Field of Science

A particularly heinous crime: Neurology professor poisons neurologist wife

From Science Careers comes this account of a heartbreaking and especially twisted crime. A professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Ferrante, has been charged with poisoning his 41-year-old wife with cyanide, an ancient poison that never seems to lose its allure. The wife was also a neurologist at the university. What really stunned me was this part:

"Authorities say that Ferrante poisoned Klein by mixing cyanide with creatine, CBSNews reports. According to Ferrante's online biography, his work "has provided the basis for human trials" using creatine. Klein consumed the drink because Ferrante told her it would help them conceive a child."

It takes a special kind of heartless monster to do that.

I cannot easily find references about using creatine to facilitate conception; since it's used as a nutritional supplement for muscle building and strength, Ferrante could have used a very simple argument to convince his wife to drink the deadly concoction. Apparently he obtained the cyanide through a lab member using a university credit card. One wonders if his associate ever suspected what a neurologist would need 250 grams of cyanide for (unfortunately chemists can obtain quantities of cyanide quite easily; I have seen half a pound of cyanide sitting in a chemical cabinet). Ferrante also seems to have performed the initial experiments within open sight of lab personnel:

He asked for the "best and purest cyanide he could get" to be delivered the next day, the witness said.

In addition, the affidavit continued, Mr. Ferrante asked that the chemical be purchased using a separate credit card not typically used in the lab.

A witness told investigators that particular card is a "last choice for purchases" and that it was the first time Mr. Ferrante had used it. Out of 145 chemicals bought by the lab, the only one purchased not related to a project or grant was the cyanide.

The same day the chemical arrived, another person in the lab witnessed Mr. Ferrante obtain a large container of creatine, measure it, mix it with water and sucrose and then drink it.

Early on April 17, Mr. Ferrante asked the witness to measure out more of the creatine, and they then placed it in a bag.

That day, according to the report, Mr. Ferrante and Klein exchanged text messages in which she said she would begin ovulating the next day. Mr. Ferrante told her to take creatine.

"I'm serious," he texted. "It will make a huge difference. I am certain of it."

When paramedics arrived at the couple's home to treat Klein the night she collapsed, according to the affidavit, they noted a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag containing a white substance along with a small glass vial in the kitchen, where Klein was found on the floor.

The report also says that out of the 250 grams of cyanide, 8.3 grams were missing. The lethal dose of cyanide is pegged at 200 milligrams on many websites; the exact dose and duration of action depends on factors like the contents of the stomach, with a higher secretion of stomach acid facilitating poisoning. In any case, if Ferrante is indeed guilty, then from the description it seems that he has left ample evidence. 

I can never understand what can possibly cause someone to put their entire life, career and reputation on the line and exhaust all other avenues of domestic conflict resolution, no matter how complicated their personal lives are (in this case a divorce might have been a simple solution). In any case, there's not much use speculating right now since Ferrante has not been officially convicted yet. But if he is indeed guilty of what he has been charged with, I cannot possibly think of subjecting him to anything other than the harshest possible punishment that is feasible for this kind of a crime.

Memo to chemists: Move away from the molecule

Megacities of the future - with their heterogeneous population and large-scale problems - will challenges the imagination of chemists (Image: Bldg Blog)
Harvard chemist George Whitesides probably does not consider himself a philosopher of chemistry, but he is rapidly turning into one with his thought-provoking pronouncements on the future of the field and its practitioners. His latest rumination is a piece in the Annual Reviews of Analytical Chemistry provocatively titled "Is the Focus on Molecules Obsolete?" where he uses analytical chemistry as an excuse to really pontificate on the state and progress of chemical science. Along the way he also has some valuable words of advice for aspiring chemists.

Whitesides's main message to young chemists is to stop focusing on molecules. Given the nature of chemistry this advice may seem strange, even blasphemous. After all it's the molecule that has always been the heart and soul of chemical science. And for chemists, the focus on molecules has manifested itself through two important activities - structure determination and synthesis. The history of chemistry is essentially the history of finding out the structure of molecules and of developing new and efficient methods of making them. Putting these molecules to new uses is what underpins our modern world, but it was really a secondary goal for most of chemistry's history. Whitesides tells us that the focus of the world's foremost scientific problems is moving away from composition to use, from molecules to properties. Thus the new breed of chemists should really focus on creating properties rather on creating molecules. The vehicle for Whitesides's message is the science and art of analytical chemistry which has traditionally dealt with developing new instrumentation and methods for analyzing the structure and properties of molecules.

