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Evil Thoughts of Evil Things

There was a comment on the “Airplanes and Chemicals” post that brought up something I’ve been meaning to address. Says Steve, after describing an old TV show that gave rather too detailed a picture of nitroglycerin synthesis:
While I am first in line to defend freedom of speech and would balk at anyone trying to muzzle a scientist, I think as scientists we all have a personal and professional responsibility not to place metaphorical loaded guns into the hands of children, much less of certifiably crazy adults.
Exactly. I said something of the sort in the post itself, and I wanted to reiterate it. As a working organic chemist, I can yammer on for quite a while about explosive reagents, and while I’ve never (fortunately) had any need to make any of the classic explosives themselves, I know a fair amount about their synthesis and purification just through reading and general lab experience. But I’m not going to talk about them.
Now, I realize that over there on the right I have a whole category of alarming lab stories and another one of horrible reagents. But the first set of stories mostly concern common reagents and procedures made dangerous by the presence of fools, and won’t be much help to someone actively seeking to do harm. And as for the second set, I’ve deliberately avoided some topics. I won’t work with acetone peroxides, that’s for sure, but I won’t do a detailed blog post on them, either.
And this brings up another issue. Years ago, my wife had a somewhat paranoid co-worker who thought that his experiments were being sabotaged by someone else in the lab. That wasn’t the case, but we got to talking about how easy it would be, if one were so minded, to completely screw up the work of a research lab. There are all sorts of ways to do it in an immediately noticeable fashion, but there are many that would be much harder to track down.
For a biologist, going in and switching the labels around on the cell cultures in the freezer would be a start. A little toxic additive or two in the growth media would slow things down, too, as would a few pellets of sodium hydroxide in various buffer solutions. For chemists, messing with the TFA that’s used as an additive in the HPLC solvents would have everyone chasing their tails for a while, as would substituting the palladium catalysts with similarly colored iron or chromium compounds. Some methanol in the ethyl acetate bottle, to mess up all the TLCs? A little sulfur in the hydrogenation catalysts? Once you start thinking of these things, the ideas just tumble out.
It’s the same with larger and more terrible issues. I, like (I’m sure) many other organic chemists, could sit down and think up all kinds of nasty stuff if I were so minded. I’m not, fortunately, but if I ever found myself on the rough end of a guerrilla war, I might be useful to have around. (Science fiction fans may recall a scientist character improvising chemical weapons in such a situation in Niven and Pournelle’s potboiler disaster novel Lucifer’s Hammer). The chemical weapons of World War I seem to have been an example of just this sort of thing, with university chemists basically clearing the shelves of all sorts of nasty lab reagents to toss them experimentally at the enemy.
No, it’s easy, although weirdly depressing, to come up with interesting horrible ideas. (I’m reminded of how C. S. Lewis said he wrote from a demon’s point of view in The Screwtape Letters). But it’s not something I sit around doing, and I’m not going to share any of those thoughts I might have already. The world has enough horrible ideas as it stands.

17 comments on “Evil Thoughts of Evil Things”

  1. Process Wannabe says:

    A little more on the mischevious side, less on the harmful side: my boss told me about one time in graduate school when a few of the students conspired to add a drop of THF into someone’s CDCl3. This student spent a good deal of an afternoon repeatedly going down to the NMR, coming back up, rotovapping, and taking another NMR. Not particularly nice, but no one was hurt.

  2. Zak says:

    I know lawyers who describe law school as a place where people would actively sabotage their classmates to “get ahead.” Do you think the same kind of mentality holds for, say, chem grad school?
    And, Lucifer’s Hammer was an excellent book. A little dated now, but a good page-turner.

  3. SP says:

    Zak- there are no rankings in grad school, grades from the classes you take are meaningless as long as you pass- you’ll never hear anyone say, “I graduated top of my class from the chemistry department.” There are also situations where you share reagents or results with other people in your group. I’ve never heard of a student competing with anyone but themselves in grad school. (People at other schools who are racing you to complete a synthesis, yes- but non-insane advisers don’t have their own students racing each other.)

  4. Kent G. Budge says:

    I can relate. I sometimes get asked about terrorist nuclear devices or “dirty bombs.” Fortunately, I have an even more airtight excuse for silence than you: I have actually had classified briefings on the topic, and therefore am not at liberty to discuss it.

  5. Don B. says:

    Amen to your comments. The unfortunate thing is there are sources that are readily available to killers.
    Years ago it was reported in C&EN that a chemist had delibertly poisoned his entire family by putting N,N-DMH in the milk. However no explosion!

