There was a comment on the "Airplanes and Chemicals" post that brought up something I've been meaning to address. Says Steve, after describing an old TV show that gave rather too detailed a picture of nitroglycerin synthesis:
While I am first in line to defend freedom of speech and would balk at anyone trying to muzzle a scientist, I think as scientists we all have a personal and professional responsibility not to place metaphorical loaded guns into the hands of children, much less of certifiably crazy adults.
Exactly. I said something of the sort in the post itself, and I wanted to reiterate it. As a working organic chemist, I can yammer on for quite a while about explosive reagents, and while I've never (fortunately) had any need to make any of the classic explosives themselves, I know a fair amount about their synthesis and purification just through reading and general lab experience. But I'm not going to talk about them.
Now, I realize that over there on the right I have a whole category of alarming lab stories and another one of horrible reagents. But the first set of stories mostly concern common reagents and procedures made dangerous by the presence of fools, and won't be much help to someone actively seeking to do harm. And as for the second set, I've deliberately avoided some topics. I won't work with acetone peroxides, that's for sure, but I won't do a detailed blog post on them, either.
And this brings up another issue. Years ago, my wife had a somewhat paranoid co-worker who thought that his experiments were being sabotaged by someone else in the lab. That wasn't the case, but we got to talking about how easy it would be, if one were so minded, to completely screw up the work of a research lab. There are all sorts of ways to do it in an immediately noticeable fashion, but there are many that would be much harder to track down.
For a biologist, going in and switching the labels around on the cell cultures in the freezer would be a start. A little toxic additive or two in the growth media would slow things down, too, as would a few pellets of sodium hydroxide in various buffer solutions. For chemists, messing with the TFA that's used as an additive in the HPLC solvents would have everyone chasing their tails for a while, as would substituting the palladium catalysts with similarly colored iron or chromium compounds. Some methanol in the ethyl acetate bottle, to mess up all the TLCs? A little sulfur in the hydrogenation catalysts? Once you start thinking of these things, the ideas just tumble out.
It's the same with larger and more terrible issues. I, like (I'm sure) many other organic chemists, could sit down and think up all kinds of nasty stuff if I were so minded. I'm not, fortunately, but if I ever found myself on the rough end of a guerrilla war, I might be useful to have around. (Science fiction fans may recall a scientist character improvising chemical weapons in such a situation in Niven and Pournelle's potboiler disaster novel Lucifer's Hammer). The chemical weapons of World War I seem to have been an example of just this sort of thing, with university chemists basically clearing the shelves of all sorts of nasty lab reagents to toss them experimentally at the enemy.
No, it's easy, although weirdly depressing, to come up with interesting horrible ideas. (I'm reminded of how C. S. Lewis said he wrote from a demon's point of view in The Screwtape Letters). But it's not something I sit around doing, and I'm not going to share any of those thoughts I might have already. The world has enough horrible ideas as it stands.