Don't try this at home
February 4, 2012 3:06 AM   Subscribe

"I'm banned," he says. "By whom?" I ask. "My landlord," he says. "And the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority." Jon Ronson on DIY science.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (33 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Richard Handl previously
posted by knile at 3:35 AM on February 4, 2012


I think it's funny that people equate "splitting the atom" with "nuclear reactor." You can split the atom without starting a self-sustaining reaction. That's the easy part. It's hard to get enough radioactive material to even begin to make something really dangerous.

All radiation is "dangerous" in that that one X-Ray, gamma ray, alpha particle, or beta particle could be the one that gives you cancer. Also, I'm assuming you didn't go find a cobalt-60 source in a junk yard somewhere.
posted by wierdo at 4:18 AM on February 4, 2012


It's a shame that the examples they picked of people doing DIY science were a totally irresponsible lunatic who didn't even fully understand what he was doing and a quack who ignored more than a century of wisdom regarding the conduct of medical trials.
posted by atrazine at 4:53 AM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those Ulster Alchemists are some fucking visionary thinkers:

In Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, a man named Paul Moran was jailed for three months last October for accidentally setting fire to his block of flats while trying to turn his faeces into gold.

posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:55 AM on February 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a shame you didn't read all the way through to the end of the article with the anecdote about the guy doing careful, responsible work whose files were destroyed by through negligent treatment by fearful authorities.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:17 AM on February 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's a shame that the examples they picked of people doing DIY science were a totally irresponsible lunatic who didn't even fully understand what he was doing and a quack who ignored more than a century of wisdom regarding the conduct of medical trials.

They did include the story of Victor Deeb. He was working in his basement on BPA free linings for cans until the American authorities swooped down on him. An exhaustive search of his home and even the local sewer system turned up no hazardous or explosive chemicals. Nevertheless...

"I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere...He’s been very cooperative...I won’t be citing him for anything right at this moment.”

It's hard to say whether Deeb was doing interesting work because federal, state and local officials stripped his home lab and destroyed years worth of his notes. Perhaps it should be mentioned that Deeb speaks with a Syrian accent. Therefore, he must have been doing evil science.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:27 AM on February 4, 2012


It's a shame you have to read to the end of the article to find a single example of an actual DIY scientist, who is nonetheless slandered by the association with morons and cranks. This article is shit.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:29 AM on February 4, 2012


Who's up for turning this article into gold?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:32 AM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, I was glad that the guy from DIY bio got that story in there as well. I would have liked to read more about his work and that of other people doing real science at home. It seemed like an afterthought, put at the end of the article where it wouldn't be seen until people were primed by reading the preceding stories about tweedledee and tweedledum.
posted by atrazine at 5:32 AM on February 4, 2012


Modeling multiple parallel antibody-antigen reactions on the equivalent of a Cray 2 a cheap laptop at the coffee shop around the block? Uh, no. I'm, uh, I'm managing my spacefleet for a massive multiplayer on line game. Yeah. That's it. That's the ticket.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:59 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, while hitting people with a charged particle beam is generally frowned upon, most people are pretty effectively shielded against alpha particle emitters.

Don't put them in your mouth.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:02 AM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


It happened that I was wondering about Richard Handl the other day (although I had forgotten his name), and wondering what had become of him and of his apartment. If he were an American -- at least, if he were an American without much money -- I would assume that his life was thoroughly ruined by law enforcement, as poor Victor Deeb's was. Since he is Swedish, it looks as if things are not too dreadful for him, although I don't envy him ever applying for another apartment rental.

Paul Moran's experiment sounds authentically medieval, which, although it is not a compliment, is at least interesting. Since medicine in medieval Europe was largely premised on the "analysis" of fluids and secretions, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that alchemists had actually tried to do this at one point.

a truck driver named Larry Walters who in 1982 had attached 45 weather balloons to a chair and soared to 16,000ft, waving at passing Delta and TWA pilots before landing 20 miles away in Long Beach.

