Secret Spectroscopy

A safety initiative at Cambridgeshire’s well-known “Secret Garden Party” music and whatever festival saw the local police collaborating with an organisation called The Loop to test festivalgoers illicit drugs and make sure they were staying safe.

The Loop team had a 25 grand FTIR spectrometer to do the testing and if it showed up contaminants they’d advise users to ditch their product and get back to enjoying the music and dancing instead. The Guardian described the initiative as pioneering, which it was in the UK, although similar services have been running in Austria, Switzerland and The Netherlands for years (the UK lags way behind on drug policies, what a surprise). Although The Vice reports that only 250 drug samples were tested. There were some nasties that showed up in the spectra a lot of sugar used to cut MDMA, antimalarials that had been sold as cocaine, and some pills that were actually just cement.

The Loop is a team of experienced drug workers collaborating with analytical chemists. If someone offered up a sample of their drugs for testing, the team would hang on to that sample after testing and the users were offered an amnesty so they could hand over the rest without charge or they could opt to keep them but given some advice on drug abuse. It was all about safety and not policing.

Loop team member Henry Fisher had this to say in The Independent:

What has been demonstrated in a small corner of a field this weekend is something more fundamental: treat people who want to use drugs with respect, and they will respond to the advice given to them sensibly. If such enlightened thinking were applied more widely to UK drug policy, the returns in reduced drug deaths and hospitalisations would be vast. That really would be cause for a serious party.

Paradoxically, the festival’s website FAQ stated this: “Please be aware that The Secret Garden Party does not tolerate illegal drug use. Anyone caught using or distributing illegal drugs will be severely reprimanded. Drug detection dogs will be working on the gates in order to stop any illegal drugs entering the site. There will be a police presence inside the event, please respect them. Drugs are ILLEGAL.”

I asked Loop team member Jens Thomas for the skinny on the FTIR for my SpectroscopyNOW column:

“The FTIR is fantastic as far as it goes, as it allows us to identify a sample in under a couple of minutes and feed that back to the drugs workers so that they can advise the client on how to proceed safely if they are resolved to take the drug,” Thomas told me. “For probably 80-90% of what we see, the FTIR is enough; we can identify the primary component and then run a simple subtraction analysis to see if the sample is substantially adulterated with anything else.”

Adding, “However, as we work with more samples, we are seeing where the limitations of the technique lie. Some of the binders and fillers in ecstasy pills can mask the signal from MDMA, so we need to run a solvent extraction to extract the active component, and then analyse the extract with the FTIR; which obviously adds considerably to the time and effort required to get a result. Also some drugs are so potent (e.g. LSD) that they are present in such trace quantities that we cannot see them with the FTIR. In addition, FTIR is only (currently) a qualitative technique, so we need to run additional tests in order to quantify the MDMA in a pill, as this is crucial information for someone considering taking it. Some of the pills are so strong (>200mg) that taking two (double-dropping – something that used to be very common a few years ago when pills were weaker) could be pushing into lethal dose territory.

We are therefore looking to augment the FTIR with additional techniques, firstly to extend the range of what we can test, but also to provide additional confidence in the results we’re getting from the FTIR. Mass spec is something we’re interested in as it seems to have the sensitivity required and the latest machines are robust and portable enough that we could consider using them in the sub-optimal conditions we usually work in – i.e. knee deep in mud at festivals!”

The next war to end all wars, no, really

Just when you were starting to get over it…here’s a thought from Tobias Stone on Medium…most of us have a 50-100 year perspective on history; historians, archaeologists and dinosaur hunters aside. We don’t really think about anyone before that period as being real people, they’re just historical figures, names in dusty history books or cracked paintings in galleries and dusty busts in dusty old buildings. They’re myths almost in many cases, Richard III, Robin Hood, Harold and Will-I-Am the Conquerer, Samuel “The Great Barbecue” Pepys, Vlad the Impaler, Genghis Khan, Conan the Barbarian, Queen Victoria (obviously not that penultimate one). We think we’re different, that those wars and genocides and plagues happened to people who aren’t like us.

