Cracked chemical mysteries for #NationalChemistryWeek!

Oct 17 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

National Chemistry Week is upon us and this year's theme is Solving Mysteries Through Chemistry. Here are real-life who, what, why do its!

The history of sux, the world's most discreet murder weapon

Because she didn't die

The suspicious case of Miss Sapwell

The poisoning of Potbelly patrons

How Forensic Scientists Find a Dead Body— And How Microbes Can Help

Find out what happens when a bunch of forensic folks get together and talk murder! Here's our Getting Away With Murder panel from CONvergence 2014.

Even fictional mysteries can benefit from careful analysis! Take a look at my post on what killed King Joffrey?

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Have I got a #chemistry story for you!

Mar 12 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Thanks to the folks at Chemistry World's Chemistry In Its Element, I've gotten the chance to use my NPR voice to tell the stories of six compounds. How can a compound have an interesting story? Link a bunch of atoms together. THE END. Ah, that's not the story. The story is about fighting a disease. Or finding out what landed all those people in the ER. Or learning how we found that wonder drug. There are flash starts, slow burns, dramatic endings, and cliff hangers. Below are the stories I got to tell. Click on the link and take a listen.

  1. Carminic acid - a red dye with one hell of a history
  2. Methyl salicylate - a winter's tale that burns (Want more? Here)
  3. Sodium azide - makes airbags work, makes us...
  4. Cedrol - a lovely smell that might save lives
  5. Brominated vegetable oil - ER docs hadn't seen this condition in decades (What more? Here)
  6. Haloperidol - researchers did make what they planned on - they made something far better.

I hope to do more of these podcasts - there are plenty of some stories to tell!




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I went to SPACE!!!

Aug 04 2014 Published by under Uncategorized



rocket science green screen


Post-launch... okay, okay... post CGI


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Chemistry and King Joffrey

Apr 15 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

HBO's King Joffery on the Iron Throne

Fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and HBO’s Game of Thrones know two things...

1. don’t get too attached to any of the characters
2. not all weddings are happy occasions.

Sometimes the reason a wedding isn’t so happy is because people get dropped from the guest list during the event. The Red Wedding lost a few wedding guests in dramatic fashion.  In the fan-dubbed Purple Wedding, only one character is dispatched. However, that one character was important - and not just because he was the groom. He was also the king.  A nearly universally despised king, but a king nonetheless. King Joffrey meets his end at the hands of "the strangler" in Martin’s book A Storm of Swords. The strangler isn't a wedding quest with a criminally obvious nickname. No, the strangler is a poison made from a plant - plus sugar, spice, and everything not-so-nice - as described in Martin's book The Clash of Kings.

Do we have any poisonous plants here in the real world that could bring down a king? Oh yes – and more than one!  There are a number of plants that produce chemicals that can be both medicinal and murderous. Three plants are routinely cast in fictional and non-fictional murder plots - belladonna (aka “Deadly Nightshade”), poison hemlock, and Strychnos nux-vomica (aka “strychnine tree”).

belladonna (R), poison hemlock (M), and strychnine tree (L)

right: belladonna | middle: poison hemlock | left: strychnine tree

These three usual suspects all produce alkaloids that can be weapons in the wrong hands. Alkaloids share a loosely similar chemical structure – at least one nitrogen atom in a heterocyclic ring.  Belladonna, poison hemlock, and Strychnos nux-vomica all make more than one alkaloid, but each has an alkaloid it's best know for.  For belladonna, it's atropine and  for poison hemlock, coniineStrychnos nux-vomica's  heavy-hitting alkaloid takes its name from the tree - strychnine.

left: atropine  |  middle: coniine  |  right: strychnine

left: atropine | middle: coniine | right: strychnine

Could any of our usual suspects be a real-world stand-in for the strangler?  To determine that, the strangler's modus operandi must be examined. In Martin’s book The Clash of Kings, this poison is described as making "...the muscles of a man’s throat clench tighter than any fist, shutting off his windpipe."  Taking some creative license with Martin's description, a real-world strangler stand-in must cause airway and/or neck muscles to clench (contract) and death by asphyxia.  This requirement lets two of our usual suspects off the hook.