Since I'm from the '70s and '80s, I can never hear about this without wondering what ever happened to Cutter John.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:17 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]




The chemical paranoia is an ongoing problem even for people doing work in well-established professional labs. I've been told by the safety people that "there's no regulation about this, but it looks bad."

Additionally, you actually get penalized if you follow the rules, because the safety people don't know the first thing about chemistry, so they read what's on the useless MSDS, and then treat everything as if it were cyanide. Instead of being a resource, they become an obstacle, which then leads to them being ignored in situations where they really should have been consulted. Why on earth would a home chemist consult the local fire department, for example, when they know the reaction is going to be to shut them down, no matter what?

And then there's the infamous pockets of vacuum story.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 6:49 AM on February 4, 2012 [12 favorites]


Anyone in the environs of Manchester, England is welcome to join in the DIY Bio programme at MadLab, run by MeFi's own SlyRabbit. It's all about good citizen science, with the diligent legal and marketing ethics teams of their partners.

No self link, you can google duckduckgo yourself, etc. etc.

posted by davemee at 7:23 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tried reading this but none of it made any sense. Collect neutrons in a test tube? Fire a neutron ray at a uranium marble? I can sort of see the reasoning behind dissolving americium and radium along with beryllium in sulfuric acid but if this does, in fact, result in neurons being radiated out they would be shot out in all sorts of directions and would not be in any sort of single, consistent mass that can be collected in a test tube. If, however, he did end up managing to collect some amount of neutrons in some sort of container that still doesn't explain how he would generate a neutron ray. After all, neutrons have no charge and accelerating them to a speed necessary to split an atom would be a pretty big pain in the ass.

Look, if he wants to split atoms then all he has to do is just leave the radium laying around untouched. The radium atoms split on their own. No need for any sort of complex chemical reaction. Fission is pretty natural. If you want fusion, on the other hand, just build a fusor (all the info you need is on this site: http://www.fusor.net/ ). It's a lot less of a hassle, requires no radioactive materials, and can be used as a relatively inexpensive neutron source. Sure, it's definitely going to consume a lot more power than it produces but you'll still be getting fusion.
posted by enamon at 8:14 AM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


DIY Bio -- from the link: "No experience is needed, as full training will be given in a safe and friendly environment. Attendees can sign up for future events, and become part of the DIYbio revolution!"

I would estimate that on average it has taken my students 12 months of full-time work to become reasonably technically competent in cell culture and molecular biology techniques. Not "yeah, just make some amphotropic lentiviral vectors to deliver that gene and come tell me when the stem-cell lines you've transduced are ready for injection" competent, more "hey, look, you don't have any HeLa in your HepG flasks" competent; not "wow, let's publish", just "now you can do something useful". I guess working with eubacteria is a bit easier, but still, umm, yeah...
posted by overyield at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2012


Reminds me of the Radioactive Boy Scout.
posted by dr_dank at 9:23 AM on February 4, 2012


Anyone in the environs of Manchester, England is welcome to join in the DIY Bio programme at MadLab, run by MeFi's own SlyRabbit.

I was going to make a facile joke about how I'll be happy to supply the poo, but I just Googled the site and I'm really, really impressed.

I work on Thomas Street from time to time. Now I'm gonna have to try and schedule my visits with their exciting events.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:52 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, a man named Paul Moran was jailed for three months last October for accidentally setting fire to his block of flats while trying to turn his faeces into gold. He had left the stuff on an electric heater and it caught light.

There is some kind of racist joke about leprechauns and the IRA in here isn't there?
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:19 AM on February 4, 2012


I wonder if these people could be more productive if they volunteered for an existing project instead of trying to found their own labs. A lot of scientific tasks can be done by people with no specialized education and relatively quick training, but some things (grant proposals, paper writing, data analysis, project setup and method development) are extremely difficult and would result in massive delays or improper work while an inexperienced or untrained person tried to figure them out.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:35 AM on February 4, 2012


The thing about Handl and the guy trying to turn his shit into gold and the ex-doctor who killed her sister is that none of them were doing science in any meaningful way--they were just fucking around with chemicals.

