Determinism, Cotingency, and the Accident of Mankind

Oct 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Well, we seem to be off to a good start.  I do have work tomorrow, so I'll just get this in now and let everyone stew over it all day.  The best sauce and all that...

Since we already kind of got started in this direction, I'll put in questions 2 and 3 from The Emergence of Life - Chapter 1.  This link is to my review of chapter 1.  Here's a link to the book on Amazon (I get no income from this).  But at the least you'll understand the thinking behind determinism and contingency.  [NOTE: You'll find I link to Wikipedia a lot.  It's a convenient location for much of the material that I think you might benefit from.  I do not consider it an authoritative source, but the references and further reading are often  peer-reviewed works that will describe material in detail, with authority.]

Chapter 1 - Question 2:

Do you accept the idea that biological evolution is mostly shaped by contingency? If not, what would you add to this picture?

First we need to talk about contingency and determinism. In the book, Luisi describes determinism (in this context) as the notion that life can develop purely by the interaction of chemical and physical processes. In other words, if the chemicals are available, life will develop. The opposite of this thought is NOT that there was an intelligent designer or something like that.

The other position is that of contingency. That is, the interaction of many factors (the majority of which may be deterministic) is required in an unlikely sequence of events to result in life. Contingency is something like chance, but not quite. Luisi describes it as this way. Contingency is getting hit on the head with a piece of tile roof. The deterministic factors (your walk to work, the poor condition of the roof, wind, gravity, etc) all combined to result in you getting hit with a piece of tile. Another way to look at it is what I call the “re-do” effect. If you reset everything back to the way it was before you walked to work, would you still get hit with the tile? If we reset the universe back 6 billion years and let it run again, would be in exactly the same place we are now?

In my mind contingency is the philosophical equivalent of chaos theory.

Now to answer the actual question. Is biological evolution mostly shaped by contingency?

First, this is a rather curious statement considering the focus of the book. Evolution really doesn’t have that much to do with abiogenesis… or does it. It can be shown that evolution occurs with any system that replicates imperfectly. Is a single RNA strand alive? If not, then we do have evolution on non-life and that evolution may drive replicators toward life. However, is evolution contingent anyway? I think so, if only because of the massive amount of potential influences on an organism. Mutations, environmental effects, what actually determines relative fitness, etc are all contingent things. A particular mutation might be great in an ice age, but if it's not an ice age, then it may be useless.

As far as abiogenesis is concerned, before reading this, I was squarely in the deterministic camp. However, contingency makes a lot of sense. It would explain why we haven’t heard from aliens (of course, there are lots of other reasons for that too).

At this point, I’m thinking that life is probably pretty common in the universe. However, I’m wondering how much life exists beyond slime molds (or alien equivalents)? Is multi-cellularity much more difficult to achieve than we might think? With a sample size of 1, it’s difficult to really examine this, but research seems to indicate that being multi-celled is useful and so may be likely once cellular organisms exist.

Intelligence may be less likely than multi-cellular organisms, but again, a small sample size has resulted in little ability to explore.

I can see the value in both positions.  I think the future research that will be done in space exploration may well give us evidence one way or another.  If the deterministic proposal is correct, then we should see a universe filled with life in all kinds of strange environments (more on this later).  If contingency is more correct, then we should rarely see life and even more rarely see intelligent life.  Which neatly segues into the third question...

Chapter 1 - Question 3:

Are you at peace with the idea that mankind might not have existed; and with the idea that we may be alone in the universe?

65 million years ago, dinosaurs were satisfied. They had existed on this planet for over 160 million years (almost a 1000 times longer than modern humans have existed). Mammals existed for much of that time, but they were rarely much larger than mice.

It took a freak accident to allow the rise of mammals, which has resulted in the development of modern humans. Without an asteroid crashing into and utterly devastating the planet, we would not be here. I have no problem with that.

