pick your poison

Scientistjenluc_7 Chalk up another casualty to the "mad scientist" stereotype. Network newscasters were chortling merrily earlier this week over the sad spectacle of a distinguished NASA astronaut who became a wee bit unhinged from the severe emotional stress accompanying the dissolution of her marriage, and transferred all that angst onto her rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. Specifically, Lisa Marie Nowak, 43, donned a trench coat, wig and dark glasses, strapped on a pair of Depends underneath (so as not to have to stop along the way), and drove 950 miles from Houston to Orlando to confront Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. Then she followed Shipman to her parked car, and when Shipman cracked open her window to answer a question, Nowak sprayed pepper spray into the vehicle — an act Nowak later admitted "was stupid."

Um, ya think? Nowak clearly needs a better coping mechanism. I'm under an especially intense amount of stress now, too, but you don't see me donning diapers and driving 1000 miles armed with pepper spray. I deal with it by getting a bit shirty with telemarketers and hiding under the bedcovers for an hour or so each day. Regardless, the story certainly didn't warrant the degree of attention it received. Mostly, I feel bad for Nowak, a rare woman in the space sciences who until now has been a perfectly respectable member of the astronautical community. Where were the network newscasters when she was making her own bit of history orbiting the Earth in space? This is not, I'd warrant, how she wants to be remembered, and now it will forever be a footnote to her life's work. (Forty years from now, her obituary could still read, "In 2007, Nowak briefly crumbled under the strain of her failed marriage," etc.)

However it does illustrate that scientists are people too: they  fall in love, marry, divorce, and occasionally develop unhealthy romantic obsessions just like everybody else (except for Jen-Luc Piquant, who swears she is the Bride of Science). Cupid's arrow doesn't discriminate. And while love might make the world go 'round, if it gets too intensely focused, love can also make you do the wacky (to loosely paraphrase the incomparable Buffy).

Nowak's unfortunate 15 minutes in the glare of the media spotlight comes on the heels of a cable TV special I watched a couple of weeks ago, detailing the descent into obsessive madness of a chemist named Alan Chmurny over his pretty young (married) co-worker, Marta Bradley. The episode title? "Mad Scientist." The producers were careful to include lots of scary, close-up shots of Chmurny's eyes, accompanied by ominous music, in an attempt to turn him into Charlie Manson. In reality, the unfortunate Chmurny was slightly eccentric, but perfectly pleasant and unremarkable in appearance. He was no Manson; he definitely needed meds. But his love for Bradley did, alas, eventually turn murderous.

It all began so innocently. Chmurny and Bradley worked together at a biotech firm in Maryland called Oceanix. He was a vice president in the company, but took a liking to Bradley. Among other things, she was a talented classical musician, and he was a classical music buff. They forged an unlikely friendship that inexplicably began to sour as Chmurny began exhibiting "wildly changing moods." He began confiding wild tales to Bradley about his foundering marriage, his diagnosis of stomach cancer (from which he miraculously recovered), a supposed girlfriend named Debbie who was mysteriously killed in a car accident — most of which turned out to be fabrications.

Bradley instinctively began to pull away, but this only caused his behavior to escalate. Bradley's car mysteriously developed a flat tire. There was a break-in at her home; the intruder stole fancy lingerie plus some jewelry given to her by Chmurny. These items were later returned, by Chmurny, who claimed they'd been left in his office by some unknown person. Inside was a note: "I'm not through with you." Eventually Chmurny's behavior became so erratic that Oceanix was forced to fire him, leaving him ample free time to nurse his paranoid obsession and continue stalking Bradley. Stalking is a nasty, terrifying bit of business; it happened to a good friend of mine, who found, like Bradley, that law enforcement officials couldn't do much to help unless there was an overt act of violence.

It was probably just a matter of time before Chmurny became openly violent in his intentions. (Physicists shouldn't assume their field is immune to this sort of thing, by the way; check out my earlier post about the Alabama physics professor alleged to have strangled his wife.) But Bradley couldn't prove definitely that it was him. Chmurny was smart enough to cover his tracks. Then came the morning in April 2000 when Bradley walked out to her car and found it had been broken into. There were strange, small silver specks all over the console, including the heating/air conditioner vents. It turned out to be liquid mercury. And it was a bona fide murder attempt, since mercury is highly toxic, especially in its gaseous state. Had Bradley turned on her heat, the liquid mercury would have quickly evaporated into a toxic gas and poisoned her. Air saturated with mercury vapor at room temperature has a very high concentration — many times the toxic level — and becomes increasingly dangerous as temperatures increase.

