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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 16, 2013

A Bombing

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Posted by Derek

I'm still trying to figure out if anyone I know personally was injured during yesterday's bombing of the Boston Marathon. So far, it's just been a couple of close calls. As it happened, I was out of town yesterday, and only saw the news in the early evening.

What sort of explosive chemistry was used might provide some clues about the people who did this - different groups have different ideas about what makes the best catastrophe. What sort of thinking allows a human being to go ahead with an act like this - bombing a festive crowd of innocent spectators and families on a spring afternoon - is beyond my comprehension, though.

I'll be traveling today, so I probably won't have another post up. My condolences to everyone affected by this act, and for those who perpetrated it, honi soit qui mal y pense, in the sense of "Evil to those who think evil".

Comments (38) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. RB Woodweird on April 16, 2013 9:24 AM writes...

I once considered buying a house in Milton which had been built around 1928 - to replace a house which had been badly damaged by an anarchist bomb. One of the Sacco-Vanzetti jurors lived there. Nobody was hurt in that blast, but anarchist supporters also set off a blast on Wall Street which killed 38 people.

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2. opsomath on April 16, 2013 9:54 AM writes...

Aside from the obvious tragedy of innocents hurt and killed, it strikes me particularly hard that this attack represented a turning of our field to evil ends, as someone probably brewed up some basement explosives. I pray that we can counter by using our knowledge to find and stop the disturbed perpetrator.

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3. Bob Weiss on April 16, 2013 9:57 AM writes...

The clouds of white smoke and reports of a sulfur smell after the bombs went off suggest old fashioned black powder to me.

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4. Kent G. Budge on April 16, 2013 10:02 AM writes...

Derek, in spite of the fact that no one has claimed responsibility and the police aren't naming any suspects, there are ignoranti in the press who are already suggesting answers to your question about who could do something like this.

I don't think "psychopath" is actually a political ideology, and I think even people who are deeply divided on their political policy preferences ought to be able to agree that terrorists are hostis humanis generii, the common enemies of all mankind.

But what I think doesn't matter much, I suppose.

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5. Vader on April 16, 2013 10:17 AM writes...

Bob, there does seem to have been a lot of particulates in the residue, suggesting a salt-based oxidant such as potassium nitrate. But black powder is a propellant, or "low explosive", rather than a high explosive; you have to confine it to get much of a bang, and it's hard to see how the terrorists could have contrived that.

I, too, have read reports of a gunpowder smell afterwards, but I'm not sure how seriously to take them. I don't know that many folks could distinguish gunpowder from various kinds of explosive residues.

On the other hand, I've seen reports that the explosive was laced with ball bearings for shrapnel. So perhaps the damage was primarily from shrapnel, rather than blast, and it really was gunpowder.

We know from the lack of a smoky fireball that it wasn't an underoxidized explosive such as pure TNT, but that really doesn't narrow the list of suspects much.

I would be a bit surprised if this was an ammonium nitrate/diesel based explosive, such as McVeigh used in Oklahoma City. Those required a fairly large volume of explosive mixture for reliable detonation, and these were (in those terms; please don't jump all over me) relatively small explosions. The one in the hotel lobby didn't bring down the hotel, or even the facade of the hotel, for example.

None of this really tells us much about which particularly flavor of nutjob was behind it.

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6. Curious Wavefunction on April 16, 2013 10:20 AM writes...

The Times has already compared the bomb to the one used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing which was a crude homemade explosive. Condolences and best wishes to those affected.

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7. Anon on April 16, 2013 10:27 AM writes...

Google has a people finder link.

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8. luysii on April 16, 2013 10:32 AM writes...

This is a link to an interview with Bill Ayers, former weatherman and terrorist which appeared 11 September 2001. In it he says He says he ”I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” I think the interview was on the bottom left corner of the front page (at least the edition available in Syracuse that day).

Today (15 April ’13) they have an article by a prisoner in Guantanamo on the opinion page saying it’s killing him.

Tomorrow, expect stories about Muslims cowering in fear. Next week — Islam is a religion of peace.

Res ispa loquitur

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9. PPedroso on April 16, 2013 10:43 AM writes...

I heard in the news that there were traces of C4 in engines and that they were filled with sharpnel that explains the several amputations that the doctors had to perform.

