Some individuals want to be professional mad scientists, but they are unwilling to go through the arduous scientific training that all scientists have to complete. Even mad scientists need to know their stuff, and they have to be able to distinguish fact from fiction to a certain extent. Take for example the case of Frank Nicolas Stein. This guy was an amateur scientist who initially decided to go by the book. He bought an old castle towering above a quaint small village. He got himself an assistant with a limp and a hump on his back (except his name was Steve, not Igor). He and Steve raided the local cemetery for freshly interred corpses, stitched parts of them together (including, of course, an Abby-Normal brain) to form a deformed creature, and finally zapped it with a zillion volts during a ghastly storm. The result?
The whole premise behind the Frankenstein story is a myth. Dead tissue exposed to electric current does not come back to life. It remains as dead as a dead parrot. Frank realized that he had wasted all those hours rehearsing in front of the mirror screaming over and over, “It’s alive!” and laughing manically. To add insult to injury he was captured, not by an angry mob with pitchforks and torches, as would have happened to any deserving mad scientist, but rather just by the local sheriff and his deputy. Mr. Stein was sent to jail for a year (Steve was just slapped for 2 minutes and then let go). Imagine the humiliation!
But Frank plotted his revenge. When he left jail, he decided he would poison the villagers to make them pay for what they did to him. To this end he purchased in the black market two of the most lethal substances known to mankind. The first of these was the extremely toxic chlorine gas which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The second was elemental sodium, a compound so reactive that its mere interaction with water produces dramatic explosions that release a huge amount of heat. Frank’s master plan was that he would combine these two toxic substances into a lethal mix the likes of which the world had never seen, and he would release it into the village’s drinking water!
Frank rehired Steve, and also hired a few of his ne'er-do-well friends. For several days they toiled away in an abandoned warehouse mixing large quantities of both substances which to his delight produced spectacular ceiling-high yellow flames! Such was the power of this accursed mix of chemicals. The reaction yielded a white product which he, mindful of its deadly power, carefully collected and stored in vacuum sealed flasks. When his dastardly work was done, Frank transported a truck loaded with the white chemical to the source of the town’s drinking water at a late hour of the night. He and his minions broke into the facility, subdued its only guard, and proceeded to release the poison into the water while laughing maniacally. The result?
The people of the town woke up noticing that their drinking water tasted “salty”, but that was about it. No deaths, no poisoning, not even an upset stomach. The sheriff was called, and he and his deputy made their way to the water plant in time to arrest Frank, who upon seeing them screamed, “Not you again!” Mr. Stein was once more sent to languish in jail, humiliated and despondent (this time though, Steve and his cronies kept him company).
Sodium is indeed extremely reactive because the sodium atom has a free electron in its outer shell that it will share with any other chemical compound that accepts it. Chlorine, on the other hand is a very strong oxidizing agent, which means it will take an electron away from other chemicals. So when you put them together, sodium very naturally cedes its outermost electron to chlorine in a reaction that releases a lot of heat. The result of this reaction is a sodium atom lacking an electron and thus bearing a positive charge, and a chlorine atom with an extra electron which confers it a negative charge. This transformation dramatically changes the nature of these elements. The explosive sodium and the toxic chlorine become the innocuous sodium chloride, in other words: table salt. This was the white powder that Frank released into the village’s drinking water supply!
This story is meant to illustrate that we should not make assumptions regarding the properties of a compound just based on the properties of a few of its components in isolation. However, many people do not understand this concept. In 2017 a video showing a towering structure emerging from an amalgamation reaction between a block of aluminum and a drop of mercury went viral on the internet (check the dramatic effect beginning at 2 minutes). Then an anti-vaccine Facebook page posted a scare-mongering rhetorical question alluding to the video:
“Hmmm… What mandated medical injections also combine thimerosal (mercury), which still remains in several vaccines and aluminium, used in almost all vaccines? It’s time to reject vaccine MYTH and embrace the truth.”
This post made a reference to 2 components of some vaccines, a mercury derivative called thimerosal, and an aluminum derivative called aluminum phosphate. The implication of course is that if these 2 things (mercury and aluminum) can produce the reaction shown in the video, what awful things will happen inside your body if you get inoculated with vaccines that contain these 2 items?
The short answer: nothing.
This anti-vaccine post was debunked by sites like Snopes which, among other arguments, pointed out that the reaction in the video had been between elemental mercury and elemental aluminum. However, the mercury and aluminum components of vaccines are not pure elements but rather chemical derivatives. Much in the same way that the sodium and the chloride in sodium chloride have chemical properties that are very different from those of the pure elemental forms (sodium and chlorine), the mercury in thimerosal and the aluminum in aluminum phosphate behave very differently from the pure forms of these elements.