I’m not so sure about ‘alone’. In the sense that humans may be unique as the only sentient species (i.e. capable of ad hominem arguments and recognizing the fact), I can live with it. I’ve read too much science fiction to be comfortable with the idea… I want to believe. But I can live with the idea that we are unique.  That doesn't imply special privilege or a designer or anthropocentrism in my book.  It just means we are lucky.

But in the sense that there are other living things, I don’t think I can be OK with that. I believe that there is too much energy in the universe (in the physics sense) and the likelihood of complex chemical reactions is too great to say with any confidence that Earth is the only planet with life. Since we find organic compounds in the most unlikely of places (nebula and comets) I think that life is not only possible, but likely to exist elsewhere in the universe, perhaps even elsewhere in the solar system. This life, like the dinosaurs may be satisfied at whatever level it has obtained to this point, but I doubt it. Life changes. Darwin and hundreds of years of observation have shown us that life changes and in ways we cannot imagine (reptiles developing a proto-uterus for example).

Again, this is my belief, but if life exists elsewhere in the universe, then intelligence also exists in the universe.

Your thoughts?

4 responses so far

Reposted: Chemistry For The Zombie Apocalypse

Sep 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Figure 1: Zombie apocalypse

Whether a zombie apocalypse is scientifically possible or not, it is better to be safe than sorry.  Silly? Perhaps... but even the Center for Disease Control (CDC) wants you to think about zombie apocalypse preparedness.

Being prepared for a zombie attack has never been easier.  There are zombie-centric groups like the Zombie Research Society and Zombie Combat Club, numerous zombie survival books and online resources, and even a conference (ZomBcon) that features zombie survival programming.

We know how to avoid and kill zombies, keep from becoming a zombie, stockpile for a zombie attack, pick a location for our zombie-free compound and thanks to The Walking Dead, how to chemically camouflage ourselves among zombies.

The zombies of The Walking Dead pick-out their living animal snacks primarily by smell. They've drawn to noise and use their sight, but these zombies know they've found dinner through smell.  As The Walking Dead's Andrea said, "They smell dead, we don’t.  That's pretty distinct.”  That observation became a plan and The Walking Dead's Grimes got the group of the living chemical camouflage by, ummm... direct harvesting (this episode is called "Guts" for a reason).

Figure 2: Eau de Death factory

After watching this episode, my first thought was, "There has to be a better way."  The Walking Dead method (TWDM) for producing said chemical camouflage leaves much to be desired.  TWDM requires a corpse, puncturing tools, extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) and a strong stomach.  In addition, TWDM is ill-suited for mass production, something a zombie pandemic would necessitate.  If smelling dead will save lives, we'll need a lot death cologne.

Fortunately, smelling dead doesn't require dealing with the dead.  By selecting the right chemicals, along with suitable production methods, large quantities of  a Eau de Death could be made.

For that rotting smell without the fuss and muss of TWDM, two classes of organic compounds - amines and sulfhydryls - offer good bad-smelling chemical candidates.  Two foul smelling amines, cadaverine and putresine (Figure 3), are good choices as they are produced early in the body's decomposition process.  To the amine duo, the stinky sulfhydryl methanethiol (Figure 3) adds a smell of rotten cabbage or eggs.


Figure 3: possible ingredients of Eau de Death

For large quanities of our rotten trio, biotechnology could be just be just the ticket, with bacteria doing the heavy lifting.  The use of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) to make large amounts of cadaverine and putrescine was presented in a May 2011 article in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.  E. coli can produce cadaverine from the amino acid L-lysine by having enzymes trim a carboxylic acid group off L-lysine (Figure 4).  The same trim job can yield putrescine from L-ornithine (Figure 4), with L-ornithine being the result of a slice-and-dice of the amino acid L-arginine.  There is also a second route to get putrescine from L-arginine without the intermediate L-ornithine.

Figure 4: Producing cadaverine and putrescine


Figure 4: E. coli

Our stinky sulfhydryl could also be produced using our bacterial factory workers E. coli (Figure 5), as research published in Plant and Cell Physiology showed. Modifying E. coli to produce a specific enzyme will get us methanethiol from the amino acid L-methionine via a more elaborate route than those that yielded our foul smelling amines.

