Why is Heisenberg’s meth blue?
Walt and Jesse are naturally rather anxious when they first present their blue coloured meth to Tuco Salamanca at the end of Breaking Bad’s first season (revisit the scene here). Walt (Heisenberg) explains that his meth is produced by a different chemical process but it’s “every bit as pure.” After sampling the meth, Tuco is impressed: “Blue, yellow, pink, whatever man! Just keep bringing me that!”
Following this seminal encounter, Heisenberg’s infamous blue meth sweeps through the Albuquerque area and earns Heisenberg a reputation as the finest meth cook in New Mexico. But why exactly is Heisenberg’s meth blue? The answer may have more to do with symbolism than chemistry.
The fact that Heisenberg’s “pure” meth is coloured blue is a little problematic. The truth of the matter is that pure methamphetamine is either a white powder or a clear crystal (as shown below).
Purity is simply a measure of the “sameness” or homogeneity of a sample. For instance, if a cook was to claim that a sample of meth was 100% pure, they would be claiming that the sample contains absolutely nothing other than meth. By contrast, if they claimed that the meth was 90% pure, they would be claiming that 90% of what’s in the sample is meth while the remaining 10% is something other than meth (i.e. impurities and contaminants). The number and type of impurities making up the remaining 10% would depend on where and how the meth was obtained. High purity is desired both because it means a greater potency (more meth for a given mass of powder) and a reduced proportion of unwanted impurities and by-products (toxic or otherwise).
The trademark “blue sky” colour of Heisenberg’s meth actually speaks against his claims of purity. While it is true that small amounts of impurity can have a large effect on the colour of a sample, absolutely pure methamphetamine would be white/colourless. In short, the colour blue does not signify purity. In this case, the blue colour must owe to the presence of one or more impurities in Heisenberg’s product.
In fairness, nobody is claiming that Heisenberg’s meth is 100% pure. In S4E10 (“Salud”), an instrumental read-out informs us that Heisenberg’s method (as carried out by Jesse in the Cartel lab) yields methamphetamine with a purity of 96%. When carried out by Walt, the same method has given a purity as high as 99%. Real analytical instruments don’t actually come up with a flashing red number to show the purity of the sample (it’s somewhat more complicated than that). Nonetheless, we do know that Heisenberg and Jesse are producing a commendably pure product. We also know that somewhere in the remaining 1-4% of the sample there is a blue coloured impurity.
However, blue coloured meth is not just a fiction (check out this report from the El Paso Intelligence Center and this post from Kansas City Police Chief, Darryl Forté). The so called “smurf dope” now appearing in the States appears to involve colouring meth with chalk or dyes and pigments. The rationale behind this colouration is unclear. On the one hand, it could be an effort to brand and market the meth. It might also be an attempt to fool a chemical field test for methamphetamine in which a blue colour indicates a positive result. It has also been suggested that this blue meth may be an attempt to emulate Breaking Bad.
Whatever the rationale for colouring meth blue, the fact of the matter is that pure methamphetamine is white/colourless. In this respect, methamphetamine is like pretty much every other organic compound you care to name (an organic compound is a chemical compound based on a carbon chain). Pure organic compounds like methamphetamine are generally pretty bland things to look at with the naked eye. Organic compounds typically present themselves as colourless oils, crystals or powders. Take the common laboratory compound, benzoic acid, for example:
Of course, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. There are a good number of organic molecules that are in fact coloured. Take lycopene for example, a red organic pigment in tomatoes, or indigo dye, an organic compound used to give jeans their trademark denim blue. Aside from organic dyes and pigments, many inorganic compounds are coloured too, especially those containing transition metals (the metals that make up that long rectangular chunk in the middle of the periodic table). Copper (II) sulphate pentahydrate is a representative example, which quite appropriately happens to be blue.
The way that a compound appears to us actually depends on whether it absorbs visible light. Like other forms of electromagnetic radiation, visible light behaves like a wave and can be described in terms of its wavelength (i.e. the distance between the crests or troughs of the waves). Our eyes are capable of detecting electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 400 to 700 nanometres. Red light has a wavelength around the 700 nanometre mark while violet light has a wavelength around the 400 nanometre mark. The different wavelengths of visible light and their corresponding colours are represented in the visible spectrum below.
It’s no coincidence that the above diagram looks like a rainbow. After all, a rainbow is what we get when white light (which consists of all of the wavelengths of visible light) is “broken up” into its constituent wavelengths by the moisture in the atmosphere.