Mercury, or quicksilver, as it is commonly known, is a transition metal, one of five elements that are liquid at standard room temperatures. Frankly, it's quite lovely as elements go, its beauty belying its deadly nature — a veritable l'element fatale. It filled decorative pools and fountains in Islamic Spain, a practice revived by Alexander Calder when he built a mercury fountain for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. That fountain is still on display in Barcelona.

Apart from being decorative, Mercury has historically been used to treat various ailments, before its toxic properties were fully understood. It was certainly known in ancient China; China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, is believed to have been driven insane and killed by mercury pills. Ironically, he took them in hopes of achieving eternal life, and legend holds he was buried in a tomb containing rivers of flowing mercury to represent the rivers of China. The ancient Greeks used mercury in ointments, and it found its way into Roman cosmetics as well.

Among medieval alchemists, mercury was a required element for the transmutation of base metals into gold (something the alchemists never achieved, but hey, they kept hoping).  During the 1800s, it was used to treat syphilis, (sometimes killing the intended patient), and to treat constipation, depression, and toothaches. In the early 20th century, children were administered mercury every year as a laxative and dewormer. It was also used to refine gold and silver ores, something still practiced by gold miners in Brazil's Amazon basin.  In modern times, it's been used to cool nuclear reactions, as an ingredient in dental amalgams, and before the advent of digital thermometers, the devices were filled with mercury. (I remember my mother panicking when, as a very young child, I accidentally broke such a thermometer. At the time, I didn't understand why she freaked out; and I was mercifully spared any ill effects.)

Marta Bradley was astute enough to call the police when she saw the mysterious silver specks in her car, thereby sparing herself an unpleasant experience with often-fatal mercury poisoning. Many others haven't been so lucky. You know that phrase, "mad as a hatter"? It most likely arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the furs used to make beaver felt hats were dipped in mercury compounds to separate the fur from the pelt ad mat it together. The solution produced toxic vapors which adversely affected workers in the felt hat trade. The poisoning caused shaking and splurred speech, symptoms which were lumped under "hatter's disease."

The most potent form of mercury is dimethyl mercury, a neurotoxin that can easily cross the blood/brain barrier and can prove lethal even in minuscule amounts (on the order of a fraction of a milliliter). The compound damages the central nervous system, kidneys, and the endocrine system, and prolonged or heavy exposure results in brain damage and death. Mostly, its effects are cumulative; usually, by the time its effects are noticed, it is too late to save the victim.

Take the unfortunate case of Karen Wetterhahn, a distinguished chemist working at Dartmouth College to study how mercury ions interacted with DNA repair proteins, in hopes of shedding light on the possible role of such heavy metals in causing cancer. In August 1996, she was in the lab, wearing safety goggles and latex gloves for protection. Despite these precautions, a small drop of the compound spilled onto her gloved hand, penetrating the latex in 15 seconds, where it passed through her skin. (It turns out that one must not only wear latex gloves, but also cover them with a pair of neoprene gloves for added protection.) By January 1997, she noted a tingling sensation in her fingers and toes. Her speech began slurring, she struggled with balance, and her vision suffered. She died in June 1997; at the time she had a blood mercury level of 4000 micrograms per liter, 80 times the toxic threshold.

As for Marta Bradley, her ordeal ended in September 2001, when Chmurny poisoned himself with cyanide after a jury found him guilty of assault and reckless endangerment — which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. He died the next day. One could hardly say he escaped justice, since death by cyanide poisoning is extremely unpleasant, particularly in the concentrations he must have ingested to fall ill within 15 minutes: high concentrations lead to seizures, apnea and cardiac arrest, often a coma, and death can follow in a matter of minutes.

