successful (illegal) business, perhaps that does require some dark genius especially when he has to dispose of his enemies.

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I'm not sure if "bother-in-law" was intended, but I like it. – IllusiveBrian Feb 2 at 15:42
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@Namfuak Freudian slip perhaps? It was a typo but perhaps I'll leave it in as I like it too. – matt_black Feb 2 at 16:18
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This is a great analysis, I like it. Nice! – Andrew Martin Feb 2 at 17:21

If Gale couldn't reproduce it, I'd say it's not something your "average" high school teacher was capable of. That doesn't make him a genius, although he did help win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985, and his former company Gray Matter technologies (I can't find any info on what they actually did) was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2008. So, it's safe to say he's far from average.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_White_(Breaking_Bad) http://breakingbad.wikia.com/wiki/Gray_Matter_Technologies

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Based on the Scientific America on Walt's wall, Grey Matter made breakthroughs in Molecular Switches. – cde Feb 2 at 14:25

It's pointed out in one of the episodes that Walt is a particularly skilled chemist with a specialization in X-ray crystallography. This means that whilst being very knowledgeable about chemistry in general, his specific area of study focused exactly on what would help him to make particularly pure crystal meth.

The fact that it was blue was simply a side effect of the particular ingredients and methods that Walt used to create the meth. It was originally white when he began making it and using crushed Sudofed as one of the ingredients, but changing to the pure base ingredient caused it to turn blue.

In addition, even with the best ingredients and equipment when he first started working with Gus, Walt did not start out creating such a pure product. It was around 97%-98% (can't remember exactly) pure at this point. He likely used his expertise to improve his technique and gradually create a better product over time.

Considering that the show displays many people creating crystal meth without very much expertise (such as Jesse in the first episode, who was a high-school dropout) I'm guessing that other high-school chemistry teachers would have been able to make a better product than most that was sold on the streets.

However with Walt having specialized in the field of study required, in addition to having the very high intelligence that allowed him to build a drugs empire without getting caught, and the experience of over a year cooking meth, there would have been very few other people who had the ability to make crystal meth to such a high quality.

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I don't think it's said anywhere in the series that Walt's meth is less than 99% pure. Jesse's and Gale's is at 96%, but Walt's is never any lower than what it was originally. – cst1992 Feb 3 at 6:00

Your question is if the fact that Walter White produces blue meth is sufficient to conclude that he is a chemistry genius. My answer is a counterexample. Jesse Pinkman produces blue meth. However, he is not a chemistry genius. Therefore, it does not follow that producing blue meth makes someone a chemistry genius.

Define what you mean by "genius". From what I learned before, being a "genius", "smart" or "intelligent" is about learning things quickly.

I doubt Jesse would be able to pick up chemistry concepts fast if he were to learn them in school or at (legal) work, but if he went to rehab, who knows what his potential is? His younger brother seems smart so if intelligence is hereditary, Jesse might be smart and so might be smart in Chemistry.

Now if we were to say that Jesse being a meth cooking genius makes him a chemistry genius, that is a lot like saying someone who is a genius in the stock market is a math genius.

Why? This has to do with the very nature of math and chemistry. These aren't things you can just learn on the job, no matter how smart you are. You need education (but not necessarily a degree, of course).

Mike Ross is a law genius despite having no education (or degree) because law is something you can just learn on the job, if you are smart enough.

Of course, you must also define what you mean by "math", "chemistry", "law", "math genius", "chemistry genius", "law genius" and so on.

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This answer is highly off-topic, we are discussing whether Walter is a genius or not. There is not even a single mention of Walter here. – eYe Feb 5 at 14:47
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@eYe I edited my answer. – Jack Bauer Feb 11 at 23:19

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