Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kids, don't try this at home. Really. Don't.

Whenever I grab a spare moment from not being a lawyer and not being a security expert, I try to find time to not be a research chemist.  Fortunately for all of us, not only have more capable souls taken up that profession, but some of them have seen fit to blog about it.

Along with some interesting commentary on the pharma business and such, Derek Lowe's In the Pipeline includes two fine collections of hair-raising tales, under the headings of Things I Won't Work With and -- less extensively and not quite so entertainingly -- Things I'm Glad I Don't Do.  Some of it's a bit technical, but Lowe does a good job explaining things in a way someone with only basic knowledge of chemistry can understand.

And who am I to complain anyway?  I try to write in such a way that a non-compugeek reader can substitute "peanut butter" for terms like "sliding window protocol" and still get the gist, but I can't promise success in that regard.  At the very least, the non-chemist can substitute "exploding, highly-toxic and malodorous peanut butter" for most of the chemical terms and get the general drift.

Which, one must admit, does give the chemist a bit of a leg up.  I doubt I'll ever get to grace a post here with turns of phrase like
  • ... the resulting compounds range from the merely explosive ... to the very explosive indeed
  • Fragrance expert Luca Turin has described isonitriles as "the Godzilla of scent", and that's accurate, if you also try to imagine Godzilla's gym socks.
  • ... water ice (explosion, natch), chlorine ("violent explosion", so he added it more slowly the second time), red phosphorus (not good) ...
  • A colleague of mine made some in graduate school, and came down the hall to us looking rather pale.
  • It reeks to a degree that makes people suspect evil supernatural forces.
  • ... it’ll start roaring reactions with things like bricks and asbestos tile.
  • It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem.
  • Read the paper and be glad that this wasn’t your PhD project.
On the other hand, none other than Gordon Moore (of Moore's law fame) got his start in the sciences blowing things up back in the days when a child's chemistry set had Real Chemicals in it.  In their own way, wild-eyed-crazy chemistry experiments are just as much a part of the web's DNA as cryptographically secure pseudo-random number generators peanut butter.

(When I was typing the first sentence, I missed the 'e' in "being."  Blogger's spell checker flagged it.  Yep.)

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