June 14, 2021, 11:04:19 PM
Forum Rules: Read This Before Posting


Topic: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...  (Read 4857 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Voyager-2

  • Guest
Hello, everyone!

First and foremost, allow me to apologize for entering a place where only the adepts of chemistry should tread – however, I’ve felt much relief when I found out that this forum has already allowed questions similar to mine; i.e. one coming from somebody who writes a novel with a plot point involving chemistry… who tries not to be, but still comparatively is a chemical ignoramus… yet who hopes to make that plot point plausible enough that, should a chemist read it, s/he will not groan and toss the book across the room.

The question revolves – as they tend to in fiction – around a dangerous chemical substance that would be lethal to people, either by being highly poisonous, or e.g. by its volatile nature. The main problem is that the substance in question would have to either be known in early 18th century, or to occur naturally. (As a last resort, it might be discovered or otherwise obtained by a unique character, someone of Leonardo da Vinci’s nature, presumably forgotten later on – an obscure genius, too early for his time, etc… although I would prefer to avoid such a crutch.)

Even better, it would work relatively fast when “triggered” (I’m assuming either by reaction, or by being absorbed, e.g. by touch) – in other words, when the right time comes, a character could somehow use the substance’s destructive nature against another character, or trick said opponent into “triggering” that effect.

Ideally, it would also be something that could be either easily concealed, or made to appear as if it was something else, to trick a casual observer (e.g. by being mixed with another metal while retaining its dangerous characteristics, or by being shaped into seemingly benign forms, such as coins, etc.)

Here is the direction of my thoughts, to give some examples.

- If isolated potassium was accessible in early 18th century, it would be perfect for the scene, as it would just take some water to trigger the desired effect, i.e. to cause flames or even an explosion... Unfortunately, as far as I understand, it would be far too early for anyone to have potassium (or any other alkali metal that reacts with water…?) in that time period… or could the idea be somehow made viable?

- Radioactive elements: but, again, those would be too early, would they not? Or would it be possible for an early 18th century character to somehow amass enough of a naturally-occurring radioactive element (radioactive enough to actually act quickly against the enemies – e.g. once it was released from a lead container)… and if so, which one could it be? (I’m asking the question in this forum even though there is a separate one on nuclear chemistry, since I don’t want to spam many places…)

- Poisonous (and fast-acting) substances: another possibility, and, I’m assuming, safer than the previous ones – yet, once again, would a character in that time period be able to obtain such a substance (and/or amass enough of it)?
Or could there be some entirely different direction, one of which I have not thought? (And I have no doubt there are many such ones… :)

Offline Corribus

  • Chemist
  • Sr. Member
  • *
  • Posts: 3099
  • Mole Snacks: +468/-22
  • Gender: Male
  • A lover of spectroscopy and chocolate.
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #1 on: July 08, 2013, 12:31:58 PM »
Well if you want something that's activated by water, is dangerous, and composed of materials potentially available in the 18th century, a possibility would be ammonium nitrate, salt and powdered zinc.  They aren't toxic, per se, but with a drop or two of water, a mixture of these components can create one hell of a fireworks display, not to mention a crapload of smoke.  I have a scar on my hand to prove it.

http://sites.jmu.edu/chemdemo/2011/06/14/zinc-ammonium-nitrate/
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

Offline curiouscat

  • Chemist
  • Sr. Member
  • *
  • Posts: 3005
  • Mole Snacks: +121/-35
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #2 on: July 08, 2013, 12:42:04 PM »
How about a frog toxin? 18th century yes. Fast acting yes. Benign yes, if on a pointy object. Highly toxic, yes.

No explosions or sparky stuff though. Kind of underwhelming not spectacular.

Offline billnotgatez

  • Global Moderator
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 4219
  • Mole Snacks: +215/-58
  • Gender: Male
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #3 on: July 08, 2013, 12:48:35 PM »
If you do a GOOGLE search you will find countless mentions of poisons in history

I just read THE TOMBS by Clive Cussler, Thomas Perry
Which takes advantage of that very thing and I bet someone well read in literature would also find similar tales

« Last Edit: July 08, 2013, 01:01:18 PM by billnotgatez »

Offline Corribus

  • Chemist
  • Sr. Member
  • *
  • Posts: 3099
  • Mole Snacks: +468/-22
  • Gender: Male
  • A lover of spectroscopy and chocolate.
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #4 on: July 08, 2013, 12:53:10 PM »
Cyanide is, of course, an old, if somewhat cliche, standby.  Exposing the dye Prussian blue to strong acid - both available in the 17th century - would liberate hydrogen cyanide gas... though you'd probably have to apply some heat to make it happen fast enough to be dramatic.
What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?  - Richard P. Feynman

Offline endophytic

  • Regular Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 21
  • Mole Snacks: +0/-1
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #5 on: July 08, 2013, 12:54:20 PM »
I'd go for HF, hydrofluoric acid !