Of course, since properties depend on structures, Whitesides is not telling us to abandon our search for better, cleaner and more efficient techniques of synthesis. Rather, I see what he is saying as a kind of "platform independence". Let's take a minute to talk about platform independence. As the physicist Leo Kadanoff has demonstrated, you can build a computer by moving around 1s and 0s or by moving around buckets of water, with full buckets essentially representing 1s and empty ones representing 0s. Both models can give rise to computing. Just like 1s and 0s simply turn out to be convenient abstract moving parts for building computers, similarly a certain kind of molecule should be seen as no more than a convenient vehicle for creating a particular property. That property can be anything from "better stability in whole blood" to "efficient capture of solar energy" to "tensile strength". The synthesis of whatever molecular material gives rise to particular properties is important, but it should be secondary; a convenient means to an end that can be easily replaced with another means. As an example from his own childhood, Whitesides describes a project carried out in his father's company in which his job was to determine the viscosities of different coal-tar blacks. The exact kind of coal-tar black was important, but what really counted was the property - viscosity - and not the molecular composition.

A focus on properties is accompanied by one on molecular systems, since often it's a collection of different, diverse molecules rather than of a single type that gives rise to a desired property. What kind of problems will benefit from a molecular systems approach? Whitesides identifies four critical ones; health care, environmental management, national security and megacity management. We have already been living with the first three challenges, and the fourth one looms large on the horizon.

Firstly, health care. Right now most of the expenditure on health care, especially in the United States, is on end-of-life care. Preventative medicine and diagnostics are still relegated to the sidelines. One of the most important measures to drive down the cost of healthcare will be to focus on prevention, thus avoiding the expensive, all-out war that is often waged - and lost - on diseases like cancer during their end stages. Prevention and diagnostics are areas where chemistry can play key roles. We still lack methods that can quickly and comprehensively analyze disease markers in whole blood, and this is an area where analytical and other kinds of chemists can have a huge impact. And no method of diagnostics is going to be useful if it's not cheap, so it's obvious that chemistry will also have to struggle to minimize material cost, another goal which it has traditionally been good at addressing, especially in industry.

Secondly, the environment. We live in an age when the potentially devastating effects of climate change and biodiversity loss demand quick and comprehensive action. Included in this response will be the ability to monitor the environment, and to relate local monitoring parameters to global ones. Just like we still lack methods to analyze the composition of complex whole blood, we also lack methods to quickly analyze and compare the composition of the atmosphere, soil and seawater in different areas of the world. Analyzing heterogeneous systems with different phases like the atmosphere is a tricky and quintessentially chemical problem, and chemists have their work cut out in front of them to make such routine analysis a reality.

Thirdly, national security. Here chemists will face even greater challenges, since the solutions are as much political and social as they are scientific. Nonetheless, science will play an important role in the resolution of scores of challenges that have to be met to make the world more secure; these include quickly analyzing the composition of a suspicious liquid, solid or gas, unintrusively finding out whether a particular individual has spent time in certain volatile parts of the world or has been handling certain materials, and using techniques to track the movements of suspicious individuals in diverse locations. Chemistry will undoubtedly have to interface with other disciplines in addressing these problems and questions of privacy will be paramount, but there is little doubt that chemists have traditionally not participated much in such endeavors and need to step up to the plate in order to address what are obviously important security issues.

Fourthly, megacities. As we pick up speed and move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, one of the greatest social challenges confronting us is how to have very large, heterogeneous populations ranging across diverse levels of income and standards of living co-existing in peace over vast stretches of land. This is the vision of the megacity whose first stirrings we are already witnessing around the world. Among the problems that megacities will encounter will be monitoring air, water and food quality (vida supra). A task like analyzing the multiple complex components of waste effluent, preferably with a readout that quantifies each component and assesses basic qualities like carcinogenicity would be invaluable. There is no doubt that chemists could play an indispensable role in meeting such challenges.

The above discussion of major challenges makes Whitesides's words about moving away from the molecule clear. The problems encompassing health care, national security and environmental and megacity management involve molecules, but what they really are are collages resulting from the interaction of molecules with other scientific entities, and with the interaction of chemists with many other kinds of professional scientists and policy makers. In one sense Whitesides is simply asking chemists to leave the familiar environment of their provincial roots and diversify. What chemists really need to think of is molecules embedded in a broad context involving other disciplines and human problems.

Part of the challenge of addressing the above issues will be the proper training of chemists. The intersection of chemistry with social issues and public policy demands interdisciplinary and general skills, and Whitesides urges chemists to be trained in general areas rather than specialized subfields. Courses in applied mathematics and statistics, public policy, urban planning, healthcare management and environmental engineering are traditionally missing from chemistry curricula, and chemists should branch out and take as many of these as is possible within a demanding academic environment. It is no longer sufficient for chemists to limit themselves to analysis and synthesis if they want to address society's most pressing problems. And at the end of it they need not feel that a movement away from the molecule is tantamount to abandoning the molecule; rather it is an opportunity to press the molecule into interacting with the human world on a canvas bigger than ever before.

First published on the Scientific American Blog Network.

Where's the chemistry lobby?

Veteran chemistry blogger Derek Lowe's takedown of the nonsensical Buzzfeed article about eight "chemicals" that you should stay away from was an excellent rejoinder to what was essentially a pile of sensationalized opinions disseminated by someone who does not bother reading up on basic science, but it also gave me a sinking feeling that is encapsulated by the following basic existential question.

