Post Tagged with: "Spencer Reid"

#ChemMovieCarnival: Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds is one of my favorite television shows. It follows a team of FBI agents in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. They examine the psychology of crime scenes and the choices of the criminal before, during, and after a crime to build a behavioral profile which ultimately leads to the arrest of the criminal.

The show doesn’t lend itself to chemistry in every episode, but sometimes the show features some interesting opportunities for chemistry. I’ll highlight two here: one light and one sinister.

The resident nerdy genius, Dr. Spencer Reid, (someone to whom I have been compared an uncomfortable number of times…) displays some chemistry magic in a throwaway scene in a season two episode: “Profiler, Profiled.” He wows his coworkers with a ‘magic’ film canister (kids ask your parents what a film canister is) which explodes and shoots like a rocket across the office. Sadly, he calls this merely physics magic, but we’ll let it slide. While the magician doesn’t reveal his secret, it is almost certainly an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water. The bicarbonate and citric acid generate carbon dioxide, which builds up the pressure and causes the canister to fail. Very easy to try at home, where you could also use baking soda and vinegar.

The second example is much more nefarious. In a season six episode, “Sense Memory,” a criminal has an obsession with scents – bad news for a cab driver inundated with aromas every day. We see him flash back to his childhood and, probably, the scent of his mother. This turns criminal when several of his passengers go missing and end up dead. The team’s first clue is the large amount of methanol found in the victims’ lungs. Reid uses his nerdy genius again to educate the team on the properties of methanol.

I’m ok with most of what is presented here… it’s not too bad. Except when he claims methanol can be turned into plywood. Plywood is not made from methanol. In attempting to figure out just what they were talking about, I found that Criminal Minds’ script likely quotes almost directly from methanol’s Wikipedia page. The only latitude I’ll give them is that methanol is turned into formaldehyde which is converted to urea-formaldehyde, the resin used to hold sheets of wood veneer together to make plywood (all also found on Wikipedia).

But enough about that – that’s not even the most interesting chemistry in the episode. It’s the reason why the criminal needs methanol that’s interesting. It’s not just to murder his victims – while that would be unique, it would be perhaps a bit unnecessary. No, instead he needs the methanol in connection with his obsession with scents, particularly the scent from his childhood. His obsession leads him to attempt to preserve that scent, particularly when his job exposes him to so many unpredictable, and often offensive, odors.

He waits until he accepts a passenger with that critical aroma, then abducts them and drowns them in methanol. Essentially, he’s trying to capture eau de humaine. He soaks his victims in methanol to extract their essential oils. Then he distills the resulting solution to concentrate the oils, which he adds to homemade candles to preserve the scent. Some of the setup is questionable (why does the condenser not have water running through it?), but the concept is still interesting and correct enough for me.

Extraction, distillation, essential oils … very gross and disturbing, but creative fictional use of chemistry nonetheless. It goes without saying that you should not soak your friends in methanol for any reason (or your enemies). Instead, stick with chemistry and physics magic with Alka-Seltzer. Your friends will like you much better this way.

By April 21, 2013 2 comments chemical safety, entertainment, fun