Apart from a handful of bright and shiny things like the sun, fire and hot glowing metals, most of the stuff we encounter in everyday life does not give off (emit) visible light. It’s easy to prove this to yourself by simply switching off the light globe in your room. It probably goes without saying that once you have extinguished the light source you won’t be able to see anything anymore (provided it is night-time and discounting stars, light reflected off the moon, and any other possible light sources).
Instead, the way that most things appear to us depends on how they absorb or reflect visible light (not because they emit visible light). If something absorbs every wavelength of visible light then it appears black. If something reflects every wavelength of visible light it appears white. In other cases, a compound will absorb a specific wavelength (colour) of visible light. However, the colour that we see is different to the colour that is absorbed by the compound. For example, the copper sulphate crystals above appear blue because they absorb orange light and reflect all of the other frequencies of light. Conveniently, the observed colour (the colour that we see) is always opposite to the absorbed colour on the colour wheel (see below for a basic colour wheel). For a Minute Physics video on a related topic, follow this link.
Whether a compound will absorb visible light depends on the chemical structure of the compound (the arrangement of atoms and the bonds between them) and its underlying electronic structure (the way in which the electrons and orbitals are arranged in the compound). Many transition metal compounds like copper sulphate have electronic structures that are just right for absorbing visible light. By contrast, organic compounds do not tend to have appropriate electronic structures for absorbing visible light unless they happen to have a whole bunch of alternating double and single bonds in their chemical structure. Since methamphetamine does not have many alternating double and single bonds, it is doomed to a bland colourless existence.
It would appear then that Heisenberg’s meth is blue because it contains one or more impurities that absorb orange/vermillion light and therefore appears to us as blue. Having said all of this, it is really not worth speculating too much about the identity of the impurity in Walt’s meth. Granted, the first batch of meth cooked up by Walt and Jesse is in fact colourless (you can revisit the scene here). The blue contaminant is as an apparent consequence of Walt’s alternative approach to making meth when Jesse can no longer procure pseudoephedrine.
Nonetheless, trying to deduce the nature of the blue impurity is probably a fool’s errand. While Breaking Bad does allude to real approaches to making meth, the specific approach deployed by Walt and Jesse seems to be both a secret and a fiction. Indeed, the “blue sky” colour of the meth appears to be a fictional plot device that serves to differentiate Walt’s meth from other sellers on the Albuquerque streets. As it turns out, blue coloured rock candy was used as the prop for meth on Breaking Bad’s set.
The blue meth in Breaking Bad also connects with name and colour motifs in the show. As NameCandy identifies, the names Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are likely to be allusions to Mr White and Mr Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Vince Gilligan himself has remarked on the role of colour in the representation of Breaking Bad’s characters, including Marie’s consistent association with purple. Furthermore, Walt’s surname “White” arguably reflects the blandness and banality that seems to have overrun Walt’s life at the point of his diagnosis. As 3,4-dihydroxyphen observes, the “blue sky” colour of Walt’s meth also seems to be a subtle play on the name Skyler (who wears predominately blue clothes in early episodes of the series). For two great analyses of how colour is used so deftly in Breaking Bad, check out Great Honk! and Tom’s TV.
In the end, it’s hard to say why Heisenberg’s meth is coloured blue. It really depends on how you interpret the complex use of colour in Breaking Bad. However, we do know one thing for sure. The “blueness” of the meth is not a sign of high purity. As far as its symbolic significance goes, your reading is as good as mine.
Update (24.3.14): Even Breaking Bad‘s science consultant, Donna Nelson, doesn’t have a scientific explanation for the blue colour of Heisenberg’s meth (see interviews here and here, thanks to Elaine Seward for sharing the first of these). Nelson describes the colouring as Heisenberg’s “trademark” but emphasises that real meth would be colourless.
Image credits (in order of appearance)
rock candy by Hernan Seoane
Blue Crystal Meth by Psychonaught
Breaking Bad screenshot S4E10 (Property of AMC/Sony Pictures Television). Intended as fair use.
Benzoi[c] acid by Norsci
Sugar crystals by Lauri Andler (Phantom)
Menthol by FK1954
Phenylacetic_acid_-_Phenylessigsäure by Tmv23
Copper_sulfate by Stephanb
605px-Linear_visible_spectrum by Gringer
San Francisco lucky double rainbow by David Yu
ryb color wheel labeled by Leopard Print
Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Elliott (Adam Godley) in Episode 5 (season 1) (Property of AMC/Sony Pictures Television). Intended as fair use.