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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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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One reason chemistry is awesome: Condoms!

Oct 22 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's National Chemistry Week!  It's time to talk about all the reasons chemistry is awesome!



The chemicals mentioned in this video are isoprene, polysorbate-60, and nonoxynol-9.


This video except was part of a longer episode of 'My Chemicals of the Week', first posted in April 2012.



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