This is hubris.

Before the so-called war to end all wars (aka The Great War, WWI), some bright people had spotted the growing problems, the tangled web of treaties, the national and international dysfunctionalities. They knew of a political powder keg, the lit fuse that was nothing more startling than a bullet that killed an aristocrat called Franz on a bridge and years later inspired a Scottish indie rock band to ask someone to take them out. At the time, those bright people were dismissed as crazy…just as are those who are warning us about Putin, Brexit, Trump, Jong-Un…but that powder keg was lit with FF’s bullet and the rest is…err…history.

Trump says he will Make America Great Again. What a tw*t. In terms of health and wealth, America is great right now, even if there are some insane and tragic events taking place on an almost daily basis (they’re happening in Germany, France, the Middle East, and beyond too, and have always done so for centuries, just ask Plato). Trump, says Stone, “is using passion, anger, and rhetoric in the same way all his predecessors did”, as a charismatic narcissist who feeds on the [gullible and easily duped] crowd to become ever stronger. Plato understood this. Putin is doing something similar but in a slightly more dictatorial style. The evidence is mounting that the recent embarrassing hacking and leaking of Democrat emails in the US was commissioned by Putin’s people to disrupt the Amercun election in his favour…although why he wants Trump in power is hard to discern.

Moreover, we on this side of The Pond, have Brexit to contend with. I reckon Brexit is going to divide Europe, it’s going to wreck it, in fact. France is hoping the UK will push the Article 50 button soon, Germany is saying nein to any kind of free movement deal and the so-called Commonwealth is already hinting at not taking on trade deals with the UK alone; meanwhile Scotland wants its own Out of the UK into the EU deal. There will be broken apart treaties and friends turning against friends as neonationalism (nazism) spreads in the name of “taking back control”, “protecting our borders” and all that other Leave campaign bullshine…remember their promises of a better Britain with more money for the NHS. Hah!

Maybe all of this will become obvious to historians in 50-100 years time, after the “honestly-this-is-the-war-to-end-all-wars” moment of our timeline. Meanwhile, if any of your mates insist that you call them Archduke, please keep them away from any bridges in your area especially if you live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If they really must cross Balkan bridges, do insist that they wear a bulletproof vest and pretend to be a fruitpicker or something…just in case.

Vitamin D supplements

We need vitamin D, although exactly what you mean by vitamin D is open to debate, there are several different chemicals that come under the umbrella of that term and you won’t always get the most appropriate from a supplement. Indeed, a given product might not even tell you which form you’ve bought over the counter. This beggars the question, what is it exactly that the SACN report commissioned by the UK government is recommending we take? The report suggests that many of us don’t go outside enough to get adequate exposure to sunlight for vitamin D production in our skin (sunscreen blocks the UV necessary to make the stuff, ironically enough). So, we should all be taking vitamin D in the autumn and winter and some of us all year round…

There’s been a massive backlash against taking vitamins, antioxidants and other supplements because it seems that they can sometimes do more harm than good unless you have a specific condition or deficiency. Indeed, there are no good clinical trials that show any benefits to any otherwise healthy person with a half-decent diet of taking any food supplements at all. It’s all marketing hype all that stuff about extracts and essential oils. Pure quackery. So, is it any surprise that this new “research” by a government-commissioned body is now suggesting that we take vitamin D supplements?

Would we be hearing about it in the news this week if the agency’s conclusion had been to not recommend taking extra vitamin D? Doesn’t it just smack a little of industry lobbying to get such studies carried out in the first place, because they’re almost always bound to err on the side of caution and make a positive suggestion with respect to the subject rather than a negative one and pretty much disregard the risks of overdosing on fat-soluble vitamins, which is a real issue?

