Retro Chemistry

I've been reading the celebrity neurologist Oliver Sacks's autobiography of his early days, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001) – and this didn't half make me envious. Not only did the chemistry-obsessed Sacks have relatives who worked with exotic metals or radioactives and gave him samples, but he grew up in England at a time when you could buy astonishingly deadly substances in bulk at ordinary chemists' shops. Lucky sod. Even when I was but a lad, walking into Boots and demanding white arsenic, oil of vitriol and muriatic acid (ingredients I'd found listed in century-old books of chemical fun for boys) would get either a baffled or a frosty response.

For example, while the infant Langford was only allowed to watch from a safe distance as a school chemistry teacher dropped a miserably tiny fragment of sodium into water, Sacks was able – in a spirit of scientific investigation, of course – to chuck a three-pound lump of the stuff into the Highgate Ponds and enjoy the resulting pyrotechnics as it whizzed around "like a demented meteor, with a huge sheet of yellow flame above it."

There's an SF connection here, as it happens: Gene Wolfe's The Sword of the Lictor (1982) features "bullets of power" used to wreak havoc among small boats on a lake, and these are clearly balls of sodium. Typically, Wolfe doesn't explain precisely what's going on, but merely gives the relevant chapter the title "Natrium" – the traditional chemists' Latin for sodium (Na).

Sacks also had fiery fun with potassium (even more reactive than sodium), admired the luminous steam from boiling pots of phosphorus, blew off friends' eyebrows with oxy-hydrogen explosions, splashed around concentrated sulphuric acid with gay abandon, manufactured poison gases like phosphine, and generally seems to have been better equipped with weapons of mass destruction than a certain country in the Middle East. It's amazing, really, that he survived to become famous for rather different reasons.

One rare point where I equalled the great man's naughty achievements was in the preparation of nitrogen tri-iodide, an exceedingly touchy contact explosive that's ever so easy to brew up, and which is guaranteed to cause roars of laughter (or agony) when smeared on school blackboards, floors, door handles, and so on. Again, science fiction came to my aid: Robert Heinlein is not at his best in his 1964 novel Farnham's Freehold, but usefully reveals all you need to know about making tri-iodide. Don't all rush, now.

I had better draw a veil over the long-ago monthly meeting of the London SF Circle at which some of my university cronies smeared the pub's floor and a certain professional author's back with this useful substance, and nobody, but nobody, believed my carefully maintained expression of injured innocence.

All the textbooks warned tri-iodide fans against accidentally producing some of the related compound nitrogen trichloride, which makes nitroglycerine seem tranquil and inert by comparison. Fortunately I was frightened off this by an exaggerated description in the crime thriller Daredevil (1929) by Leslie Charteris of Saint fame. (This very early work featured the Saint's chubby nemesis, Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, but not the Saint himself.) According to Charteris, a teensy little phial of NCl3 slipped into a man's pocket would leave him "blown to crumbs." No, thanks.

Although I had some success with weedkiller-and-sugar explosives – before they adulterated the weedkiller to make this harder – my early efforts to manufacture gunpowder were generally unsatisfactory. Alas, my SF reading hadn't at that time reached H. Beam Piper's informative 1965 novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, alias Gunpowder God. Here a modern American cop, stranded in an alternate and relatively primitive timeline, discovers that one particularly unpleasant church has the monopoly of gunpowder production because they alone know how to make it. Fortunately our hero knows the formula for a decent grade of black powder, and helpfully repeats it to himself before demonstrating its effectiveness, but I wouldn't dream of reproducing it here. (It's in chapter five, by the way.)

Oliver Sacks also reports having spectacular fun with thermite, since this kind of super-hot reaction is a handy way to melt his favourite metal, tungsten. For once, I was ahead of him. This time, just for a change, my information came from a mystery novel, John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), which mentions how to mix up "the Krupp preparation" for scientific safebreaking: "It doesn't explode. It simply generates a heat of several thousand degress and melts a hole straight through the metal." Yes, that's thermite. It's amazing what useful information you can pick up from genre fiction – almost as instructive as those splendid Victorian volumes with titles like One Thousand and One Edifying Stenches, Bangs and Toxic Fumes for Boys.

I finally felt one up on Professor Sacks when he mentioned his fascination (and, perhaps, envy) when a friend reported how he'd been allowed to hold a sphere of plutonium, the core of a nuclear warhead, in his own hands – and found it strangely warm to the touch thanks to its internal radioactivity. Been there, Professor; done that. And yes, the thing is unnervingly warm.

David Langford has suddenly decided he'd better not say any more.