Victor Deeb, on the other hand, sounds like he was doing science. And he got screwed. My mum grew up in Marlborough, and it is a small city (not a town, Jon) that has a huge problem with people cooking meth in their kitchens, and unfortunately the police probably thought that was what Deeb was doing at first...and then, in the way police departments sometimes have, doubled down on their mistake instead of admitting their error.

I have to say that anyone who read The Radioactive Boy Scout and took away from it "That's something I should try!" is someone who has issues with judgment.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on February 4, 2012


The story of Victor Deeb makes me very very glad that more of my note-taking is shifting over to the cloud.
posted by egypturnash at 11:05 AM on February 4, 2012


I wonder if these people could be more productive if they volunteered for an existing project instead of trying to found their own labs.

There are many valuable contributions made by amateurs in projects that require field work. Reef Check, for instance is a global reef health survey almost entirely carried out by amateurs.
posted by atrazine at 12:05 PM on February 4, 2012


Egypturnash, definitely -- but a bound paper lab notebook is still necessary if your patent ever gets challenged. If you're doing something with broad commercial potential like inventing a new can lining, and especially if you're doing it on your own without the legal support of a huge company, you could get screwed hard if you only have electronic documentation of your experiments.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:07 PM on February 4, 2012


I would estimate that on average it has taken my students 12 months of full-time work to become reasonably technically competent in cell culture and molecular biology techniques.

You have just done more to encourage me to go back and get an advanced degree than you'll ever know.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:17 PM on February 4, 2012


I have to say that anyone who read The Radioactive Boy Scout and took away from it "That's something I should try!" is someone who has issues with judgment.

I guess I learned something about myself today.
posted by wayland at 2:09 PM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


but a bound paper lab notebook is still necessary if your patent ever gets challenged

Actually, AFAIK this is only the case in so-called interference proceedings, when two persons file patent applications on the same invention, and, under America's unique First-to-Invent system it must then be determined which one of the two actually invented it first.

This requirement is thus largely going to be superseded next year when the "American Invents Act" shall align US practice closer to the First-to-File system of the rest of the world.
posted by Skeptic at 3:34 PM on February 4, 2012


Reminds me of the Radioactive Boy Scout.

You mean David Hahn? Richard Handl's inspiration, mentioned within the first few paragraphs of the linked article?
posted by Popular Ethics at 4:24 PM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've got to say, while yes, there is a bias against DIY home chemistry, there is a reason it exists: A lot of chemistry is freaking dangerous. There are a number of reactions that it is *very* easy to stumble across that will make toxic gas, explosives or both. I know people at my university that have done both of those (A certain reagent was spilled, reacted with the floor tile and produced chlorine gas: The reaction was quickly quenched, but suppose that someone at home didn't have the right spill kit for that? Or another one that involves a common acid and organic solvents, that produces a violent explosion?)

Don't get me wrong: I love chemistry. I plan to spend considerable time and expense becoming a chemist. I was talking to a professor today about moving 3000 km to do a type of chemistry I am highly interested in. However when I do chemistry I do it inside a fume hood, while wearing protective equipment and with access to other chemists who might be familiar with these reactions, emergency showers, eye wash stations, vacuum lines, glove boxes and so on.

I know good chemists, very good chemists in fact that have been hurt or nearly been hurt in laboratory accidents *with* all of these precautions. In a home lab, with who knows what type of glassware, ventilation, chemical waste disposal, etc, this is much more likely, and it puts the experimenter as not just a danger to themselves, but those around them.

Sure, when I heard about the guy trying to make nuclear fission in his kitchen I was kinda sad that such an enthusiastic guy had been arrested. Then I thought about the damage he could have done; He obviously wasn't using much protection against contamination, which he could have tracked into other peoples food, etc-- Alpha radiation isn't bad outside of you, but it is quite dangerous inside of you. Suppose he had succeeded and achieved sustained fission? Now we have decay products all over the place, which are quite nasty.
Suppose a backyard chemist manages to make something like Ni(CO)4? 30 min of exposure to 3 ppm of it is a 50% chance of death, and while I haven't looked at the exact reaction conditions, the basic reaction looks like something a home chemists could do. Suppose they did this in an apartment complex. That could be rather dangerous, now couldn't it?