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10. DannoH on April 16, 2013 11:15 AM writes...

From what I saw on the news, none of the video of the devices going off, nor the effects on nearby glass, showed what looked like a detonation; I would tend to concur with Bob and Vader that the propellant was likely a compound that undergoes low-order deflagration, as was described above.

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11. a. nonymaus on April 16, 2013 11:24 AM writes...

Re: #5) All black powder needs to explode like that is to be packed into a steel pipe (or wooden barrel if you're Guy Fawkes). It could have been that, or a chlorate/perchlorate-based mixture. It could even have been commercially-available smokeless powder, although that should have had a brownish tinge from nitrogen dioxide. Probably wasn't acetone peroxide due to the lack of smoke. The traces of C-4 are probably false-positives from diesel-fuel additives.

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12. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on April 16, 2013 11:27 AM writes...

It's completely incomprehensible how someone could construct an explosive and detonate it in a crowd of people, targeting no one in particular, just trying to achieve maximum carnage. Such people (thankfully rare) should be tied to a St. Andrews Cross in the public square and the victim's families allowed to administer kicks to the groin until death. I would have no moral objection to such punishment and would actually sleep quite well.

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13. chris on April 16, 2013 11:30 AM writes...

Just saw on Fox News that they were pressure-cooker bombs, first popular in Afghanistan apparently. Reminded me of that XKCD link that you gave a week ago:

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14. Anon on April 16, 2013 1:07 PM writes...

#12 I was about to say the exact same thing. Creepy.

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15. Steve on April 16, 2013 1:35 PM writes...

I went to college in Boston, and this event hits me particularly hard. Upon hearing about the bombing, my wife was also visibly shaken. She said if I was considering another career, she would be okay with me seeking a commission in the Navy or Air Force to work on explosives or chemical warfare agents to get back at these animals. Just a rhetorical question, but why can't these sickos just leave us alone? My prayers go to the victims, the bystanders, the families, my beloved city of Boston, and humanity. God help us.

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16. organic chemist on April 16, 2013 1:55 PM writes...

I'm not an analytical chemist, but aren't there mass-spec based detection methods that can scan for MS signatures of explosive chemicals in the air? I swear I've at least heard of a prototype of this method/device that could be used in airports. You could imagine placing sensors (ideally inexpensive ones) on the inside of trash cans (maybe top of the lid) in urban areas. Could also be used to sense drugs or other illegal materials.

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17. LeeH on April 16, 2013 2:42 PM writes...


I think it's

On y soit qui mal y pense.

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18. Anonymous academic on April 16, 2013 5:12 PM writes...

@14: some people just enjoy mass murder; there's no point in looking for an explanation. The same goes for any politically or religiously motivated terror or violent crime - the perpetrators may use any number of excuses for their acts, but they all have the same reason in the end.

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19. Trottelreiner on April 16, 2013 6:16 PM writes...

Actually, bombs from pressure cookers are not that new and not first heard of out of Afghanistan or like. There is a German comedy from 2001 that deals with some punks building such a bomb in the late 80s. Problem is, it goes off about 12 years later...

Note: Till Schweiger as an actor is a crime against humanity in itself, though Ms. Uhl is kinda cute. Err.

There was also a case in Dresden, Germany in 2003 that involved one failed entrepeneur turned blackmailer.

So no, the technology is not that new, and it doesn't help with finding the culprit that much. Except if you already know who's at fault.

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20. Trottelreiner on April 16, 2013 6:23 PM writes...

@ 17:
Actually, if the Milgram experiment taught us anything, it's having a nice backstory helps when giving lethal electroshocks to your fellow human beings learning lessons:

The lessons in question being the Islamic ulema, New Soviet Man or the glories of unrestrained free markets are somewhat secondary.

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21. djm on April 16, 2013 7:04 PM writes...

The New York Times quotes an unnamed law-enforcement official as saying the bombs used black powder:

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22. Nick K on April 16, 2013 8:25 PM writes...

#16: The actual saying is: Honi soit qui mal y pense, from the old French honnir or honir, to shame. In other words, shame to he who thinks evil.

This bombing was despicable, and my heart goes out to the victims.

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23. Miramon on April 17, 2013 12:11 AM writes...

Yes, the meaning of the quote is "shame on you for thinking that someone else has done something wrong" -- NOT "you should receive evil in payment for your own evil."

