DIY science: should you try this at home?
by Jon Ronson
Published in The Guardian, February 3rd 2012
Angelholm is a pretty southern Swedish town, famed for its clay cuckoo manufacturing, a clay cuckoo being a kind of ocarina, which is a kind of flute. The crime rate here is practically zero. Except one of its residents was last year arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen. His name is Richard Handl and he buzzes me into his first-floor flat.
I wanted to meet Richard because I keep seeing reports of home science experimenters clashing with the authorities. There’s been a spate of them this past year or two.
I glance into Richard’s kitchen and recognise his cooker from the news. It was horrendously, alarmingly blackened then, but it’s clean now.
“So, you aren’t currently doing any experiments?” I ask him.
“I’m banned,” he says.
“By whom?” I ask.
“My landlord,” he says. “And the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority.”
Then we sit on the sofa and he tells me his story.
When Richard was a teenager, everything, he says, was fine. “I had friends. We’d go partying. I have Asperger’s, so I was a bit of a nerd, a geek. My interests were chemical experiments. I’d make solutions that changed colour. When I was 13, I made some explosives in the garden, using gunpowder, stuff I got from a paint store and from my father’s pharmacy. He had sulphuric acid, nitric acid. Visiting my father in his pharmacy was very exciting.”
His father assumed Richard would grow up to be a pharmacist, too. He was, Richard says, happy and proud of his son, as it was his dream to raise a boy to follow in his footsteps. But something unexpected happened to Richard 14 years ago, when he was 17: “I became very aggressive to people,” he says.
“In what way?” I ask.
“It was towards my father,” Richard says. “Sometimes I hit him.”
“In response to what?”
“Very small things. Like if he was late and didn’t call.”
“Was he worried about you?”
“Yes, he was quite worried about me. He took me to the hospital, so I could talk to psychiatrists. They said I was depressed. And I had some paranoid disorder.”
“And all this just came from nowhere?”
“It just happened,” he shrugs.
Richard worked in a factory for four years, but his disorder meant he spent most of his time in his flat. His love of chemistry continued undimmed, but the possibility of him becoming a pharmacist had practically gone. So, instead, he decided one day to start a collection – he would scour the internet and buy an ampoule of every chemical element. He quickly realised he had to downgrade his ambition. “There are some very unstable radioactive elements, like polonium and francium, that last just a couple of minutes and then decay. They’re impossible to get.”
But he persevered with the others.
“Do you have any of them still here?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “Would you like to see them?”
He disappears into his bedroom and returns holding a basket filled with ampoules of gold and silver and platinum and thallium and beryllium. Some are solid blocks, some glittering shards, others shining slivers. The basket looks like a treasure chest.
“This is the most amazing one,” Richard says, picking up an ampoule marked “Cesium”. It looks like solid gold. “Watch,” he says. “If you warm it up…”
He closes his fist around it for 30 seconds. Then he shows it to me again. It has melted. We both look at it, amazed, as if we’ve just witnessed a magic trick.
“And then,” Richard says, “I began to collect radioactive elements like radium and uranium and americium.”
Richard was Googling “americium” one day when he found a story, in Harper’s magazine, chronicling the life of a Michigan boy named David Hahn who grew up in the 1990s. There was something about Hahn with which Richard identified. Both boys spent their childhoods blowing things up in the garden. Hahn once turned up at a Boy Scouts meeting in Golf Manor, Michigan, with a bright orange face due to an accidental overdose of canthaxanthin. Hahn got expelled from camp for dismantling a smoke detector (he was trying to extract the americium – pretty much everything you need to split the atom you can find on eBay or in smoke detectors and antique luminous dial clocks).
Those were the days before the internet, so getting hold of information about how to build a nuclear reactor was more complicated for Hahn than it would turn out to be for Richard. He learned how to do it by writing to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and pretending to be a physics teacher. Did they have any pamphlets on how to split the atom?
“Nothing produces neutrons as well as beryllium, Professor Hahn,” they wrote back.
And that’s how David Hahn managed to turn his potting shed into a nuclear reactor.
It wasn’t long before the Michigan police cottoned on, and in June 1995, 11 men in protective suits descended on the dangerously irradiated shed. He was shut down.
Sixteen years later, in ngelholm, Richard read the Hahn story and felt inspired to try it out himself. This is how Richard went about trying to split the atom. First, he got a saucepan. Into it he put his radioactive elements – the americium and radium. He mixed them up with sulphuric acid and beryllium, and turned on the stove. The mixture bubbled up crazily, splashing all over the cooker and the floor. He quickly turned off the hob and posted a picture of the carnage on his blog, with the caption “The Meltdown!”.
His plan, he says, was to repeat the experiment, but this time collect into a test tube the neutrons that were emanating from the concoction. Then he’d have fired the “neutron ray” at a chunk of uranium sealed in a glass marble.
“What does the neutron ray look like?” I ask.
“It doesn’t look like anything,” Richard says. “You can’t see it.”
“How do you know it’s there?”
“You have to measure it with a Geiger counter,” he says.
“So what you’re saying is, you’d point the test tube filled with neutrons at the uranium marble, and that’s what would split the atom?”
“Yes,” Richard says.
Richard never did collect the neutrons into a test tube. After the meltdown, he decided to email the Swedish Radiation Authority to double-check that what he was doing was above board.