Both belladonna and poison hemlock can be stone cold killers, but their stand-out alkaloids tend to relax and paralyze muscles. Belladonna's atropine affects smooth muscle in a relaxation-to-paralysis way, including airway smooth muscle.  Atropine, typically as a sulfate salt, has seen used as a bronchodilator - something that decreases airway resistance and increases airflow to the lungs.  Atropine can certainly kill you, usually by messing with your heart, but it doesn't kill like the strangler does.  Coniine also works to paralyze muscle, but it targets striated muscles - like skeletal muscle.  This includes the ribs' intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, which are the respiration system's heavyweights.

What happens is that your body is slowly but surely paralysed while you're still fully conscious, starting at the feet and rising until eventually even the muscles surrounding the vital organs become affected. Death is caused when the diaphragm stops contracting and oxygen stops getting to the heart.

[excerpt from Chemistry World's Chemistry in its element on coniine]

Coniine, like atropine, isn't a good fit for the strangler role.  That leaves strychnine.

Like coniine, strychnine targets striated skeletal muscles - including those important respiration muscles.  Unlike atropine and coniine, strychnine does not relax and paralyze muscles.  Strychnine causes muscles to contract – violently and incredibly painfully. Within 10-20 minutes of ingesting a lethal dose of strychnine, the muscles of the face and neck convulse – fitting a bit with Martin’s description of the strangler.  Convulsions spread to all skeletal muscles, coming in waves. The periods of contraction grow longer, with breathing impossible during a convulsion. Death by asphyxia results. That death could be quick – say a few minutes from the start of convulsions - or a person may suffer in agony for 2-3 hours (or more!).

Muscle contraction and death by asphyxia - strychnine and the strangler have a bit in common.  Could strychnine play the strangler?  Back to Martin's description of the strangler from The Clash of Kings

It was made from a certain plant that grew only on the islands of the Jade Sea, half a world away. The leaves had to be aged, and soaked in a wash of limes and sugar water and certain rare spices from the Summer Isles.  Afterward they could be discarded, but the potion must be thickened with ash and allowed to crystallize.  The process was slow and difficult, necessaries costly and hard to acquire.

If we think of Joffery’s home as a sort of Europe, then the strychnine tree is definitely from half a world away being native to Southeast Asia. The most dangerous part of this tree isn’t its leaves, but the seeds of its fruit.  The leaves^ contain strychnine, but not nearly as much as the seeds.  It will take a lot of leaves, which seems like just the kind of hassle Martin is trying to convey in his recipe. Martin's recipe calls for the leaves to be dried (aged), followed by the extraction of strychnine with "a wash of limes".

What if Martin doesn’t mean lime, the fruit?  What if Martin means lime (aka "quicklime"), a product of treating limestone?  This type of lime is mainly calcium oxide and is alkaline.  This lime has been used as part of multi-step processes* to extract alkaloids from leaves – like the alkaloid cocaine from coca leaves or the alkaloid morphine from opium.  The non-fruit lime is just one interpretation* of Martin's recipe, but it could be part of a "slow and difficult" extraction process.  Sugar and spice is next, which is good considering that strychnine - like most alkaloids - has a bitter taste that will need to be disguised.  Leaving nothing to chance, a beverage that will also help disguise strychnine's bitterness should be used.   A beverage like red wine – which seems to be Martin's delivery beverage of choice and what King Joffrey is drinking at his end.

This strychnine concoction is nearly stage-ready, except… where’s the purple? The strangler is described as a purple poison.  Is strychnine purple?  No.  In fact, many alkaloids - strychnine, cocaine, caffeine, morphine – are white crystalline solids.  Here’s where Martin’s spices could help out again. Some spices pull double-duty as dyes.  If dried berries are in Martin's spice cabinet, purple strychnine wouldn't be just a fantasy.  Dyed strychnine isn't as weird as it sounds – some commercially available strychnine pellets for dispatching of rats, gophers, or other critters are dyed red or green.

In a pinch, purple strychnine could stand-in for the strangler.  To be sure, we have to try Martin’s recipe with the lots of Strychnos nux-vomica leaves and spices for color to see if we could make our purple poison. Given how nasty strychnine is, we’ll need to strictly follow lab safety protocols. For even greater safety, never let Martin plan your wedding.