To get our E. coli staffed Eau de Death factory up and running, we'll need to debug these biotech production routes (see A and B).

As with other perfumes, the Eau de Death recipe must be perfected.  Should other stinky chemicals be included?  What is the proper ratio of stinky compounds to achieve the right rotting flesh smell?  Should we have a celebrity spokesperson?

Our chemical camouflage is off to a good start, but we have a lot of work to do.  Now is the time to start!  We certainly can't wait until we're in the midst of a zombie outbreak.  Anyone who has seen The Walking Dead, or any zombie movie for that matter, knows mid-zombie apocalypse isn't the best time for this type of research and development.



Many thanks to GertyZ, who rightly pointed out during a discussion on this post that any Eau de Death should contain a sulfhydryl.

Figure image attributions:
Figures 1-2: clip art from Officer 2010
Figure 5: image from

15 responses so far

That wasn't so bad, was it?

Jul 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Goodbye, dear readers!

Two weeks ago today, I started off my stint as Scientopia guest blogger with an apology.  Today, I end with one.  In my introduction, I indicated that you probably wouldn't learn anything scieny.

It has been brought to my attention through emails, tweets and blog comments that I failed to deliver.  

Turns out, some of you did learn something sciency.

We talked about the Supreme Court's Cocaine Problem, checked the math on K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE®, did Chemistry For The Zombie Apocalypse, worked on a Grant Writing Soundtrack and investigated the chemical behind DuPont's tree-icide trouble.  It was a smorgasbord of chemistry, with physics, biotechnology, and jurisprudence for extra flavor.

It wasn't so bad, was it?  Sure there was sciency stuff, but good times were had.  Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, zombies and a whodunit!  Chemistry is in even the coolest stuff - and I won't apologize for that.


10 responses so far

DuPont Charged With Tree-icide

Jul 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized


Figure 1: Tree-icide

The news broke on July 14th.  DuPont's Imprelis®* herbicide is the prime suspect in a series of tree deaths, the main victims being eastern white pines and Norway spruces.  Owners of these conifers are pointing the finger at DuPont, but is Imprelis® to blame?

Washtenaw Acquisition LLC , Polo Fields East LLC  and Polo Fields Golf & Country Club LLC certainly think so.   On the same day the tree-icide story hit the news, the golf and polo group filed a federal class action lawsuit.  

The chemical at the center of this legal drama is 6-amino-5-chloro-2-cyclopropyl-4-pyrimidinecarboxylic acid, known by its chemistry nickname 'aminocyclopyrachlor'.  Perhaps thinking aminocyclopyrachlor was too long and not sexy enough, DuPont dubbed it Aptexor™.  

DuPont's Imprelis® herbicide contains aminocyclopyrachlor and its potassium salt (Figure 2).   Like other herbicides, aminocyclopyrachlor severely inhibits or kills undesirable plants while leaving the desired ones (mostly) alone.  The undesirables targeted by aminocyclopyrachlor are various broadleaf weeds and bushes, such as those listed here (page 1).


Figure 2: The herbicide in question


Aminocyclopyrachlor is part of a group of compounds that mimic the behavior of plant hormones called auxins.  These hormones play various roles in plant growth and development.  Auxin mimics like aminocyclopyrachlor can play these same roles.  As with many chemicals, it's all about the dosage when it comes to helping or hurting.  At high concentrations, auxins and their mimics behave as herbicides.

Imagine if the invitation to your intimate dinner party went viral.  A flash mob turns up at your front door, rushes in and soon your home is a rave with hundreds of club kids.  These ravers soon spill into the street and it's an impromptu block party.  You, your house and your yard were overrun - and now look run-over.

Now imagine a flash mob of auxin mimics showing up in a patch of weeds, getting inside the weeds through the leaves and roots.  The many roles auxins play in plant growth and development gives a auxin mimic  flash mob several modes of attack.   The weeds' cells rapidly proliferate clogging up the plant's vascular transport system, cell membranes and their resident proteins don't work as they should,  RNA production is interfered with... An overdose of  aminocyclopyrachlor doesn't just mess up one thing, it messes up several things - too many things for a weed to handle in short order.  What's left is a stunted, malformed weed which will die in days to weeks.

