Articles by: azmanam

#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 3 comments chemical safety, entertainment, fun

[Guest Post] Best of the Annals of Improbable Research (Part 2)

The following is a guest post by Brandon Findlay, who regularly blogs at ChemTips.

Best of the Annals of Improbable Research (Part 2)

It’s time for another best-of from the Annals of Improbable Research. As before, I’ve gone through the freely available section of the journal looking for the most significant research I could find [1, 2].

“The Sleep Retardant Properties of My Ex-Girlfriend” catalogues Ryan Baker’s search for a good night’s sleep. After overhearing friends and colleagues express a desire to “sleep with” his girlfriend, Baker developed a regression model of around eleven variables he thought might contribute to his sleeping patterns. By far the most significant was the location of sleep, with Baker sleeping a little over two hours less when at his girlfriend’s apartment (R2=0.223, p<0.001).  They are no longer together.

Sadly, the Annals are not immune to pseudoscience, as shown by their lamentable decision to publish this horoscope for bacteria. Due to the limited lifespan of bacterial cells they have simplified the stars somewhat, tracking only the position of the sun, but the predictions remain the same empty platitudes familiar to all who have browsed supermarket tabloids. ”Rich medium supplemented with casamino acids is in your future. Rev up the Embden-Myerhoff pathway!” Bah.

My spirits were revived somewhat by this next article, an in depth study into the “Doornail” standard of death (pdf). As medical science has advanced patients’ lungs and hearts have maintained function despite complete absence of brain activity, and it has become difficult to separate life from non-life. Through physical observation and electrocardiograms the authors observed no brain activity or physical movements in their test subject, a common doornail. They conclude that clinical definitions of death, which espouse a lack of brain activity, are sufficient.

On the medical front also comes an idea that is well ahead of its time, the Double Strength Placebo. Given the strength of the flu this year we’ll need all the medicinal aid we can get, and I wholeheartedly encourage the FDA to expedite approval of the DSP. True pioneers, the authors also outline an innovative adaptation of the standard “double-blind experiment” that I think merits further study.

The last article in this series was impossible to summarize effectively, though the author has presented his work at a national conference.

Chicken Chicken Chicken: Chicken Chicken (pdf) by Doug Zongker.


[1] Just think of what their impact factor could be if the journal was open access.

[2] If anyone has access to the Sep/Oct issue of 1999 (Special issue: Bearded Men) I would be quite interested. The importance of beards in organic chemistry research at the turn of the 20th century is not to be underestimated.

By February 6, 2013 1 comment fun

[Guest Post] Best of the Annals of Improbable Research

The following is a guest post by Brandon Findlay, who regularly blogs at ChemTips. We’re glad you could join us, Brandon.

Best of the Annals of Improbable Research

Well, almost.  For some reason my institution does not have a subscription to the Annals of Improbable Research, so this list includes only articles I have access to:  the once-per-issue free works (published before January, 2008).

Let’s start off with the classic Postal Experiments.  The author(s) decided to test the reliability, speed, and patience of USPS workers by mailing several dozen unusual packages.  Items ranged from valuable (a laminated, clearly visible $20 bill) to worthless (a wrapped brick [1]), with several absurd items thrown in for good measure (ex. a helium balloon, deer tibia and wooden postcard).

Then, from my alma mater comes a study on the Second-Hand Effects of Bitching. It draws some interesting conclusions, but I did have trouble validating some of the references.  Bitch Studies Quarterly, for example, appears to be out of print.

The Morphology of Steve (pdf) must surely have boosted the Annal’s impact factor, as it lists two nobel laureates as co-authors [2].  The attempt to analyze the distribution of “Steves” in the United States began as most academic pursuits do, when the authors discovered that they had lots of otherwise worthless data.  In their own words, “[n]o scientist can resist the opportunity to analyze data, regardless of where that data came from or why it was gathered.

There’s a few more, but the two Annals essays on scientific writing make for a good break point.  The first provides a nice counterpoint to the classic Whitesides Group work, “Writing a Scientific Paper”, with an emphasis on the unspoken conventions of the publishing world.  As an example, when I first started research I was unaware of the importance of citing one’s own work (see here, here, and here, for examples of my naivety), though I was quite familiar from peer review at the undergraduate level that a journal’s editor will always “pick the referee most likely to be offended by your paper, because then at least the referee will read it and get a report back within the lifetime of the editor.”

The second piece is by the same author, and is essential reading for those about to or planning to prepare a thesis.  A PhD thesis of course “is usually a number of disparate chapters whose most important feature is not the thoroughness of the experimental description but rather the width of the margins.” Those writing such important documents are prone to bouts of depression an existential angst, which can be greatly soothed by the assurances in this essay, key of which is “[n]o one will ever read your thesis.”

[1]  Arrived pulverized, after analysis by the DEA.
[2]  Note:  443 of the 447 co-authors were not consulted concerning the use of their names in this article.

By January 30, 2013 2 comments fun, science news

This May Be the Best Chemistry Parody You See All Year

I’ll have a full post up next week when all the videos have been submitted, but I wanted to pass this one along early.

Every semester I encourage my students to create Awesome Chemistry Parody Videos. This is perhaps one of the best I’ve ever received.

Enjoy 🙂

By December 13, 2012 3 comments fun