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.
The trope of the mad scientist has been around for a while, and many people, including scientists, indulge in it as a joke, although some claim it has a grain of truth to it. The classical image of the mad scientist was cemented by the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by the legendary James Whale. In this movie, the scientist Henry Frankenstein, played by actor Colin Clive, assembles a body from parts stolen from graveyards and proceeds to jolt it with electricity, infusing it with life. Frankenstein’s manic scream “It’s alive!” has become a cultural icon that has been both referenced in academic literature and parodied in popular culture.
What is less quoted in the popular realm is what he says afterwards: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” This seems to be at the heart of the concept of the mad scientist: the original sin, eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge, being like God. And what better way to be like God than to create life?
Of course, Frankenstein was barking mad, but don’t sane scientists have a little bit of Frankenstein in them when they seek the knowledge of the inner working of nature and the universe? Doesn’t scientific discovery make scientists feel a little bit like Gods?
My response to this question is that it is irrelevant. Scientists are humans, and their behavior during the process of discovery or creation is as complex as that of any other human. In my opinion the important thing is that regardless of what scientists “feel”, they are expected to follow the scientific method. The truth is that Frankenstein’s research, even by the standards of his time, was not very scientific. What was his question? What was his hypothesis? What was the rationale for the whole enterprise? Why try to create life? Why work in isolation without seeking advice from other scientists? Frankenstein was no more a scientist than an astrologer is a scientist. He was not following the scientific method.
However, as it turns out, back in 2010 a group of real scientists led by Craig Venter of the Human Genome fame succeeded in creating life. It is instructive to compare what they did with the modus operandi of their fictional counterpart.
In an effort that took more than a decade of solving seemingly unsurmountable technical problems, Venter and his group synthetized a modified chemical copy of the genome of a microorganism called Mycoplasma mycoides and inserted it into a cell of a different species called Mycoplasma capricolum. They engineered the M. mycoides genome in such a way that it would get rid of the endogenous M. capricolum genome. So they ended up with an M. capricolum cell which contained a synthetic M. mycoides genome. The synthetic genome took over the host cells which began multiplying. Unlike most living things which are made by strands of DNA that come from other living things, here, for the first time in history, a life form had been created using a strand of DNA made in a lab and designed by a computer!
No one in Venter’s group broke out into maniacal laughter and screamed “It’s alive!”, or claimed to have experienced “what it feels like to be God” (at least publicly). They were all, of course, aware of the philosophical issues revolving around what they were attempting to do, but the point of the project was to answer some very specific scientific questions such as whether the information present in the genome was enough to reproduce a living organism, or whether something else was required.
During the whole research process Venter’s group shared information about what they were doing and requested input from other scientists. Additionally, even before performing the first experiments, they asked a team of independent scientists to evaluate the risks, challenges, and ethics involved in creating a new species in the laboratory. The ethics team spent 2 years carrying out this evaluation and then openly shared their conclusions.
Venter’s work was not merely an academic exercise, as it led to many practical applications. For example, thanks to the technology developed we have the capacity to quickly sequence the genome of a virus and send the information about the sequence over the internet to centers where the viral genome will be synthesized and used to drive the creation of modified viruses to make vaccines.
This sober approach to the scientific enterprise may be more boring than the deranged approach of the quintessential mad scientist, but in real science this is the way things work.
Photograph of Craigh Ventor is from the Chemical Heritage Foundation reproduced here under a Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license