If a high concentration of aminocyclopyrachlor doesn't sound like the best thing for turfgrass, don't worry.  Turfgrasses can handle these concentrations of auxin mimics.  But can trees like Eastern white pines and Norway spruces?  DuPont says conifers were included in their trials with no negative effects observed.  Given the reports of tree deaths, both DuPont and the EPA are said to be investigating aminocyclopyrachlor's possible role.    In scientific literature, little on-point research has been published.

Dr. Pete Landschoot, Professor of Turfgrass Science at Penn State, has been following this case and posted 'Some Observations on Imprelis Injury to Trees'.

Imprelis injury seems to be related to the soaking spring rains of April and May (I am not aware of any tree injury following fall applications), and to some particular characteristics of the herbicide.  Even though applicators I have spoken with did not apply the herbicide within the “drip line” of affected trees (as directed on the Imprelis label), injury still occurred.  Research has shown that root spread of trees far exceed the branch spread; thus, root uptake from leached herbicide residue can occur outside of the drip line (Freucht, 1988).  Although leaching of herbicides is more of a risk in sandy soils with low organic matter content, Imprelis-related damage occurred in several locations on heavy, clay soils.

It's possible that, like the targeted weeds, the conifer victims absorbed aminocyclopyrachlor through their roots from soil.  Perhaps those heavy rains spread the auxin mimic farther than intended and within range of tree roots.  But "possible" and "perhaps" are a far way from proof of Imprelis®'s culpability.  To quote Dr. Landschoot, "Right now, there is much speculation about the details surrounding tree damage due to Imprelis applications, but the exact reasons still need to be sorted out."

Until the exact reasons for the tree deaths are known, those with the most vulnerable trees are cautioned against using Imprelis®  - by DuPont.

Figure 3: DuPont's not of caution


^DuPont's Imprelis® is a herbicide sold to lawn care professionals.
Image Attribution
Figure 1: Office 1010 clip-art
Figure 3: Image was captured from

2 responses so far

K-Y® YOURS+MINE® Chemistry

Jul 08 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

After seeing all those commercials for K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE® couples lubricants on TV, my curiosity got the better of me and I just had to find out.  What chemicals are behind all that sexual chemistry hype?   My research started at the K-Y® website...

Figure 1

In the product description for K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE® (Figure 1), I am going to let slide the two most chemistry-sounding phrases.  "It takes two lubricants to make chemistry.." - gets a pass as I'm sure they mean the colloquialism "sexual chemistry".  Also getting a pass is "catalyst for exploration", as it seems clear K-Y® doesn't mean their lubricants are catalysts by a chemistry definition.

Having dealt with the chemistry-sounding stuff, it's time to get down to the chemistry.  Specifically, the chemicals behind what YOURS will do ("An invigorating warming sensation for him") and what MINE will do ("A thrilling tingling sensation for her").  What chemicals responsible for the "warming" and "tingling".  What makes this product different a "plain" lubricant such as K-Y® Brand Liquid personal lubricant?

Figure 2



K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE® has chemicals for "warming" and "tingling" (cooling), or rather K-Y® MINE® does.  One can think of K-Y® MINE as a sexy IcyHot.  Cooling agent menthyl lactate is for "tingling" and methyl salicylate is for "warming".   Yes, the "warming" promised by K-Y® YOURS is in K-Y® MINE.  Interestingly, K-Y® MINE looks a lot like K-Y® Brand TINGLING® Jelly (Figure 3).

Figure 3


...and K-Y® YOURS looks a lot like a plain K-Y® lubricant (K-Y® Brand Liquid; Figure 4) and K-Y® Brand WARMING® Liquid (Figure 5).