It's the motto of the Order of the Garter, after all, from when the King's cousin lost her garter in public and the King picked it up to give back to her, uttering that remark to deflect any criticism she might otherwise received.

In the actual event, the quote is quite apt, given the false claims in the news about that Saudi who was injured in the blast.

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24. SteveM on April 17, 2013 10:49 AM writes...

Re: "bombing a festive crowd of innocent spectators and families"

Sounds a little like American Drone Slaughter of Yemeni and Pakistani wedding parties.

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25. Anony on April 17, 2013 1:32 PM writes...

SteveM: Here's the difference in one word - "Intentional"

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26. Lylw Langley on April 17, 2013 1:36 PM writes...

@SteveM, #24...
No, it doesn't, sorry.

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27. metaphysician on April 17, 2013 4:00 PM writes...


The distinct lack of a legitimate target amidst the Boston Marathon makes a *big* difference. Contrary to what you'd like the think, the US doesn't kill people for shits and giggles. It kills people because its pretty sure they are enemies who seek to kill *us*.

If they don't want innocent bystanders to die when a missile descends on their head? They should stop hiding amongst innocent bystanders.

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28. SteveM on April 17, 2013 4:04 PM writes...

Re: 25 & 26 Anony and Lylw Langley

Do a wiki search on "Deh Bala Wedding party airstrike"

Plenty more where those came from. Only we don't get to read about them.

While you're at it, take a look at the "Collateral Murder" video on YouTube for an encore.

Boston was horrible and the killers are rancid. But it's not unique.

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29. SteveM on April 17, 2013 4:12 PM writes...

BTW, see the Glenn Greenwald column "The Boston bombing produces familiar and revealing reactions" at the guardian uk web site for a better analysis of America's unfortunate, selective empathy.

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30. Vader on April 17, 2013 4:49 PM writes...

Speaking of rancid, I think this thread is reaching the end of its shelf life.

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31. metaphysician on April 17, 2013 7:15 PM writes...

And still no inkling of a concept of "legitimate targets." The fact that you either cannot or will not distinguish between the accidental slaying of innocents and the *totally intentional* slaying of innocents says a lot. . .

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32. SteveM on April 17, 2013 7:35 PM writes...

Re: 31 metaphysician "accidental slaying of innocents and the *totally intentional"..

The difference between "accidental" and "totally intentional" is defined by who is doing the killing. And who controls the message.

Was fire bombing the civilians in Dresden accidental or totally intentional?

Some want Bradley Manning to be executed for intruding on that control.

OK, that's it, I'm done...

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33. Anonymous on April 17, 2013 10:32 PM writes...

Bottom line is the person (s) who did this is (are) losers. Period... Life losers. Karma will seal their fate. I can't wait till they find the losers and rip them a new one...

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34. Gordonjcp on April 18, 2013 3:36 AM writes...

I do find myself wondering how many of the people baying for blood today were the people who put their hands in their pockets for The Cause back in the 70s and 80s. I wonder if they realise they were funding terrorists attacks very muck like this one, in the UK and Ireland?

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35. MMol on April 18, 2013 8:48 AM writes...

We should all learn not to jump to too many conclusions, yet, and SteveM has some valid points. Sadly, outside of our cosy societies, perceptions about reasons/blame may be different - if that were you son's or daughter's wedding..... - but also appreciate that perception rapidly becomes reality. The IRA did fairly well in B-ton until some pennies dropped (or finally didn't) there. Here (UK) we have also had a lot of this but the key is, while staying careful, don't bow to the threat because that's when "they" really will win. I hope the B-ton marathon next year is the biggest ever.

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36. NUchemist on April 18, 2013 12:22 PM writes...

Cockroaches like SteveM always emerge from the darkness to spout off their anti-American sentiments after tragedies like this. Why don't you go scurry back to your hole.

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37. petros on April 20, 2013 8:19 AM writes...

And the plant in West was apparently storing 270 tons (!!!!!) of ammonium nitrate

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38. Randle McMurphy on April 21, 2013 12:53 AM writes...

Stevem is only a cockroach to lazy thinkers and misguided patriots. Ideas aren't a threat, ignorance and denial are. If you don't question "authority," it owns you. I have no plans to become chattel, and I applaud SteveM.

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