Known by the 17th century ... A colourless solution, highly dangerous ( potentially lethal) acid. Heavy burns, make the skin "melts", penetrates tissues because somewhat lipophile.

Good stuff

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrofluoric_acid

Check the death of it's discoverer


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele

While Scheele's experiments generated substances which have long since been found to be hazardous, the compounds and elements he used to start his experiments were dangerous to begin with, especially heavy metals. Scheele had a bad habit of sniffing and tasting any new substances he discovered.[3] Cumulative exposure to arsenic, mercury, lead, their compounds, and perhaps hydrofluoric acid which he had discovered, and other substances took their toll on Scheele, who died on 21 May 1786 at his home in Köping. He married the widow Pohl two days before he died, so that he could pass on his possessions and his pharmacy to her.

This guy seems like a precursor of green chemistry !

Offline billnotgatez

  • Global Moderator
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 4219
  • Mole Snacks: +215/-58
  • Gender: Male
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #6 on: July 08, 2013, 12:58:53 PM »
Just a reminder not to be a wet blanket and not stifle discussion
Please post here in the SPIRIT of the forum rules.

Quote
We have nothing against a reasonable scientific discussion of the properties of drugs and explosives, but we will not help you hurt yourself making them. If you you think your question might cross the line, feel free to send a private message to one of our moderators asking if the questions is acceptable. Note that even if the question is acceptable, discussion may take such a direction we will decide to close the thread. Due to their potential health hazards, we will also not help you prepare your own medicines or cosmetics.

Offline opsomath

  • Chemist
  • Full Member
  • *
  • Posts: 472
  • Mole Snacks: +50/-8
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #7 on: July 08, 2013, 02:34:06 PM »
Sir Humphry Davy was the man who isolated potassium (and several other explodey elements) in the first place. He died in 1829.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphry_Davy


Offline Illuminatus

  • Regular Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 24
  • Mole Snacks: +10/-0
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #8 on: July 08, 2013, 02:58:45 PM »
Hello Voyager-2,

Not widely-known and naturally occuring, the conotoxins found in some marine gastropods are some of the deadliest neurotoxin mixes on Earth. Look up "Conus geographus," also known as the cigarette snail. It merited this name because it was said that the victims of the snail's sting would have barely enough time to smoke a cigarette before dying, for there is no antivenom.
I am sure you can devise a way to incorporate either an extracted sample of this venom or the entire snail into your literary work.

Enjoy
« Last Edit: July 09, 2013, 03:50:01 AM by Borek »
Is 137 the end?

Offline curiouscat

  • Chemist
  • Sr. Member
  • *
  • Posts: 3005
  • Mole Snacks: +121/-35
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #9 on: July 08, 2013, 03:09:39 PM »
Similarly,Tetrodotoxin.

The first recorded cases of TTX poisoning were from the logs of Captain James Cook from 7 September 1774,[27] on which date Cook recorded his crew eating some local tropic fish (pufferfish), then feeding the remains to the pigs kept on board. The crew experienced numbness and shortness of breath, while the pigs were all found dead the next morning. In hindsight, it is clear that the crew received a mild dose of tetrodotoxin, while the pigs ate the pufferfish body parts that contain most of the toxin, thus being fatally poisoned.

Voyager-2

  • Guest
Re: A novel in need of a dangerous yet realistic chemical substance...
« Reply #10 on: July 26, 2013, 12:36:48 PM »
Thank you so much! A most helpful selection of excellent ideas, each one to address and explore separately... but firstly, allow me to thank for all of them!

(And, with your permission, I will keep lurking on the forum for a while, reading up and trying to educate myself further - hopefully to the point of composing passages that would not make a scientist frown with disapproval. :) )

Sponsored Links