Last March I acquired the box set of the award winning American crime drama “Breaking Bad”. This is a series about a high school Chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, who teams up with his former student to cook and sell crystallized methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s financial future before he dies.
As a Chemistry teacher myself I was intrigued to find out why the series was so popular and after watching the first episode I was hooked. The series was so good I couldn’t get enough of it. To stop myself going cold turkey afterwards I decided to take the chemistry in “Breaking Bad” into the lab with a view to inspire my A Level students … so to speak! I had been teaching my students about optical isomers, these are a pair of molecules with the same molecular formula and structure, a bit like your hands but your left hand cannot fit into a right-handed glove so there is a difference.
My first “Breaking Bad” lesson, complete with theme tune, was about Alain Baxter, a British slalom skier.
On 23rd February 2002, the Scot Alain Baxter finished 3rd in the slalom race at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and made British Olympic history. He became the first Briton ever to win a medal in alpine skiing. However, his celebrations were short lived because within days he was told he had failed a drug test. Traces of methamphetamine were found in his urine sample and after that things started going rapidly downhill for Baxter.
After a 2-day hearing the International Olympic Committee announced that Baxter was disqualified and that he return his bronze medal. His 3rd place would be removed from the Olympic record books.
Alain Baxter regularly suffered from nasal congestion and frequently used Vicks nasal inhalers in the UK. During his stay in the US at the time of the winter Olympics, Baxter bought a Vicks nasal inhaler from a local store. The American version looks identical to the British one but there is a significant difference in some of the compounds present. One of these compounds is methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine exists as optical isomers … remember your hands.
The “left-handed” methamphetamine molecule is a decongestant and has no stimulant activity but the “right-handed” methamphetamine molecule is the stimulant, commonly known as ice or speed.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations simply forbid the use of “methamphetamine” and the IOC testing procedures as used at the 2002 Winter Olympics do not distinguish between the two isomers even though they exhibit different chemical effects in the body.
With my “Breaking Bad” lesson over, my students felt outraged at the drug testing rules employed by the IOC but suitably inspired with the chemistry behind it all.
It is fair to say that the producers of the series have been pretty accurate in their scientific representation of events and I have gone on to deliver more of my own “Breaking Bad” episodes in school.
In the case of Baxter, I think it is quite ironic that he won a medal for the men’s slalom without the use of ice or speed!