Thursday, 13 August 2015

Us and Them

I've recently had cause to realise that I am one of "Them". You know, that nebulous collection of people who secretly control information, who hush things up, who don't want "Us" to know the truth. It's come as a bit of a surprise to me really. I'd always got myself pinned as one of "Us".

Let me take you to a summer day in a friend's garden, where I sit chatting to friend-of-a-friend. Friend-of-a-Friend is a complete stranger to me, but he's been told a bit about me, knows I'm a scientist, knows I'm a physicist, knows I make analytical instruments and is fascinated. How flattering. His own area is not physics, but he's a scientist by training and he wants to know more about what I do. Doubly flattering. So we chat about my work. Friend-of-a-Friend is no idiot, he asks quite sensible, quite well-informed questions about what I do, how it all works, what sort of data we get. I try and pitch my answers at the intelligent-but-not-an-expert level.

Then he lowers his voice and asks if I've ever had results I just can't explain... because he's heard rumours... he wants to know if there are things that are being hushed up... he's heard about an island of stability in the transuranic elements... his friend has told him... his brother knows someone who knows... do I know anything about element 115? Or an even heavier element called Corbomite? [please do not Google these elements until the end of this post, it'll spoil the fun]. Now, yes, there are theories, as in the above link, about islands of stability, but no I've never seen any trace or suggestion of any elements beyond those generally accepted as existing. And yes, if they were around, certainly if there was any natural abundance, we would be able to see them with a mass spectrometer.

I explained that with a decent mass spectrometer you don't just get a peak at a nominal mass, you can tell the difference between elements and compounds based on their exact mass, which largely comes down to the slight difference in mass between protons and neutrons. Just for fun, here's one of my instruments showing the presence of both iron (Fe) and C4H8 at mass 56. They're not even close to being at the same mass. Understanding exact masses tells you a huge amount about the peaks in your mass spectrum. Nobody is going to hide a whole new element in there. 

And when there are mystery peaks? There was the time we persistently and confusingly found peaks that could only be explained by bromine contamination, and yet we had no idea where or how we could have got bromine into the system. Until we discovered one of our suppliers had started cleaning some fine wire meshes with brominated solvents, and hadn't told us, and now we were seeing the residue inside the mass spectrometer. Or the time I suddenly saw an interesting cluster of peaks at 182, 183, 184 and 186 and realised it meant I was accidentally vaporising a tungsten filament. The thing about mass spectrometers is that they don't lie. They don't have a plan. They aren't working to a secret agenda. They haven't been nobbled by the CIA. They just record the mass-to-charge ratio of anything they can ionise. And then you can look at that data, secure in the knowledge that the mass spectrometer has not decided to hide some of it from you in the interests of national security.

So, when confronted with someone who wanted to know how I knew that there weren't any mysterious extra elements hiding in the data, I mentioned exact masses, and isotope ratios. I explained about the NIST mass spectral database that gives fragmentation patterns for thousands of different gas phase compounds under electron impact, so you know the ratio of different mass peaks any compound will give, and about mixture analysis algorithms. I explained about the Static SIMS library giving similar data for solid samples under ion bombardment, and that we had contributed a lot of the raw data to that library.

He mentioned secret underground labs at Los Alamos... I explained I'd installed an instrument in an underground lab in Los Alamos. It just happened to be underground, because the ground was a bit hilly there, not for any nefarious purposes. It was rather dark, rather grey and rather boring, like a lot of labs.

He mentioned Porton Down... I talked about the instruments we've built that are now there.

He mentioned NPL and NASA... I mentioned our instruments... you get the drift.

It turns out, we have our fingers in all the establishment pies. If there's a conspiracy to hide elements, I'm probably part of it.

I was intrigued about why he was particularly interested in those putative elements, so when I got home, I looked on the interweb. Oh dear. Some of you may be less naive, or more down with the zeitgeist, or have a better memory than me. If you do, you'll know that Element 115 is a key part of the backstory in Call of Duty. And Corbomite is an element that Captain James T. Kirk makes up to get out of danger. That's right, a computer game and a 1960s science-fiction TV program. And not just science-fiction, but a piece of science-fiction within the science-fiction. Look a bit deeper though, and there are conspiracy theories swirling around that these are real things, being hushed up by being placed in full view as works of fiction. Blimey "They" are cunning aren't they? I mean we are.

And now I'm left wondering... was the delightful, charming, interested Friend-of-a-Friend just executing the most perfectly dead-pan wind-up of a boring physicist to see how I'd react to complete and utter balderdash? Or has someone he trusts and believes told him this stuff? Or has he read it on the internet and believed that "They" are hiding actual elements from "Us"? (Or rather I'm hiding them from "Us", or from you, or them, or "Them", or whatever I mean). The trouble is my perception of Friend-of-a-Friend as interested, calm, rational and intelligent doesn't tally with any explanation I can create for his interest in this stuff. I'm just bemused. It would have been easy if he'd been a ranting, frothing loon.

But at least I have now been revealed to myself as one of "Them". I just have to get used to that idea now.


  1. I always find it so disconcerting when an otherwise same appearing person takes a hard right into Crazytown. (Actual conversation: "And do these have sugar in them?". " Yes... They're MUFFINS. ") Though if he was winding you up wouldn't that make him a bit of a jerk?

    1. Apparently he was bowled over by how amazing and interesting I was, so he can't possibly be a jerk! I think probably just credulous and wanting things to be amazing and mysterious. Baffling. The world is amazing enough without inventing weird shit.