^In 2011, a suicide attempt via ingestion of Strychnos nux-vomica leaves was reported in literature.

*Another interpretation of Martin's recipe is that his lime is the fruit, working perhaps an acid extraction.  The ash in Martin's recipe could be wood ash or soda ash, both of which are alkaline and could neutralize the acidic brew. Update 04/28/14: I'm of the view that lime juice simply isn't acidic enough.  An acid extraction with hydrochloric acid (HCl) would do the trick, and the resulting salt would be water soluble.  Subsequent treatment with base (non-fruit lime, lye, sodium carbonate, or wood ash) would return our lethal alkaloid to us.


Image of King Joffery from Wired

Image of belladonna plant from NC State University

Image of poison hemlock from NC State University

Image of strychnine tree from Caroline's Botanical Art Blog

All chemical structure images are from chemspider

Strychnine label from photobucket user Samantha Giedris

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Student tip: Be more like Marple & Nash

Dec 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's the end of the fall academic term.  The time when a few students ask...

What can I do to pass this class?

Now is not the time to ask that question.  The time to ask that question is the first day of class, not the last week of class.  And, of course, there are deeper philosophical questions involving the purpose of college, the nature of knowledge - blah, blah.  Let's focus on the "What can I do to pass this class?" question.

There are the standard things.  Go to class. Do all the homework (graded or not). Stick to a study schedule. Go to office hours.  To some students, that might sound like...

Students, here is some advice that (perhaps) you've never heard before...

Be more like Miss Marple and Steve Nash!


Allow me to explain....

Miss Jane Marple doesn’t look like your average detective. Quite frankly, she doesn’t look like a detective at all.  But looks can be deceiving... For a woman who has spent her life in the small village of St Mary Mead, Miss Marple is surprisingly worldly. She has every opportunity to observe human nature – as she often points out, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.”

[Miss Marple, official Agatha Christie community website]

What type of  wickedness could possibly occur in Miss Marple's quiet little village of St. Mary Mead?  Well, there was that time Tommy pulled the ol' frog-hidden-in-an-unexpected-place prank.  A prank that helped Miss Marple crack the case of The Body in the Library.

‘Oh yes, I’ve got an explanation,’ said Miss Marple.   ‘Quite a feasible one.  But of course it’s only my own idea.  Tommy Bond,” she continued, “and Mrs. Martin, our new schoolmistress.  She went to wind up the clock and a frog jumped out.”

‘…I got an idea – it seemed, I don’t know why, a good idea at the time – I thought: I’ll put her in old Bantry’s library.  Damned pompous old stick, always looking down his nose, sneering at me as artistic and effeminate.  Serve the pompous old bruit right, I thought.  He’ll look a fool when a dead lovely is found on his hearthrug.’  He added, with a pathetic eagerness to explain: ‘I was a bit drunk, you know at the time.  It really seemed a positively amusing to me.  Old Bantry with a dead blonde.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Little Tommy Bond had very much the same idea.  Rather a sensitive boy with an inferiority complex, he said teacher was always picking on him.  He put a frog in the clock and it jumped out at her.’

‘You were just the same,’ went on Miss Marple, ‘only of course, bodies are more serious matters than frogs.’

[The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie]

Miss Marple looked at new problem and saw parts she knew how to solve.  One part was why and how a body got into the library of her friend's house, which Miss Marple solved by remembering that ol' frog gag.  There are several other parts Miss Marple also solved by applying things she'd learned in St. Mary Mead.  Miss Marple then assembled all those solved parts into a single solution.  Students, you must do the same thing.

Your St. Mary Mead is every lecture, textbook chapter, homework problem, lab experiment, etc.  It's all an opportunity for you to carefully observe and learn, like Miss Marple.

Say you're in a chemistry class.  You learn that all substances have density, which is defined as mass (g) per unit volume ( mL or cm3; L for gases).  A short time later, you learn about molar mass (MM) is defined as the mass (g) of 1 mole of a substance.  A few weeks later, you 1 mole of an ideal gas will occupy a volume of  22.4 L at  standard temperature & pressure (STP).   Here is an exam question you may see...

  1. Consider a gas with a density of 1.25 g/L at STP.  Calculate the MM of the gas.

This may be a new problem, but it's nothing you haven't seen before...