There is, of course, a case for vitamin D and other supplements and nobody wants the widespread return of rickets, which is caused by a deficiency, but it does feel like more than a coincidence. Other similar suggestions from health bodies will follow, just you watch…

Kubrick did not fake the moon landings

Vivian Kubrick recently debunked the conspiracy theory that her father worked with the US government to fake the Moon landings…well, we all know he didn’t and her rationale is spot on. But, my own take on it was that if they had been faked, then surely the director, whoever it was, would’ve made sure there were no obvious continuity errors and that if anyone fluffed their lines (lookin’ at you Neil) they’d have just done a retake…surely…it’s in my book #Deceived Wisdom


Overpriced addictive sludge, or coffee to you and me

The truth about coffee…also comes in pumpkin flavour if you’d prefer that over the wet cigar and boiled asphalt flavour that occurs naturally…you’ll pay anything and let anyone treat you how they like as long as they’re handing you a cup of unregulated psychoactive drug with your misspelled name scrawled on the side.

However, “I understand that you wouldn’t want to associate that chemical reward with the knowledge that people are severely underpaid to grow and harvest these bitter drug-laden seeds. So, I’d like to say some words that will make you feel better: Organic, Cooperative, Sustainable, Ethical…err…Fair Trade…”

Sciencebase 17 years old today

Tempus fugit et cetera, it’s 17 years ago to the day that I registered the domain. Although my long-standing and long-sffuering readers will know that its predecessor, the first proto chemistry webzine, blog, “Elemental Discoveries” had existed since late 1995 on various servers, including for a few years as the guest news section for Cambridge Soft, the people who created ChemDraw.

My web Independence Day was, like I say, 20th July 1999.

That site has gone through many changes and is still riding the cybersea despite and perhaps because of the advent of web 2.0, social media and all that. So, no longer sweet sixteen and not quite at the age of majority and still four years before we get the key to the door…

Happy Birthday, my website ;-) Hah!

Cambridge conversations

Classic fragment of Cambridge conversation overheard yesterday from male student on a bike cycling alongside female:

“Well, when we discover monopoles…”


And, then later, different, equally enthusiastic and aspirational pair: “…we’ll be able to completely predict the future…”

These are the people who will most likely build the next ARM Holdings and sell it on to a foreign buyer or billions of pounds at some future date.

Timeless stuff…they’ve been saying things like that in this town since at least 1209 AD

Dumbing down your smart phone

If you find your smart phone needs recharging even before the close of business each day, try dumbing down.

The battery will last so much longer if you uninstall Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, and disable notifications and disconnect email accounts etc etc etc.

Of course, the phone will be ever so slightly less useful…but…guess what?

You can still use it to make and receive phone calls and send and receive texts…and seriously, what more do you actually need from a phone? Err…

I’ll pass on the blue latte, thanks

If you’ve been taken in by the hype surrounding the algal food supplement spirulina or quaffing blue lattes made with algal powder and no coffee…

Stop now.

There’s mounting evidence that the neurotoxin BMAA, beta-methylamino-L-alanine (an amino acid that is not used to make proteins) can lead to Alzheimer’s disease (AD), motor neuron disease (MND) also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and related neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinsonism. There’s also evidence that BMAA can be passed from mother to suckling infant in breast milk too.

Thanks to DrRachie for the alert on this.

There’s a reason they spend millions cleaning up drinking water and trying to prevent algal blooms in reservoirs and why you don’t let your kids nor your pets swim where there’s a bloom. And, as someone else pointed out to me on Twitter, catering sticking plasters are blue because there are pretty much no good foods that are blue…

Photographers’ rights in the UK

Photographers’ rights in the UK*: Basically, you can photograph anyone or anything from a public place. Period. 6’19” in on the video.

Caveats: Photographing Ministry of Defence (MoD) property might sometimes be in breach of The Official Secrets Act, by which everyone is bound whether or not they have signed it. In this era of increased terrorist threat tension, you might also arouse police suspicion if you’re taking detailed photos of known sensitive sites or if you’re repeatedly photographing an individual and it seems like harassment.

But, the police do not have the right to stop you photographing and certainly no office building door staff can, if they try to and threaten you or try to take your camera, you could have them arrested for assault and attempted robbery.

Keep snapping!

*This is under the law of England and Wales, I assume it is valid in Scotland and Northern Ireland too, but there may be variations on the theme there.