Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wanted: scientists who risked their lives

In this week's C&EN, an article from ACS President Donna Nelson asking ACS members about the improving of the public perception of scientists. Here's her request:
...New ideas are needed for improving the public perception of scientists. What new solutions to this problem are possible? Past successes in engaging and influencing the public suggest employing television or movies to spotlight courageous acts of scientists working in their profession. 
A series of profiles of particularly courageous chemists, past or present, could constitute a 2017 ACS national meeting symposium. ACS members can contribute by sending nominations of scientists who risked their lives and careers in the course of their work to me at
I don't know if this is what President Nelson is looking for, but a favorite story of a chemist being clever in the face of danger is what George De Hevesy did in Copenhagen in 1940. From Wikipedia:
When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark from April 1940, during World War II, de Hevesy dissolved the gold Nobel Prizes of Max von Laue and James Franck with aqua regia; it was illegal at the time to send gold out of the country, and had it been discovered that Laue and Franck had done so to prevent them from being stolen, they could have faced prosecution in Germany. He placed the resulting solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute. After the war, he returned to find the solution undisturbed and precipitated the gold out of the acid. The Nobel Society then recast the Nobel Prizes using the original gold. 
Would that I could be as quick with my mind as De Hevesy was - seems to me this little episode would make for a great caper film.


  1. The stories of Primo Levi immediately spring to mind. I think it's in "If this is a man" that he recounts how he found sticks of Cerium whilst doing factory work in Auschwitz. He turned them into improvised cigarette lighters, which he traded for the bread that kept him alive until the camp was liberated.

    Both "If this is a man" and "The Periodic Table" are excellent books of his well worth a read by the way, I suspect there may be other appropriate stories in both.

  2. Nice, Germans invent chemistry and all @Chemjobber can think of is a stereotypical Nazi WW2 caper film--if by "caper" you mean "left a bottle on the shelf for a few years." (Imagine the audience's thrills as the camera zooms in on the cleaning woman. Will she or won't she?)--and (@DHC) concentration camps.

    That being said Fritz Haber's story, developing a way to feed half the world's population as well as chemical warfare, has an interesting arc to it, and mostly predates Nazi Germany. Although I'm sure there's enough Bad Germans in the end to satisfy you.

    1. "Imagine the audience's thrills as the camera zooms in on the cleaning woman. Will she or won't she?"

      Don't underestimate the power of a compelling Wagner score.

  3. "A series of profiles of particularly courageous chemists, past or present, could constitute a 2017 ACS national meeting symposium. " I'm not sure a symposium of scientists will get the message out. Unless the plan is to release the whole thing to the public. I've been reading "Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style" and found it informative. Changing people's perception of scientists will require more than just more accurate or exciting portrayals of scientists in moves and shows.

  4. Chemist Leif Tronstad helped with sabotaging the heavy water plant at Vemork in Norway.

  5. Youyou Tu took did her own n=1 Phase 1 trials:

  6. Why not ask Donna Nelson to first concern herself about improving the perception which chemists have about their profession (and employment) before trying to sell it to the public? How clinton-esque of her.

  7. Read the history of fluorine isolation, which is littered with corpses and wounded. Any chemist who has worked for any length of time has been at least mildly poisoned. Bunsen ran a glass tube out the lab window to breathe through when he did experiments with gaseous As compounds, and lost an eye.

  8. Is it just me, or does soliciting stories of chemists willingly facing danger seem particularly tone deaf in light of recent incidents in academia. Many graduate students are unwittingly facing poorly mitigated risks every day, relying on luck to get out unscathed.

  9. With CafeChemist's comment in mind, I'd like to mention that in my first year of grad school I did a very large scale Chichibabin amination, and some of the sodium amide fell on the hot plate when I was transferring about a hundred grams of it very unsafely like a first year grad student noob, and everything burst on fire and the main reaction flask with the solvent also started burning. I took off my lab coat and smothered the flames with it in about five seconds, and took out some small fires with my hands. Only got a few burns and still a very good yield.

    Also, once a year I did a reflux of about 1L of tert-butyl lithium in pentane for about a week in order to get my starting material. The dangerous part was in the quenching and one time half of it flew to the top of my hood. I wised up and started using heptane after that. During my postdoc one day I was planning to come in early and do some experiments, but I played Civilization the night before and drank a couple of beers while playing it, so overslept. I came in at 10am to find the lab all blown up, especially the hood next to me and my own hood. All the windows were blown out too and the ventilation system in the room crashed to the floor from the ceiling. The perpetrator miraculously survived without much injury. That's an example of risking your life if you come in to work on time for sure.

  10. My memory isn't working at this time of the morning. Who was that male Iraqi(?) academic chemist, possibly department head, whose life and family were threatened by ISIS, who wanted to get their hands on certain chemicals? Extraordinary bravery beyond what any of the rest of us could do. I think they murdered people in that department in the end.