We teachers are assessing how well you know stuff, so every problem is actually stuff you've seen before - IF you've been paying attention like Miss Marple.  On assessments (quizzes, exams, lab practicals, etc.), you must do two things: (1) recognize the parts of a problem you know and (2) assemble those parts into a single solution.  You must be Miss Marple.  You can, however, skip the incessant knitting.

Being like Miss Marple will help you score big, but don't overlook the small stuff.  You have got to work on your free throw percentage.

The free throw is the single most important shot in the game of Basketball, as close to twenty per cent of all points in NCAA Division 1 Basketball are scored from free throws. The shot becomes more important later in the game, as free throws comprise a significantly greater percentage of total points scored during the last 5 minutes than the first 35 minutes of the game for both winning and losing teams.  The free throw should be one of the easiest shots in basketball, since the player is all alone, 15 feet from the basket, with no defense and no close distractions. All the player has to do is get ready, aim, cock the ball and shoot. A skilled intercollegiate team should shoot at least 80 per cent from the free throw line, but very few teams are able to accomplish this task.

[Mechanics of the Basketball Free Throw by Marion Alexander, PhD]

Three pointers, shmee pointers.  Two point basket, shmasket.  The one point free throw is the most important shot in the game.  Free throw points in classes can add up to cost you an entire letter grade - or more - over the course of the term.  Many class assignments and assessments have free throw points.  Points that should be the easiest to get.

  • A professor requires a paper be formatted in a particular way - 12 point Time New Roman, 1-inch margins, double-spaced, and five pages maximum.  Your paper running long, so you fiddle with the format.  Your fiddle costs you 10 points.
  • On an exam, you're asked to calculate the number of grams of a product that could be made.  You do the problem correctly.  Well, "mostly".  You did not give your answer in grams, but kilograms.  Also, your answer has the incorrect number of significant figures.  Sure, you were "mostly" correct - but "mostly" cost you 3 points.  "Mostly" correct answers to the exam's questions cost you a total of 6 points.

Those 10 or 6 points may seem like a pittance if an essay is worth 150 points or an exam 100 points.  Image loosing 6-10 points on each assignment or assessment.  It could mean the difference between a C (continue with subject class sequence) and D (retaking the class).  It could be the difference between a B+ and A-.  All coming down to points that are the easiest to get.  Instead of throwing away points, throw like Steve Nash.

Steve Nash is the NBA free throw leader (OF ALL TIME) with a free throw percentage of 90.4%.  By comparison, LeBron James' is at about 74.5%.  Steve Nash works at this free throws. To Steve Nash, here  is no "but it's only 1 point" or "I got it mostly in the basket".  A point is a point and the game is to get points on the board.

To score the most points, you need to be like Miss Marple and Steve Nash.

Class dismissed.

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Nervine settled everybody's nerves by sedating everyone

Nov 24 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Image 1


Out-of-control libido or drug habit?  Take Nervine.  Nervous, excitable, wakeful, or restless?  Take Nervine.  Over-the-counter Nervine wasn't a wonder drug, just a cocktail of the oldest class of sedatives - inorganic bromides.

Image 2


Nervine contained the most commonly used bromides - sodium bromide (NaBr), potassium bromide (KBr), and ammonium bromide (NH4Br).  These particular bromides were once so popular that only aspirin sold better.  The use of bromides to treat "nerves" was so prevalent that 'bromide' entered the lexicon of common speech.  Instead of "calm down", people were instructed to "take a bromide".  Instead of calling someone a 'bore', the term 'bromide' was a used to denote "a commonplace or tiresome person".

Image 3

Bromides may owe their sedative effect to a family connection.  The element bromine is in the same chemical family as the element chlorine – the halogens.  Being a chemical family, chlorine and bromine have similar properties.  Both form single, negatively charged ions (monovalent anions) via oxidation-reduction reactions - chloride (Cl-) and bromide (Br-).