This is not the first time that anti-vaccination proponents have raised false alarms, but with respect to this one they should have read a chemistry book, or at least asked, Frank. He has learned this the hard way!
Mad scientist caricature by J.J. used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
“We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding” is an often repeated quote from the novel The Light That Failed by the English writer Rudyard Kipling. One of the areas where humanity experiences vast problems in communication is language, and there are several historical examples where subtleties in the translation from one language to another have created multiple problems. However, there has always been the hope that eventually science and technology will solve the problem of communication across languages as reflected in the universal translator used in the science fiction series Star Trek.
I recently had a wonderful experience. One of my followers on Twitter wrote a comment to one of my articles in her native language. I used Google Translate to reply to her writing in her language, which turned out to be Croatian. Despite the fact that I don’t know this language, we were able to have a simple conversation. Is it possible that we are approaching an era where people will be able to clearly communicate with each other using technology? There are already devices that fit into the ear and interact with smart phones which perform translation in real time, not as well, of course, as the fictional Babel Fish from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but they are improving. Unfortunately, we have a long ways to go.
There are many problems involved in the translation from one language to another including that many words have multiple meanings and that the meaning of a word or phrase can also be influenced by ever changing cultural mores. Programs like Google Translate cannot handle more than simple translations, and certainly not multiple or sequential translations. To illustrate this (and have some fun), I chose the following complex sentence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a sentence from the Declaration of Independence. It embodies some of the bedrock principles behind the founding of our nation and it has been a source of inspiration for many similar documents around the world that seek to outline some of the basic rights that a human being should have.
I “took” this sentence on what I call the “European Tour”. I used Google Translate to translate this sentence from English to Portuguese, and then Spanish, and then French and so on until I finally translated it to Italian and then back to English. The sequence of translations of the European Tour is outlined below.
English > Portuguese (Portugal) > Spanish (Spain) > French (France) > German (Germany) > Danish (Denmark) > Norwegian (Norway) > Swedish (Sweden) > Finnish (Finland) > Polish (Poland) > Hungarian (Hungary) > Italian (Italy) > English
So what did I obtain when I translated the sentence back to English? I got this:
These truths are equally obvious: every man is the same. that the Creator is endowed with these abandoned rights. Reaching their lives, their freedom and happiness.
As you can read, there are a few changes, most remarkable among them that it is the creator who has these rights which are characterized as “abandoned”.
Next, I decided to do the European Tour in reverse, in other words: English to Italian and ending in Portuguese and back to English. I got this.
We believe that these truths are clear: all men are equal, the Creator has certain unacceptable rights; These include the pursuit of life, freedom and happiness.
The creator still has rights, but they are deemed “unacceptable”. The next thing I tried is what I call the “Asian Tour” which involved the following sequence of translations:
English > Turkish (Turkey) > Arabic (Saudi Arabia) > Persian (Iran) > Hindi (India) > Thai (Thailand) > Malay (Malaysia) > Vietnamese (Vietnam) > Chinese (China) > Japanese (Japan) > Russian (Russia) > English
I obtained the following:
We will show this data. Everyone is equal. They have certain rights that the creator does not have. I'm looking for life, liberty and happiness.
So now, in data to be shown, we seem to have rights that even the creator doesn’t have.
The Asian Tour in reverse (English to Russian ending in Turkish and back to English) yields the following:
Of course, we accept the truth: everyone is similar. Manufacturers offer a special classification. This includes the search for life, freedom and happiness.
Now the search for life, freedom, and happiness is a special classification among several offered by manufacturers!
So what happens if we perform the European Tour first, followed by the Asian Tour (begin with Portuguese, go from Italian to Turkish, and end with Russian)?
The facts are clear. All are the same. The creator of this body has been removed. You gain life, independence, happiness.
This one blew me away! The creator has been vanished, and as a result of that we have gained life, independence, and happiness!
And in reverse (begin with Russian and end with Portuguese):
Of course we accept the truth: they are all identical. Manufacturers offer special qualities. It requires that you seek life, freedom and happiness.
The manufacturers are back but this time offering special qualities. However, it seems to imply that to gain access to them you need to seek life, freedom, and happiness.
Clearly it will be a while before technology can overcome worldwide challenges in communicating complex ideas across many languages without human input.
The above sentence was going to be the last sentence of this post, but just for one last spot of fun mocking the flawed technology, I decided to put the above sentence through the combined European and Asian Tours, and I got this:
Of course, without human intervention, technology can overcome global challenges and express complex ideas in different languages.
OK, that was creepy!
Babelfish image by Anna-Maria Oléhn was modified from the original and used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.