Actually, not all cyanides are toxic: one of the most potent forms is hydrogen cyanide, a gas that smells faintly of almonds, although 40% of the population can't smell it at all — a genetic quirk. (In an NCIS episode called "Bloodbath", one of the characters detects that distinct smell minutes before collapsing from the exposure — clearly one of the lucky 60% able to do so.) Equally toxic are the salts that derive from hydrogen cyanide, such as potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide. The victims of the infamous Jonestown massacre in Guyana back in 1978 drank Kool-Aid laced with potassium cyanide. Being a chemist by trade, Chmurny would have known all too well the type and dosage he'd need to kill himself. He lasted a bit longer than he probably expected, due to the timely intervention of medical personnel — that, and the fact that he calmly informed his lawyer he'd taken the pills within a few minutes of doing so.

For those would-be poisoners with a particularly strong sadistic streak, there's always polonium, which Wikipedia estimates is around 5 million times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, weight for weight. Just ask former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Oh wait, you can't: he tragically died after being poisoned with polonium 210 late last year. Effect Measure has several terrifically thorough posts about the case here, here, and here. And in a bizarre twist to the tale, detectives investigating Litvinenko's case now believe he was administered the poison via a teapot while staying in the Millennium Hotel in Piccadilly, in central London. Ionizing radiation is a nasty thing, especially if polonium is ingested, as in the Litvinenko murder, especially since death takes several weeks.

He's not the first to die from such exposure. Irene Joliot Curie — daughter of Pierre and Marie — was accidentally exposed to polonium when a sealed capsule of the stuff exploded on her laboratory bench. It took 10 years, but she eventually died in Paris from leukemia, in 1956. A physicist at the Weizmann Institute named Dror Sadeh was exposed to a radiation leak of polonium 210 in 1957. Sadeh died of cancer, one of his students succumbed to leukemia, and two more colleagues died a few years later, also from cancer believed to have resulted from the leak.

All this is enough to make me never want to drive a car or drink tea again. But if I had to pick a poison, I think I'd choose arsenic. True, it also results in a horrifying unpleasant death via extreme gastric distress. But it's possible to build up a strong resistance to the substance over time with regular, small-dose ingestions. So there's a greater chance of surviving a poisoning (whether accidental or deliberate) — if you start preparing now. It makes the skin all clear and pretty, too.

24 thoughts on “pick your poison”

  1. Not long after the Litvinenko story broke, a friend of mine in the nuclear engineering field announced over dinner, “I can get polonium over eBay.”
    There followed a confused hubbub. As he told us, back in the 1940s General Motors used polonium in spark plugs; the radiation from the polonium ionized the air and made it easier for sparks to form. Unfortunately, the isotope which killed Litvinenko has a half-life of only 138 days, so had any been there, not much would be left.
    I once read a book by a forensic pathologist who said that because not everybody can smell cyanide, there’s often one poor guy on the coroner’s staff who is called over each time cyanide is suspected to smell the dead body.

  2. Resume
    Razors pain you;
    Rivers are damp;
    Acids stain you;
    And drugs cause cramp.
    Guns aren’t lawful;
    Nooses give;
    Gas smells awful;
    You might as well live.
    –Dorothy Parker

  3. Tim has a new series coming in April called Drive, and one of the regular characters is a physicist from Pasadena. Interesting to me is that his job takes a backseat to his lfe, caring for his daughter (okay, so maybe there’s a rocket scientist joke or two) and he’s not written as some sort of Rainmanesque freak.
    We’ve been talking about Nowak at the lab, and the part that always strikes me is how can anyone drive over 900 miles and still be mad?

  4. Hi Jennifer,
    what a great, informative post! I read it avidly. I also broke a few mercury thermometers in my youth, but I do not think they harmed me… I think most of the mercury I am exposed to come from eating tuna. Tuna is a fish that likes to eat on the sea floor, where lots of heavy metals are deposited in the mediterranean.

  5. [Arsenic] makes the skin all clear and pretty, too.
    Planning to leave a good-looking corpse? 🙂 I should warn you that Does Anything Eat Wasps? (you’ll have to Google it, the comment system here strips out my links) doesn’t think much of the arsenic immunity plan, saying “… the physical basis for such a tolerance has never been ascertained, and arsenic is known to be carcinogenic in small quantities”. Best stick to something quick and sure!