Figure 4


Figure 5

In regards to K-Y® YOURS "warming", perhaps a plain lubricant is warming enough?  Or maybe by adding in glycerin and honey, both more viscous than propylene glycol, K-Y® YOURS is a stickier (and worse) lubricant thus providing a feeling of warmth?  [I look your comments! ;) Oh-uh..]

There's a little sexy science for you!  Plus, perhaps knowing more about the chemistry of K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE® will help potential users calculate if it's worth the purchase.



Figure image attributions:
Figures 1 & 2: Screen capture of the K-Y® Brand YOURS + MINE® website
Figure 3: Screen capture of K-Y® Brand TINGLING® Jelly website
Figure 4: Screen capture from K-Y® Brand Liquid website
Figure 5: Screen capture from K-Y® Brand WARMING® Liquid website

14 responses so far

The Supreme Court's Cocaine Problem

Jul 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Figure 1

Ask a chemist the difference between cocaine and crack, you’ll likely hear about acid-base chemistry.  Ask the other type of chemist and you’ll likely hear “about 5 years”.  It is mainly the sentencing differences, rather than the chemical differences, that dominate discussions on cocaine and crack.  Those sentencing differences were kicked-off by The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (eventually Public Law No: 99-570), which resulted in vastly different mandatory sentences for federal cocaine versus crack crimes (US Code § 841).

How different?  It took 500 grams of cocaine to get a nickel in the Big House, but only took 5 grams of crack to land you in the clink for the same time (see A, B & C).  Clearly, it was legally advantageous to do and deal in blow rather than rocks.  Based on this 100-to-1 sentencing difference, belies how chemically similar these compounds are.

Figure 2

Cocaine is often thought of as that white powder Scarface planted his face in (Figure 2).  That powder is actually cocaine hydrochloride (chemical formula [C17H22NO4]+ Cl-), a salt of the alkaloid compound cocaine (Figure 1).

Like other salts, cocaine hydrochloride is the result of reacting an acid (hydrochloric acid, HCl) and a base (cocaine).

Cocaine hydrochloride has a melting point (mp*) of 190-192 ˚C and decomposes at high temperatures, making it far better suited for insufflation rather than smoking.

Crack, however, seems made for smoking with a mp* of 96-97 C.  Crack is easily prepared by heating an aqueous solution of cocaine hydrochloride and the base sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), then collecting the precipitate.  So... crack is cocaine and what we think of as cocaine is actually cocaine salt.  Oh, and freebase is also cocaine. Freebase cocaine is prepared much the same way as crack, swapping ammonia for baking soda, with the additional steps of ether extraction to yield ‘freebase’.  Like crack, freebase is typically smoked.  While cocaine hydrocloride has that powdery appearance (Figure 3A), crack and freebase look like rocks (Figure 3B).

While members of the US Congress likely tossed around the words 'coke', 'crack' and 'freebase' during floor debates, hearings, committee meetings and whatever else occurred to bring us Public Law No: 99-570, you won't find those words in US Code § 841 (excerpt below).

(B) In the case of a violation of subsection (a) of this section involving—

  • (i) 100 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin;
  • (ii) 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of—
  • (I) coca leaves, except coca leaves and extracts of coca leaves from which cocaine, ecgonine, and derivatives of ecgonine or their salts have been removed;
  • (II) cocaine, its salts, optical and geometric isomers, and salts of isomers;
  • (III) ecgonine, its derivatives, their salts, isomers, and salts of isomers; or
  • (IV) any compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any quantity of any of the substances referred to in subclauses (I) through (III);

(iii) 5 grams or more of a mixture or substance described in clause (ii) which contains cocaine base;


such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 5 years...

In US Code § 841, cocaine hydrochloride fell under (B) (ii), crack under (B) (iii) as “cocaine base”, and the disparate sentences came under attack.  What was the motivation for 100-10-1 sentencing difference? Race, pharmacological differences, drug war politics, some or none of the above?  This disparity debate bounced around the country and returned to the US Congress in 2009 with the introduction of the Fair Sentencing Act.