  6. MolecularGeek says:

    On the topic of sabotage, I will assume everyone here knows how many pre-meds it takes to change a light bulb, already

  7. milo says:

    I only heard of two sabotages while I was in grad school. The first was the addition of a little TFA to the inside of a students Schlenk line. His boc protections were a little wierd for a while. The second (to the same student) involved some folksturning up the pressure on his N2 tank at night, so that every 3-4 days he would run out of gas.
    Mostly though, people were real respectful and ready to share/help out.

  8. JSinger says:

    As a new grad student, I was assigned to a bitter fifth-year to be trained in PCR. He doled out enough reagents for three or four reactions at a time; they didn’t work, including the positive controls, I had to keep crawling back to him for more reagent and he took enormous pleasure in loudly wondering how anyone could screw up something so easy and complaining that I was blowing through his precious buffer.
    Eventually I asked someone else for reagents, and it worked perfectly, immediately. At the time, I figured he had been deliberately giving me the wrong stuff; in hindsight, I wonder if it ever worked in his hands either.
    Meanwhile, the PI kept sending new people to him to be “trained”, and kept chewing them out when their projects never worked.

  9. Chemist of Sorts says:

    A question for people: Does anyone make it to their fifth-year without being bitter? No excuse for sabotaging someone else but still I wonder if fifth-years should only be described when they are happy and satisfied. For the most part, bitter seems to be the norm.

  10. Jose says:

    I heard second hand of a case a few years ago at U of Chicago, where a grad student couple had a “difficult” breakup. For 6-8 months the woman’s experiments refused to cooperate. Eventually, with a camcorder (?), she caught her ex sneaking in and moving settings and mirrors on her laser table, late late at night….
    In my lab in grad school, folks would hide personal stashes of reagents in unlabelled flasks/jars in the dry box, and swear on their mother’s grave that they had no reagent X at all.

  11. milo says:

    Re #9:
    I found the bitterness did not set in till my sixth year… I think, after 3 years, that it is finally going away.

  12. Novice Chemist says:

    I have consistently wondered about why chemists do not perform “direct action” against other, competing chemists. Or, for that matter, why pharmaceutical companies do not do the same. For example, why aren’t there more active attempts by say, Pfizer, to hack into Merck’s computer systems, etc.?
    I suppose that the answer remains the same as always: these battles are easy to start and difficult to end. Likely, intellectual property requirements limit its usefulness, too. But one thinks: during the great total synthesis races of the 80’s and 90’s, was there occasional direct or indirect action? (i.e.,
    “yeah, we tried that reaction and it didn’t work” at a conference, when you know that it did work.)

  13. SP says:

    There’s plenty of industrial espionage- going through trash, etc.- but in general companies are loath to explicitly break the law, which would include computer hacking.
    The best story I ever heard was of two competing biology groups. One sent the other a letter requesting some materials that they knew would be denied. However, the paper was soaked in phage, and once it was opened by the recipients, ended up killing all the bacterial strains in the lab.

  14. Novice Chemist says:

    Oh, my God! SP, that story is too good to check.

  15. JSinger says:

    For the most part, bitter seems to be the norm.
    Sure — I meant that he was bitter even by that standard, not relative to normal human beings.
    In my lab in grad school, folks would hide personal stashes of reagents in unlabelled flasks/jars in the dry box, and swear on their mother’s grave that they had no reagent X at all.
    Needless to say, Bitter Fifth-Year had that one in his arsenal as well. One time he volunteered to help me search the lab for some film cassettes that I knew were hidden in his drawer. The two of us spent 30 minutes going through all the common areas exclaiming “Where-ever could they all be?”

  16. secret milkshake says:

    Relatively mean form of sabotage is frequent in patent application – you include every single crappy compound you ever made in patent experimental examples and also make sure to cover it in the claims with a loving attention. You justify all your good and lousy compounds as “active with EC50 10 mM or lower”. The amount of experimental examples will impresses the patent referees – but most importantly, the few good compounds will be burried under pile of crap. Anybody trying to reconstruct your SAR from rading patent will be likely misled or forced to re-synthesize all your crapy compounds to make sure that nothing was missed. That should buy you extra year or two…

  17. On the whole, I wouldn’t worry too much about discussing anything that’s more difficult to discretely obtain than a truckload of ANFO or would make less bang.

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