Chloride is found in nearly all of our cells, having its own set cell membrane-crossing highways (chlorine channel).  The regulated flow of chloride (as hydrated chloride) across neuron membranes is key to communication between neurons.  Being family and all, bromide (as hydrated bromide) can travel along chloride's highways.  But hydrated bromide is a teeny bit smaller than hydrated chloride, allowing hydrated bromide to get into cells faster than hydrated chloride.  A flood of anions, such as bromide or chloride, into a neuron makes it more negative than it would be at rest, a state called 'hyperpolarization'.  It's hard for other neutrons to stimulate - talk to - hyperpolarized neurons.  Less neuron stimulation can translate to a feeling of calm.

A temporary calm that came with a price beyond the one listed on the price tag.  Turns out, the level of bromide needed to sedate was pretty close to bromine's toxicity level.  Plus, people were using products like Nervine a too regularly to "settle their nerves".   When bromides were the most popular, bromine toxicity ("bromism") cases were at a high.

The classic symptoms of bromism include alteration in central nervous system functioning with headache, irritability, fatigue, slurred speech, ataxia, emotional instability, tremor and hallucinations all being reported.

[Horowitz, B. (1997)]

There were even reports of bromide-induced coma, dubbed 'The Bromide Sleep'.  Taking advantage of the swapability of chloride and bromide, bromism was often treated by loading a person with saline (sodium chloride solution).

Bromism, along with the development of safer sedatives, lead to the disappearance of  Nervine and similar products from American shelves by 1975.

If seems too outlandish that bromides were available at local shops, just remember that cocaine and heroin were once too.


Image 2


Image 1 is from Retronaut.

Image 2 is from Britannica Blog

Image 3 is from Polite Dissent

Image 4 is a screen capture of  Eli Lilly & Company's 1920 Handbook of pharmacy and therapeutics


Note 1: The depressant ethanol pre-dates bromides, but ethanol wasn't designed to be a sedative.

Note 2: Bromides were also commonly used to treat epilepsy and a great deal of what is known about bromide's biochemistry is due to epilepsy research.

Note 3: The action of neurons and the various parts of neurons was simplified.



Akabas, MH (2005) Chloride Channels. eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester.

Brandenberger, H. (1997) Hypnotics and Sedatives Not Belonging to the Classes of Barbiturates and Benzodiazepines. Brandenberger, H. and Maes, R. (Ed.) Analytical Toxicology: For Clinical, Forensic, and Pharmaceutical Chemists (339-422). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter

Horowitz, B. (1997) Bromism from excessive cola consumptionJ Toxicol Clin Toxicol, 35(3):315-20.

Lee, S. and Rasaiah, J. (1996) Molecular Dynamics Simulation of Ion Mobility. 2. Alkali Metal and Halide Ions Using the SPC/E Model for Water at 25 °C J. Phys. Chem., 100, 1420-1425

Macleod, N. (1900) The Bromide Sleep: A New Departure in the Treatment of Acute Mania.  Br Med J., 1(2038): 134–136.

Macleod, N. (1899) Cure of Morphine, Chloral, and Cocaine Habits by Sodium Bromide.  Br Med J., 1(1998): 896–898.

Sangster, B., et al. (1983) The influence of sodium bromide in man: a study in human volunteers with special emphasis on the endocrine and the central nervous system. Food Chem Toxicol, 21(4):409-19

Sarapuk, J., et al. (1998) The role of counterions in the interaction of bifunctional surface active compounds with model membranes. Biochem Mol Biol Int., 44(6): 1105-10.

Schwarcz, J. Once Upon A Time. Schwarcz, J. The Fly in the Ointment: 70 Fascinating Commentaries on the Science of Everyday Life (203-256). Toronto:ECW Press

Scott, Medical Time Capsule: Bromide. Retrieved November 23, 2012 from

Sourkes, T. (1991) Early clinical neurochemistry of CNS-active drugs. Bromides. Mol Chem Neuropathol., 14(2):131-42.

Suzuki, S., et al. (1994) Bromide, in the therapeutic concentration, enhances GABA-activated currents in cultured neurons of rat cerebral cortex. Epilepsy Res., 19(2):89-97.

van Geldetern, et al. (1993) The no-effect level of sodium bromide in healthy volunteersHum Exp Toxicol, 12(1):9-14.

van Leeuwen, F. and Sangster, B. (1987) The toxicology of bromide ionCrit Rev Toxicol, 8(3):189-213.

