We can find chemistry everywhere, but sometimes it doesn’t want to be found

We often talk of ‘hidden’ chemistry: surprising friends and relatives with the fascinating chemistry lurking in everyday objects. We point at smartphones, at chocolate mousse, at perfume and (sometimes delightedly, sometimes wearily) explain the chemistry they conceal. Chemistry can be credited for many things, but often goes unnoticed, struggling to gain the public’s awareness and acceptance, never mind its affection. But sometimes those using chemistry want it that way… in this issue we talk about an environ of chemistry that throughout the ages has courted shadows, revelled in obscurity and has been wielded by those who much prefer their work to go unnoticed: poisons.

When I first gathered my thoughts for this editorial I intended to breathe life into this lethal subject by looking at its history. I could speak of the Emperor Nero (who apparently preferred cyanide for despatching unwanted family members), Socrates (sentenced to death-by-hemlock), Napoleon’s fabled arsenic wallpaper (read Philip Ball’s article for more on arsenic’s notorious history) or possibly one or two of the CIA’s rumoured plots to topple Fidel Castro by poisoning his cigars or gifting him a dosed wetsuit. I could look to literature and the arts for ideas – Romeo, Madame Bovary, Snow White, even Fred Weasley poor thing – or Joffrey, for fans of Game of thrones (he had it coming).

But the sad truth is that I don’t have to delve into history books or novels for inspiration. I can just turn on the news and see the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, or the investigation into poisoning following the Crufts dog show. Litvinenko’s killers left a radioactive snail trail through London, one that corresponds to the journeys taken by former KGB agents – chemistry that didn’t stay as hidden as perhaps was intended. And while the details of the dog poisonings remain uncertain, Nina Notman’s piece on forensic toxicology reveals some of the tricks investigators will be using to establish if, how and when a poisoning took place. The dog owners think it might have been a random act, perhaps a ‘motiveless malignancy’ to borrow Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous note on Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello – a character that was a metaphorical if not literal poison, and who kept his actions and reasons hidden to the very end: ‘What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.’

This chemistry of poisons, intended to do its work quietly and unnoticed, has, in recent years, perhaps had a change of heart. We now use one of the most deadly, botulinum toxin, to make sure we look our best (debatable) for the cameras. Here, poison is as ostentatious as it gets, paraded on red carpets and glossy magazine pages for all to see.

Maybe after all, and for better or ill, poisons simply won’t or can’t stay hidden any longer. They illustrate a dilemma of science: chemistry can and will do harm in the wrong hands. But it can be chemotherapy in the right hands. So if the public is worried about chemistry’s poisonous potential, we should not criticise or dismiss these fears – we must understand that it’s up to us to provide the antidote.