A death, an explosion and toxic letters grabbed the headlines

April was a busy month that wasn’t short of chemical science-related news. On 8 April we heard of the death of Margaret Thatcher, aged 87. She’ll go down in history as the UK’s first female prime minister, a post that she occupied from 1979–1990. What many people don’t know is that she originally trained as a chemist before becoming a barrister and starting her political career. Indeed, she studied at Oxford and in the last year of her degree she specialised in x-ray crystallography under the supervision of none other than Dorothy Hodgkin. Interestingly, the last job she had before she started her studies for the bar was as a research chemist for J Lyons and Co, where she was part of a team developing emulsifiers for ice cream.

Ten days later there was news of an explosion at a fertiliser plant near Waco, Texas, US, causing more than a dozen deaths and extensive damage to surrounding buildings. At the time of writing, the cause of the explosion is still unclear. However, the plant contained large tanks of ammonia, which could have exploded when they were heated by a fire that broke out at the facility. 

A couple of days earlier, also in the US,  we heard of ricin-laced letters posted to President Obama and other government representatives. Ricin is a well known by-product of processing castor beans and is a deadly toxin. If inhaled, injected or ingested, less than a pinhead of ricin can kill a person within 36–48h due to respiratory and circulatory failure. There is no known antidote, but fortunately it is easy to detect and sensors at US mail sorting facilities routinely check for its presence. It is worth noting that ricin (and botulinum, anthrax, etc) detection kits are available on the internet and (thankfully) the instructions advise that the tests are not 100% accurate and if a sample were to test positive, it should be transferred to a lab for follow-up analysis. Is this ironic?

The future is here

During April I also travelled to the opening of Shimadzu’s state of the art lab in Duisburg, Germany. I was very interested to hear the latest about Labnirs. It is a novel technology used in the field of brain science that measures brain function using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) rather than recording electrical activity. More specifically, NIRS measures the changes in concentration between oxidised and deoxidised haemoglobin in the brain. Therefore, when brain activity occurs, this causes a temporary increase in blood pressure, which in turn increases blood circulation, resulting in a higher consumption of oxygen and affecting the oxidised/deoxidised haemoglobin ratios. For the last couple of years Shimadzu have been working with the makers of Asimo, the robot developed by Honda, in brain–machine interface research. Because Labnirs permits real-time NIRS and electroencephalogram measurements and data transfer it is possible to characterise the brain function of a human visualising manual actions, translate these into appropriate signals for robot movement, thus allowing control of the robot’s actions using human thought. It reminded me of some of the many sci-fi television series that were very popular in the 80s – around the time that Margaret Thatcher was in power. These  types of technology  were part of the future then and seemed unattainable… No more, the future is here.