Various individuals and groups showed their varying-levels of support (see D, E, F & G) for this act.  Why the varying levels of support?  The Fair Sentencing Act didn't make the sentences equal.  Instead of a 100-to-1 difference in sentencing, it was now a (roughly) 18-to-1 difference.  As of August 2010, when the Fair Sentencing Act became law , 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack will get you five in the joint.

Actually, if we're being specific, 28 grams of "cocaine base" will get you a nickel.  By now, it seemed clear that "cocaine base", though redundant, includes crack, freebase and anything else with cocaine (Figure 1) in it.  Not so, argued Frantz DePierre.

In 2005, DePierre got caught selling drugs and charged with distributing 50 grams or more of "cocaine base".  Now DePierre didn't try to argue that the stuff he was caught selling was cocaine hydrochloride, thus lessening any possible prison time.  Let's face it, that argument would have been absurd.  No, DePierre argued that "cocaine base" was crack - and only crack.

DePierre asked the District Court to instruct the jury that, in order to find him guilty of distribution of cocaine base, it must find that his offense involved “the form of cocaine base known as crack cocaine.” App. in No. 08–2101 (CA1), p. 43. His proposed jury instruction defined “crack” identically to the Guidelines definition. See id. , at 43–44; see also USSG §2D1.1(c), n. (D). In addition, De-Pierre asked the court to instruct the jury that “[c]hemi-cal analysis cannot establish a substance as crack because crack is chemically identical to other forms of cocaine base, although it can reveal the presence of sodium bicarbonate, which is usually used in the processing of crack.” App. in No. 08–2101, at 44. [excerpt^ from Franz DePierre v. United States]

Figure 4

You can almost see DePierre's (or his lawyer's) train of thought...  "If the court says "cocaine base" is only crack, but chemical analysis can't tell crack from freebase from other stuff with cocaine in it, then I've got a get out of jail free card."

Well, the District court didn't do as DePierre requested.

Instead, the District Court told the jury "..the statute that’s relevant asks about cocaine base. Crack cocaine is a form of cocaine base, so you’ll tell us whether or not what was involved is cocaine base … ”.

During DePierre's trial, a government chemist testified that the drug DePierre was caught selling was "cocaine base" and that no sodium bicarbonate was identified.  DePierre was convicted and he took his argument to the next level, i.e. the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (CA1).  The CA1 sided with the District Court and...

...reject[ed] DePierre’s argument that §841(b)(1)(A)(iii) should be read only to apply to offenses involving crack cocaine....holding that “ ‘cocaine base’ refers to ‘all forms of cocaine base, including but not limited to crack cocaine.’ ” Id. , at 30–31 (quoting United States v. Anderson , 452 F. 3d 66, 86–87 (CA1 2006)).  [excerpt from Franz DePierre v. United States]

Essentially, CA1 takes "cocaine base" in US Code § 841 to mean the alkaloid compound cocaine (Figure 1) and stuff containing said alkaloid (e.g. crack, freebase, coca paste).  Once again, DePierre took it to the next level and Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) granted certiorari " resolve the longstanding division in authority among the Courts of Appeals on this question."

To SCOTUS, DePierre made 5 arguments “...that the term ‘cocaine base’ in clause (iii) is best read to mean ‘crack cocaine.’  SCOTUS was not convinced by any of them.  Sure, SCOTUS agreed that ‘cocaine base’ was redundant, discussed how the language of the law could be fixed, and what Congress could have meant by "cocaine base", but in the end…

That we may rue inartful legislative drafting, however, does not excuse us from the responsibility of construing a statute as faithfully as possible to its actual text. 11 And as noted earlier, there is no textual support for DePierre’s interpretation of “cocaine base” to mean “crack cocaine.”  [excerpt from Franz DePierre v. United States]

“Textual support”?  SCOTUS seems to mean that since "cocaine base" not "crack cocaine" appears in the relevant statue(s) and congressional records, ‘cocaine base’ isn’t only crack.  Plus, it appears that SCOTUS found that swapping "crack cocaine" for "cocaine base" made no sense in some sections of the relevant statue.