  6. I remember when I was in 4th or 5th grade we would hold up thermometers to the lamp and then break them; I thought the little bits of mercury rolling around in my palm was the coolest thing. (My mother wasn’t pleased with these mysteriously broken thermometers.) I can’t remember who gave us this idea, but we were under the impression that such a small amount wouldn’t hurt us. Then in 7th grade our science teacher had a nice glob of it – couldn’t play with it, though…darn. 😉
    Ken, I happened to have thumbed through that book at Borders yesterday. Here is the Amazon url (you can’t use HTML tags here): http://tinyurl.com/2rb4j9
    Alas, I was trying to knock off other books from my Amazon Wish List and had to resist *that* one. Also, I was reminded of Jennifer’s informative “snowflake” post when I saw Ken Libbrecht’s “Field Guide to Snowflakes” (Hardcover) facing out on the shelf. It really is a beautiful little book and would make a great gift for a snowbound person (like some in NY right now) who has plenty of flakes to look at. Nice quality photos. Unfortunately I had already hit my $$ quota, so that will have to go on the Wish List…
    Too, Jennifer, I was pleased to see both of your books facing out on the physics shelf at Border’s – not next to eachother, so they made for nice symmetry. They really are attractive covers. Above you was the “Physics of Superheroes” facing out, and down a shelf was “Bad Astronomy.” 🙂 I won’t go into the bad science books that have now infiltrated the section – especially on the biology shelves. (Yes, I’m dorky – I pay attention to how books are displayed, cover designs, publishers’ logos, etc.)
    T., Heavy Metal in the marine environment: http://www.webelements.com/webelements/elements/media/nearingzero/Hg.gif

  7. There is one par of the Mad NASA scientist story I just don’t get…she puts on a diaper so she can drive 950 miles without stopping?
    What kind of car does she have that she can drive 950 miles on one tank of gas? Does she get like 60 miles per gallon? This story sounds like bunk. I bet the government is trying to discredit her because they are afraid she’ll leak some scary info…

  8. I think it is very sad how so many bright minds seem to have that spot where they completely whack out. Perhaps it is the semi lack of real socialization that once their stasis, or balance gets lost, they basically don’t know how to mitigate the pain and so react in odd, and as you pointed out, sometimes dangerous ways.
    Nowak did indeed flip out out. 20 years ago, we never would have heard a word about it. But now, the society’s craving for drama cannot be quenched. This poor dear, nuts as she may be, doesn’t need to be crucified over her obvious inability to deal with her emotional states.
    Maybe some mental types ought not receive high level education? Maybe the larger “libraries of the mind” cause problems for some people. It seems that a necessary trick is to learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

  9. Two mercury stories: When I was a kid back in the 50s, after every visit my dentist (whose name, unbelievably, but I swear it’s true, was Speedee Nutz) would give me a shiny dime for being a good patient. It was shiny because he’d dipped it in mercury. My dad worked for the telephone company and he had some kind of testing kit that contained a bottle of mercury. I used to play with the contents with my bare hands, and I can’t believe that I haven’t suffered some kind of permanent, debilitating damage from this exposure.
    My high school chemistry teacher told us a story about someone who thought he had discovered gold. As a test, he dissolved it in mercury (I think that’s called an amalgam), and then heated it on the kitchen stove with the exhaust fan going. The mercury vapors spread throughout the house, coating nearly everything with an atom-thick layer of mercury. Everyone got sick, and the house was uninhabitable for several decades until the mercury had evaporated. And of course, there was no gold–just iron pyrites.

  10. My uncle had a Coke bottle filled with mercury. No one knows where it is now, but I remember being strangely attracted to it.

  11. Matt:
    My Honda could make a 950-mile trip (assuming interstate highway driving) on slightly less than three tanks of gas. Tanking up is quicker now, too, if you can afford it, thanks to the slots on all the pumps which accept those nifty little plastic cards. Not having to take bathroom breaks might cut the time one has to spend off the Interstate in half.
    A slender peg on which to hang a conspiracy. . . .

  12. “The Elements of Murder” by John Emsley, Oxford University Press, 2005, is an interesting book describing the “classic” elements of poisoning. It contains many stories of intentional and unintentional poisonings by mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, thallium, and other elements (but not polonium).