Wild, C., Dr. Mile's Nervine.  Retrieved November 21, 2012 from

Zwicky, A. Dr. Mile's Nervine. Retrieved November 21, 2012 from


7 responses so far

Chemistry is everywhere. Even in divorce.

Nov 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

In the @McSweeney's article Let’s Illustrate This Important Chemistry Concept Through a Word Problem About My Failing Marriage, author Mark Rooke asks...

On our wedding day 7.2 years ago, I gave my ex-wife a gold ring that weighed 3.66 grams. If the ring now weighs 3.49 grams, and she spent eight days on average every year of our marriage having tantric sex with her yoga instructor while I was working overtime, coaching our twin daughters’ soccer team, and generally bending over backwards to create a nurturing home for my family, how many atoms of gold were smeared across her yoga mat over the course of our marriage?

As Rooke points out, this calculation is easily done using the information provided (i.e. loss of gold is 3.66 g - 3.49 g = 0.17 g), the  atomic weight of gold (Au), and Avogadro's number.



Rooke ends his post by asking  readers...

 If I’ve consumed 12 liters of 1.5 molar single-malt scotch after the papers were finally filed, how many atoms of alcohol have I consumed over the course of this divorce?


If we assume that Rooke consumed 12 L of a 1.5 M ethanol (drinking alcohol) solution, this calculation is straightforward.  Recall that molar = moles/L.  [Note: Rooke is actually asking us to determine the number of ethanol molecules.]



Let's take this further.  Rooke consumed a single-malt concoction, rather than a straight single-malt.  Let's look at straight single-malt...



Rooke likely diluted his single-malt with water...



To get 12L of his 1.5 M single-malt concoction, Rooke diluted 2.4 L of single-malt with 9.6 L of water.  If 750 mL bottles were purchased, that's over 3 bottles of single-malt.  Dilution isn't a bad idea, especially considering (1) the cost of price of single-malt scotch  (Laphroaig 10 Year is $60 a bottle, their 18 year cask strength is $84, and their 25 year cask strength is $450) and (2) the alcohol content of a single-malt scotch.



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Every chemist should read @exlarson's 'In The Garden Of Beasts'

Oct 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Chemist Fritz Haber (right) appears in Erik Larson's 'In The Garden Of Beasts'.

In the summer of 1933, University of Chicago professor William Dodd became America's ambassador to Germany.  Shortly after taking   up  his official duties in Germany, Dodd was visited by someone every chemist knows - Fritz Haber.

Haber was a Nobel laureate,  his work both celebrated and vilified.  He was a WWI veteran.  He was a science giant, serving as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry.   He was a "Non-Aryan".

While Haber's veteran status allowed him to remain director of Kaiser Wilhelm institute, 25% of the institute's staff would loose their positions under a new Nazi law aimed at purging the German civil service of 'Non-Aryans'".

Haber did not fire his friends and colleagues   He resigned rather than obey the order to rid the institute of "Non-Aryans".

Haber had realized that everything would be taken away.  Haber came to Dodd for help.

It was here - Haber's meeting with Dodd - where I realized my mistake.  "Here" was in chapter 9 of Erik Larson's In The Garden Of Beasts, a view of the years leading up to WWII through the eyes of the America's ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family.  My mistake?  I had relegated Haber to the Historically Important Chemist Club - where the chemists are renown, but not truly known - their lives reduced to a list of professional achievements.

Prior to picking up Larson's book, I knew Haber - like Niels BohrAlbert Einstein, and Enrico Fermi (whose wife Laura was Jewish) - had fled regions hostile to "Non-Aryans".  I knew the Nazification of Germany was in full swing by Dodd's arrival in the summer of 1933 and what the next 12 years would bring.  But there was something about Larson's portrait of Dodd and Haber... reading Dodd's summary of his meeting with Haber... it got me.

It got me to really see the life, not just the career.  Something easy to do with our cohorts, something challenging to do with our giants.



In The Garden Of Beasts cover image from Goodreads

Fritz Haber image from

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#ChemCoach, Supervillain Edition

Oct 24 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Scientist. It's just one of those careers that lends itself to villainy.  It even says so on page 10 of the How to Be a Villain handbook.