How long can we chemists do this?

Over the last few years bloggers like SeeArrOh, Derek, Chembark and others have regularly pointed out instances of the growing epidemic of science and fact-free chemophobia that abounds on the Internet. In fact most of it is not even chemophobia, it's just plain ignorance of basic science. But as far as the sheer amount of chemistry-related nonsense floating around goes, all this worthy debunking is no more than a drop in the ocean. Those who don't understand science and chemistry are going to keep foisting the same falsehoods on us ad nauseum. The problem is that even if chemistry bloggers decided to debunk no more than 10% of the nonsense that goes around, they will be at it all day and night. The pile of anti-chemistry garbage that dots the landscape of the internet and print media is like a Hydra. You debunk one head and ten grow in its place. Plus the fundamental challenge in countering half-baked science is well-known: it takes only a few minutes to throw around unsubstantiated claims and link to random secondary and tertiary sources, but it takes dedicated time and effort to trawl through the primary sources, analyze the data and come up with a reasoned refutation. For instance it took me almost an hour to go through all the sources alluded to in a post about flame-retardants in couches and to write a post countering the claims. In fighting anti-chemistry forces chemists face a challenge similar to that faced by evolutionists fighting creationists. It takes only a minute for a creationist to make a statement like "There are no transitional fossil forms" but it takes time for an evolutionist to then go into the details and counter with the list of known transitional forms. Whether it's creationism or chemophobia, time is inherently biased against the responders. There is essentially no realistic possibility that a group of dedicated chemistry bloggers who are doing this in their free time are ever going to get around to refuting more than a fraction of all this fear-mongering, fact-free antiscientific piffle.

About the only remedy that I can see to counter this chemophobia and spread of ignorance is a dedicated chemistry lobby. The United States, after all, is the land of lobbies. So why not have a chemistry lobby? The task of the chemistry lobby would be simple; to have a dedicated group of chemists and people who actually care about the benefits of chemistry make a concerted effort to combat misinformation and ignorance, using every print, online and social outlet available, directing their efforts so that they reach every imaginable kind of citizen, from the man on the street to Congressmen on the Hill. The lobby would include contributions from chemistry researchers, teachers, students, policy makers and regulators. They could join hands with the American Chemical Society and any other organization that wants to further the cause of chemistry; in my personal opinion, while the ACS has done some admirable work in improving the public image of chemical science, it's efforts have been sorely lacking in proportion to the work that actually needs to be done.

Anyone who actually understands chemistry at a basic level would be welcome to contribute. The chemistry lobby could have their own TV channel, radio program and newsletter. Perhaps they could start a series that does for chemistry what "Cosmos" did for astronomy, replete with a charismatic and credible Sagan-like figure (Roald Hoffmann could fit the bill quite well). They could run campaigns to educate people about the facts and benefits of chemistry while admitting upfront to the misuse that chemistry has been put to over the years; they should also underscore the fact that misuse of chemistry has been no different from misuse of any other technology developed by flawed human beings. Their task would not be to whitewash the evils of the chemical, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries but point out the good that the industry has done in people's lives on a deep level. Chemistry largely underpins modern civilization, and it would be the task of the chemistry lobby to educate people about this fundamental fact.

The chemistry lobby would not solicit financial contributions from industry. Members of the lobby are probably going to be painted as industry shills by their opponents anyway, so it would not help being funded by massive contributions from industry. Instead the organization I am envisioning would be a non-profit group akin to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), funded mainly by member contributions and grants. The National Center for Chemical Education (NCCE - as sound a name for the lobby as any other) would do to counter chemophobia what the NCSE has done to combat creationism. The official mission of the NCSE is to keep evolution in the class and creationism out of it. The mission of the NCCE would be to keep chemistry in the public arena and chemophobia out of it. Just like the NCSE does is not the official spokesperson of any university, atheist organization or political or social group, the NCCE would not be the official spokesperson of any body. It might support or reject the views of specific organizations, but official affiliation would be eschewed. At the same time it could fund the activities of specific bloggers, professors or citizens whose efforts to educate the general populace about chemistry are especially noteworthy. The NCCE could also fund studies and surveys designed to simply find out more about what people think about chemistry and its various incarnations in our lives.

The NCSE had done an immense amount of good over the decades to combat the forces of darkness that threaten to invade the school curriculum. At the same time they have take no official position against religion, and have in fact emphasized their respect for people's personal religious beliefs. The NCCE would similarly debunk basic ignorance of chemistry and fear-mongering without insulting the real concerns that environmentalists and parents have. It is only by taking a stand against objective falsehoods while still respecting the emotional reactions that concerned citizens have about the growth of technology that we can make a dent in fostering dialogue between disparate factions and bridging the gulf of our differences. I look forward to the day when the when a rational, effective and expansive chemistry lobby starts to achieve this goal.