We agree with the Government that the most natural reading of the term “cocaine base” is “cocaine in its base form”— i.e. , C 17 H 21 NO 4 , the molecule found in crack cocaine, freebase, and coca paste. On its plain terms, then, “cocaine base” reaches more broadly than just crack cocaine. [excerpt from Franz DePierre v. United States]

SCOTUS’ final word?

We hold that the term “cocaine base” as used in §841(b)(1) means not just “crack cocaine,” but cocaine in its chemically basic form. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

It is so ordered.

Figure 5

What does this mean for cocaine hydrochloride?  Absolutely nothing, it’s not a “cocaine base” – something SCOTUS states at the start of its opinion.

Chemically, therefore, there is no difference between the cocaine in coca paste, crack cocaine, and freebase—all are cocaine in its base form. On the other hand, cocaine in its base form and in its salt form (i.e. , cocaine hydrochloride) are chemically different, though they have the same active ingredient and produce the same physiological and psychotropic effects. See id. , at 14–22. The key difference between them is the method by which they generally enter the body; smoking cocaine in its base form—whether as coca paste, freebase, or crack cocaine—allows the body to absorb the active ingredient quickly, thereby producing a shorter, more intense high than obtained from insufflating cocaine hydrochloride.  [excerpt from Franz DePierre v. United States]

So where are we at now?  An 18-to-1 sentencing difference between cocaine hydrochloride and “cocaine base” crimes, with “cocaine base” not limited to crack.  In Franz DePierre v. United States, SCOTUS did not directly address the validity of cocaine hydrochloride and “cocaine base” sentencing differences.  If anything, SCOTUS seemed to say “Congress had its reasons and it’s up to Congress to deal with it" - but, I'm no legal scholar (though I did watch Law & Order for 20 years).   Nope, I'm just a chemist happy to see little chemistry in the courts.


Figure image attributions:
Figure 1: Image from
Figure 3: Images from (cocaine hydrochloride) and (crack)
Figure 4: Image from
Figure 5: Image from
Special notes
*The mp values listed are from a single publication, but these values are in-line with values listed in the SciFinder compound properties feature.  The mp values of 180 ˚C for cocaine hydrochloride and 80 ˚C for crack are also found in literature (see X and Y).
^All Franz DePierre v. United States excerpts are from the majority opinion.  The concurring opinion can be found here.

7 responses so far

Smithsonian's Women in Science uploads, pt. 2

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I titled my last Scientopia Guest Blogge post with a "pt. 1" attached--which is always a bit ominous.  Wait no longer for the other shoe to drop.  Here's another recently uploaded image to the Smithsonian's Women in Science set on Flickr Commons; this time, meet Joyce Jacobson Kaufman:
Joyce Jacobson Kaufman (b. 1929)
[Visual description: Woman seated at a table, holding a tinkertoy-style model.]

Who? Kaufman was born in 1929 in the Bronx, but raised in Baltimore. She was an early reader, and remembers liking a biography of Marie Curie when she was little. When she was eight years old, she was chosen for a summer camp sponsored by Johns Hopkins, for kids who were identified as gifted in math and science, again demonstrating the effectiveness of starting early to bring girls into the science stream. Although Johns Hopkins didn't welcome women students in those days, she was admitted at 16 as a "special student," married a fellow student, had a daughter, and eventually earned her PhD there in 1960, in chemistry (dissertation title: "Ionization Potentials of Some Boron Compounds"). Read more about her busy career after that at the Jewish Virtual Library, SJSU Virtual Museum, and the Journal of Chemical Education Online.

Kaufman has entries in Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia, American Women in Technology: An Encyclopedia, Jewish Women in America, Women in Chemistry and Physics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, Notable Women in the Physical Sciences, American Women in Science, etc. etc. But no Wikipedia entry?! Nope. That makes no sense for "one of the most distinguished international scientists in the fields of chemistry, physics, biomedicine, and supercomputers." If you understand the science and feel moved to share that understanding, why not mark Women's History Month by starting a biographical entry for Kaufman?

5 responses so far