Sure, there should be avenues for people to do chemistry outside of a university or industrial environment. However, they should have to prove they are doing things safely and know what they are doing. This would also avoid the police raiding innocent DIY people: They just look in their files and see that Mr. X is registered to do home chemistry, has filed a list of reagents he possesses, and has allowed a safety inspector into his laboratory this month, who reported that he was not in fact trying to brew meth.
posted by Canageek at 7:51 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Next points: So he reads about a boyscout who "dangerously irradiated a shed" and decides to try it at home? Secondly: Beryllium is highly toxic on inhalation, and can cause potentally lethal heath problems that we can't cure.

Also: If he was so obsessed, why didn't he do some basic research on nuclear physics? You can't bottle neutrons. It sounds like he was trying to make a concentrated source, which he would then press close to the uranium.

To be fair about the guy trying to turn feces into gold...Well, we got a valuble discovery while trying to turn urine into gold.

As to Mr. Deeb's final point: And there are the George Eastmans of the world who store dangerous chemicals and burn down buildings.
posted by Canageek at 8:11 PM on February 4, 2012


I know good chemists, very good chemists in fact that have been hurt or nearly been hurt in laboratory accidents *with* all of these precautions

This is a bit over-dramatic. Most good chemists become pretty cavalier about safety protocols eventually, and while everyone has their close calls, actual injury beyond the superficial is really really rare. Plenty of institutions go decades without seeing one significant injury, and that's with half-bright grad students and barely-sentient undergrads running around doing stuff with minimal supervision.

Though I will say that fire that came from "sonicating 50g of sodium in a liter of ether*" was pretty good.

(I guess I did get sodium flecks all through my beard once; that was a pretty fun one to clean up--"the water makes it burn but also is the only way to get it off. Aargh!" I damn well wasn't shaving just to avoid a little flaming molten metal. Good times)



* Some kid looked up a procedure from 1950 or thereabouts, back when they would have done that sort of scale, and also had a nice smoke while they were at it.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:34 PM on February 6, 2012


@Dr.Enormous: PhD student working in xenon chemistry. Compound detonated. Apparently he would have lost his eyes if he hadn't been wearing his goggles. You will never meet a bigger stickler for safety goggles now.

The prof he works for has a story about when he almost killed Linus Pauling: It seems at one point the Nobel laureate visited his lab. That night something in the fumehood they had spent a considerable amount of time in front of exploded with enough force it would have killed anyone standing in front of it.

Apparently if you talk to most of the original noble gas chemists they all have bits of metal embedded in them or are missing fingers, since we couldn't easily work on the sub 100 mg scale back then, at least not an successfully characterize the compound at the end.

Same uni, few years after that: Undergraduate working in a lab here pours two chemicals into the mercury waste then caps the bottle. These are two chemicals which should not have been mixed. He then closes the fumehood sash, then luckily steps out of the way. The resulting explosion threw the fumehood sash the length of the lab and sprayed the whole lab in mercury.

One of my friends accidentally sprayed himself with conc sulpheric acid once: He was fine, but that could have easily gone badly.

If I might cite a recent example that In the Pipeline and C&E News's twitter feed mentioned: KH is not your friend.

Yes, then are the exceptions, and several are taken from one of the most dangerous areas of chemistry and over a number of years. However, these were all done in well supervised university labs. I'm much more worried about a low chemist, who may or may not have formal training, working in his (or her) basement. Do they have a proper fumehood? Do they now that we don't work on the multigram scale anymore? Will he try and use an old procedure that no one in their right mind would try anymore?

I'm not saying that every home chemist is unsafe: However I felt it was necessary to point out the other side of the argument to the people who were basically saying 'He was ONLY trying to do nuclear fusion in his kitchen, he was so enthusiastic how can we take that from him?' I'd like to see some sort of safety certification processes for independent chemists, so that we can ensure they are doing as basic things as say, storing their solvents in fire resistant cabinets.
posted by Canageek at 5:35 PM on February 8, 2012


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