  13. Alejandro Rivero

    “Among medieval alchemists, mercury was a required element for the transmutation of base metals into gold (something the alchemists never achieved, but hey, they kept hoping)”
    Actually it is a fine exersice on nuclear bonding forces to calculate the energy released in the transmutation of *mercury itself* into gold. You can suspect it is feasible because mercury misses by two the shell closure of 82 protons. A ckeck can be done from the table of nuclides, for instance in http://atom.kaeri.re.kr/ The process to look is 201 Hg going to 197 Pt plus 4 He, and then beta to 197 Au, the stable isotope. The mass difference 201 Hg minus 197 Pt is 4.002954 amu, to be compared with the mass of 4 He, 4.002603 amu. The energy available is .000772 amu. The beta process, from 197Pt to 197Au, has another .000351 amu available and proceeds smoothly in about 20 hours. The alchemical quest is to find a substance (“the stone”) or a method (“a particular”) able to induce the initial alpha decay (and no others) in a sustainable way. A minor nuisance is that 201 Hg is only a 13% of the natural mercury and probably some isotope separation is also required here.
    Modern alchemists are usually old people living in the countryside, thus not afraid of poisoning. They keep to the rule that every step in the process must be done (and understood) by the alchemist. Then it is a very good hobby for the retirement: you must locate and extract the minerals you want to use, as well as some organic substances. You must process them to get your basic chemistry set: acids, alkalis and all that. I think they are allowed to buy the instrumental (furnaces, glassware, etc) but perhaps there is even a ultraorthodox branch I am not aware of. I am not sure if they are allowed to use electricity nor modern isotope separation equipment; most probably they rely on repeated distillation, a procedure to be done only a a really isolated countryside; every nuclear physicist can tell terror histories about accidents during this kind of processing. Fortunately the scammers in the alchemical world play safe by leaving nuclear theory aside and selling some fake superconductivity recipes or simple cristalography games.
    (footnote: I am not an expert on the use of the nuclide tables, so I could be doing a wrong interpretation of the mass data above. If so, I would be happy to be corrected… it is actually a bit embarrasing to admit the above processes)

  14. It would seem that, perhaps, if one has at some time been subject to less gravity than the remainder of us forever ground pounders, this could result in the release of not quite normal behavior. Could NASA have overlooked the basic equipment needed for space flight? Maybe they forgot the Psych guys? Your head in the clouds, your feet on the ground. Although pepper spray is better than a 9mm, its the diaper that really is the Dark Side of behavior. Could be that on the road to NASA, those high achievers don’t cope well with what they may see as failure. How much Mercury is there in a pair of Depends? For that matter, why are in need of such news items, and the every last detail they seem to think we need? Oh!! I get it!! NASA can now endorse adult diapers. Don’t leave Earth without them. At least now they should be able to afford getting one of their own the help she needs. I hold no similar hope for the Media.

  15. What I don’t understand about the Nowak case is why she’s being charged with attempted murder after pepper spraying her rival. A guy exhibits this behavior and all he gets charged with is stalking. Not defending Nowak (as she’s clearly gone over the wall), but this seems like an extreme charge to me. I know she had weapons in the car, but never took them out. Or is there something I missed in the news reports?

  16. When I was a first year at secondary school (year 7) in 1991, our physics teacher demonstrated the properties of a gas that was heavier than air. He poured a flask of chlorine into the classroom.

  17. My favorite use for mercury is as a telescope mirror (look up “large zenith telescope” in Google – feh no links.)
    One of my physics texts shows someone melting a bar of gallium in their hand. Hot stuff.

  18. I think your blog is highly instructive, one of the best I had the opportunity to read.
    I am from Brazil, not a physicist, but a “general” reader of science texts…As others told, I played with mercury drops from broken thermometers when I was a child…apparently I feel very well today.
    Keep it going!

  19. Hey.
    I want to be a forensic scientist when I’m older *I am only 13* and the bit about cyanide was really useful. I have wanted to know why only some people can smell it after I read it in a book once. Thanks!

  20. My friend is Marta Bradley’s niece, and today when she told me the story in school, I just stood there in lunch thinking that this guy had to be psycho or something to do something like this. So, I googled “Marta Bradley” and sure enough, there was a Court TV Episode about her and this article, which is extremely creepy by the way… Mercury!?!

  21. Is it me or does Marta Bradley look a lot like Lisa Nowak. Are they sisters? I cannot get over the resemblance. It would be extremely ironic if it was.

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