Misleading Accusations

Fake news is becoming more common, and most of it is either political in nature or it is an attempt to be humorous. Last week I posted on the attempted murder of the two Skripals. Since then there have been a raft of accusations, some of which border on the pathetic, and some of which are definitely misleading.

The first example comes from the Russians. A Russian ambassador stated that for the British to be able to identify this agent as a Novichok, they must have a sample, therefore they are making it. There was then the implication that this could have been the source, although he never actually said he believed it. This last implication is just plain stupid. I am quite convinced the British would not do this. If they wanted to get rid of the Skripals, which I do not believe they would, at the very least they would do it in a way that would not harm anyone else. It is almost as if the Russian government sees itself as some sort of gangster organization and thinks everyone else is too. That is why I think it was a stupid comment; it is the sort of thing that immediately backfires.

But what about the point that Porton Down must have samples? That is just plain wrong. They must have some sort of expertise, but since it is the UK national defence laboratory, that expertise should be taken for granted. If so, it is a rather straightforward task to identify something like that. We know what the structures involve, and such structures do not occur in nature. You have to have some idea what it could be before you start if your sample is really small, but given the circumstances, that would be a given. One approach would be to run a mass spectrum of the sample (having done some sort of chromatographic purification), and do it under a few different conditions. One such determination would be low energy ionization to determine the overall molecular weight, which tells you how many atoms are there, and if the instrument is good enough, the molecular formula. That is because although all elements comprise protons and neutrons, which have a constant mass, the binding energy varies from atom to atom, and from relativity there are clear but very small mass differences between the various possibilities from the general molecular weight. The next attempt would be hit it with higher energy, which would break it into fragments, and again the molecular weights of the fragments will tell you how the various groups are assembled. Finally, some small groups will give you more information, and the exercise then is to interpret how to put this back together again. Of course had they ever had access to a sample, they would have records of the fragmentation patterns of all the Novichoks they knew about. So there is little doubt the British authorities would have been able to find out what this was without having to go around making or having samples.

However, then the British politicians made a further statement: we can tell where it came from through the structure. Sorry, but you can’t. That statement violates the first law of thermodynamics, from which you can show the nature of a chemical is independent of how it was made, or from where. Had there been tonnes of the stuff, yes, then you might, not directly from the structure but rather once you knew what it was, you would know who made it because chemical plant, by and large, gets dedicated to making one substance and there would probably be only one making some of these components. But at the gram level, there is no way of knowing from its structure where it came from.

The problem with these sort of comments is they sound convincing to those who do not know much about the general subject However, eventually someone points out the errors and conspiracy theories start up. When it becomes known that the authorities made politically desirable statements, all sorts of rubbish comes out of the woodwork. Another problem with such announcements is that they may look to be politically desirable at the time, but what about the downstream consequences? In this case, the desire to blame Russia has set off some tit for tat diplomatic expulsions, and some sanctions. Now what? Why could that not have waited until the evidence came in? If it can be shown that Russian agents did it, then surely the various actions would be stronger and even the Russians might seem embarrassed. But suppose some individual or small rogue organization did it? Now Russia has been made angry for no good purpose. Nothing has been done that could not have waited, so why not wait and make sure the conclusions are right?

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