 Within the general area of villainy, supervillainy is the pinnacle of success.  Think full professor, NIH director, or journal Editor-in-Chief.  Typically, the path to supervillainy involves 4 distinct steps...

But if you're a chemist, a subject and profession that is clearly torturous, you're fast-tracked to supervillainy.

As a chemist on the supervillainy fast-track*, I thought I'd share my typical day as part of @SeeArrOh's #ChemCoach carnival.

Most people know that supervillains are strong leaders and snappy dressers.  But what does a supervillains do on an average day?  You'd be surprised how mundane it is...


Your current job.


What you do in a standard "work day."

5AM: Awakened by this tune.  Have coffee and breakfast. Read several newspapers. A supervillain is a well-informed villain.

6AM: Conference call with British supervillain mentor.  We all know the British make the best villains.

7AM: Commute to office using mass transit.  There's no rule a villain can't be 'green'.

8AM: Check-in with office henchmen, discuss current minion issues.

9-11AM: Host office hours for minions.  The key to effective leadership is amassing an army of loyal minions.  A villain simply must cultivate and care for their minions.

11:30AM: Lunch.  Check twitter.  The modern villain has to be social media savvy.

12-1PM: Teach general chemistry.  Legal torture, my friends.  MUWHAHAHA!

1:10-1:40PM: Commute to super-secret underground laboratory using mass transit. Again, there's no rule a villain can't be 'green'.

1:45PM: Coffee break. "Coffee should be black as Hell, strong as death, and sweet as love." ~ Turkish proverb

2:00-??PM: Super-secret stuff in super super-secret underground laboratory.  Unlike some villains, I know how to keep my damn mouth shut.


What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

I have a BS in chemistry, a MS in forensic science, and a PhD in chemistry.  While in college, I worked full-time in retail.  After graduate school, I worked in a crime lab. Back in the Ivory Tower, I teach chemistry, mentor minions and henchmen, and am building a De-- doing research.  Drugs, bombs, autopsies, crime scenes, students after one of my chemistry exams, the dressing rooms in a clothing store on Black Friday - I've seen it all. NOTHING PHASES ME.

Villains must be decisive, imaginative, discrete, quick-thinking, ruthless to their enemies, solicitous for the welfare of their underlings, as well as have both a strong stomach and a high tolerance for pain.  Nothing prepared me more than graduate school and teaching.


How does chemistry inform your work?

Please refer to 12-1PM from the schedule above.  Chemistry is playing an integral role in my research. Which, of course, is SECRET.


Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career

I reviewed a paper this year for a respected journal.  My comments and questions were marked "From reviewer #3" when sent to the authors.



*confirmed by select student evaluations



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If only we had a mole of dollars...

Oct 23 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today is Mole Day!  This isn't small cylindrical mammal appreciation day, it's a day to commemorate a basic unit in chemistry.  A mole is defined as the number equal to the number of carbon atoms in exactly 12 grams of pure carbon-12.  What is that number?  It's 6.02214179 x 1023 and is commonly referred to as Avogadro's Number, after the 19th century scientist Amedeo Avogadro.

If you had a mole of M&Ms, you'd have 6.02214179 x 1023 M&Ms - plenty of M&Ms to get through all 12 seasons of Murder, She Wrote.  Now, if you had a mole of dollars...

You could pay off the US national debt and not notice the difference...

1 mole of dollars: $602,214,179,000,000,000,000,000

US national debt: $19,739,152,000,000*

If you spent a billion dollars a second, it would take you over 19 million years to spend a mole of dollars.

A mole is a big number.  A big number routinely used to quantify tiny things like atoms, compounds, or molecules.  We can fit a mole of some well-known elements into petri dishes...


It looks like there are different amounts of each element present.  There are AND there are not.  Image having a mole of Dachshund and a mole of Great Danes.  You'd have ~6.02 x 1023 of each dog, but your mole of Dachshunds and your mole of Great Danes would take up different amounts of space and have different masses.

A mole is like a chemist's version of a dozen.  Now imagine if you had a mole of donuts.... nomnomnom


*An ever changing value.  Value estimated this morning at ~8:38AM CST on 24 October 2016. When this post was first written, the national date was about 2 trillion less.

Dr. Evil image is from Netbook News

Dog image from Examiner


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