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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Dr. David Naistat, assistant professor of chemistry at Ivy Tech, loves “Breaking Bad,” and not just because the show defies stereotypes about chemistry teachers.

Local teacher sees chemistry alter ego in 'Breaking Bad' character

Chemists have seldom been cast as very sexy types on TV or in movies.

In “The Absent Minded Professor,” the star was a scatterbrained chemist who invented Flubber but kept forgetting to show up for his wedding.

In “The Nutty Professor,” the star chemist varied between being horribly fat or a total flake in real life.

In “Monkey Business,” the chemist couldn’t come up with a rejuvenating elixir, but a monkey who lived in his lab could.

Then came the TV series “Breaking Bad,” in which a mild-mannered chemistry teacher with a wife and handicapped son learns he’s dying and decides to take drastic steps to create financial security for his family. He takes his know-how and decides to become a bad dude, making meth.

As the years have passed (this is the show’s fifth season), our mousy chemistry teacher has become the baddest of the bad and made a ton of money along the way.

Finally, a chemistry teacher has been portrayed as someone to be reckoned with.

David Naistat loves it. Naistat, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and teaches it at Ivy Tech, has been a faithful viewer of “Breaking Bad” since the series started, and tonight, when the final episode of the show airs, he’ll be watching.

In a way, Naistat says, Walter White, the chemistry teacher, serves as a sort of alter ego for chemistry teachers, a man with an ooh-look-at-him image that chemistry teachers never have.

Naistat knows what that’s like. When he tells people he has a Ph.D. in chemistry, he says, they look at him and say, “That must be really complicated,” and he knows that somewhere in there they’re thinking, “He’s a nerd.”

Then Naistat starts waxing poetic about chemistry. Everything around you is based on chemistry – from your food to your clothes to just about everything you own. He says he tells students that chemists have the ability to put something down on paper and then go into the lab and make it.

OK. He’s not Walter White. One thing he loves about the show is that it is scientifically accurate, at least mostly.

No, meth isn’t blue. There’s nothing in the ingredients that would turn the meth blue. And in one episode, White had a chunk of fulminate of mercury that he planned to use to kill someone. At room temperature, Naistat said, fulminate of mercury is a powder, and if someone tried to walk around with some in their pocket, it would blow up.

White’s lab, though, is accurate, and in real life, a lab like that would probably cost a couple of million dollars, Naistat said.

The show isn’t bringing students streaming into his classroom to learn about chemistry. Chemistry involves a lot of math, and that scares people off. Most of his students, he said, take chemistry because it’s required.

Naistat has asked students whether they watch “Breaking Bad.” Some did, mostly younger males, he said. “They aren’t interested in the chemistry, except they ask if it’s that easy.”

No, it’s not that easy, Naistat says. The show does take some poetic license in that area: “You don’t want to show on TV how to make meth.”

What Naistat likes about the show most, though, is character development.

“I got hooked up with the show because of the chemistry,” he said. “It’s not common to have a chemistry teacher in a show. But the transformation of the character … the acting is unbelievable.”

In the first episode, he’s a teacher. In the final season he’s a drug lord. “You’d never guess he’s a chemist.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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