“Hello!” read his email of 18 July 2011. “I’m very interested in nuclear physics and radiation. I have planned a project to build a primitive nuclear reactor. Now I’m wondering if I’m violating any laws doing so?”
They emailed him back on 11 August: “Hi. The short answer to your question is that if you build a nuclear reactor without permission, you are violating strict laws. It is a criminal offence and can lead to fines or imprisonment for up to two years.”
Richard was surprised. “The amount I had was very small,” he says, “so far away from the amount needed to make a dirty bomb or something like that. To get it to explode, you must have something called a critical mass, which is 50kg of radium or 6kg of plutonium. I had 5g. The worst that could have happened was I might have got radiation in me.”
“And got cancer years later?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Yes.”
Even though it took the radiation authority three weeks to respond to Richard’s email, everything moved very quickly after that. Within days, they’d turned up at his flat with the police.
“They told me to get out with my hands up. They scanned me with Geiger counters. There was nothing. They measured the whole apartment. They said I was arrested for a crime against the radiation safety law.”
And that’s it, so far. Sixteen weeks have passed and nothing has happened to him, besides making headlines all over the world.
“I don’t regret it,” he says, “because it was exciting. I’m sad I can’t do it any more.”
We glance at his basket of elements. “There are no other experiments you could do with these?” I ask.
“I can,” he says, “but I don’t want to.”
“What could you do?” I ask.
“I could…” Richard pauses. “This thallium is very, very poisonous. If you break the ampoule, it would start to react with the air and oxidise. Thallium oxide. Very poisonous. If you get it on your fingers, you can die.”
“But you would never consider…”
“No, no,” Richard says. He pauses. “Actually, I’m thinking of trying again to become a pharmacist. I’m going to read up some courses from the high school and begin to study in the university.”
Back home, I remember the moment Richard shrugged, unconcerned, at the possibility of developing cancer from his experiments. This happens a lot with home experimenters. Something clicks in them and their science becomes more important to them than their safety. It happened to the Brazilian priest Father Adelir de Carli, who in April 2008 strapped 1,000 helium party balloons to a chair and lifted off from the port city of Paranagua.
He’d been inspired by a truck driver named Larry Walters who in 1982 had attached 45 weather balloons to a chair and soared to 16,000ft, waving at passing Delta and TWA pilots before landing 20 miles away in Long Beach. “The more I look at it, the more I’m glad I did it,” Walters told the New York Times at the time. “It’s something for when I’m an old man. So many people have dreams and they never follow through on them.”
Twenty-six years later, Father de Carli was so captivated by the experiment, he reportedly forgot to check the weather forecast, and to learn how his GPS worked. He was blown off course and drowned.
Then there were the two racing car drivers who, in the summer of 2010, poured four gallons of methanol into a barrel in a parking lot in Washington State, sat on top and lit the fuse. They were envisaging a “barrel ride”. It was supposed to slide across the parking lot. Instead it exploded. One of them, a former American Sprint Car Series national champion called Travis Rilet, suffered 70% burns. The other, an Australian crew member called Tyson Perez, died.
In Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, a man named Paul Moran was jailed for three months last October for accidentally setting fire to his block of flats while trying to turn his faeces into gold. He had left the stuff on an electric heater and it caught light.
“It was an interesting experiment to fulfil the alchemist’s dream, but wasn’t going to succeed,” the judge said when sentencing him.
But no home experiment has gone wrong quite so heartbreakingly as that of the Pambakian family. The Pambakians live in a cottage very close to my own house, so one day I stop on my way home to have a look. There’s a Volvo parked in the driveway. In the boot is a bag filled with medical supplies, bandages, some Brasso, some old wellies, a duvet, all jumbled up. The wing mirror is stuck together with tape. There’s stuff here that would save your life if administered by a medical professional, but it’s all quite haphazard.
Dr Yvonne Pambakian won’t talk to me about the tragedy that occurred inside the cottage. So instead I sit on the press bench of her General Medical Council fitness to practice hearing and listen to her testimony and cross-examination.
Five years ago, on 20 June 2007, she made an emergency call from the cottage. Her 22-year-old sister, Yolanda Cox, had gone into anaphylactic shock. When the paramedics arrived, they asked Pambakian what had happened.
“I gave her a drug for her asthma,” she told them.
Yolanda was rushed to the Royal Free hospital where a doctor, Alexander Mackay, asked her and her mother to explain exactly what they’d injected into her.
“They wouldn’t say,” he later told the coroner. “They said I didn’t need to know anything and the drug was extremely safe.” It seemed they were trying to protect some secret ingredient they’d been developing. “Some time later,” Mackay told the coroner, “they brought in paper information in two files.” The family were, in fact, injecting each other in their kitchen with an experimental drug of their invention, which they’d called B71.
Yolanda died a week later, on 27 June 2007.
Pambakian and her mother, she tells the hearing, began their experiments back in the mid-90s, pooling their areas of expertise (she’s a GP, her mother an immunologist). One day, they had a kind of eureka moment. To summarise it: some diabetes sufferers have an autoantibody that’s responsible for their resistance to insulin, and the Pambakians supposed that, as insulin resistance is so uniquely destructive, if they could derive a peptide from the autoantibody, it would be uniquely curative. So they did, and they called it B71. They began posting patent applications. B71 would treat – and this is just a small sample – asthma, diabetes, psoriasis, eczema, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson’s, migraines, multiple sclerosis, premature baldness in men, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis, insomnia, cancer and HIV.
They managed to persuade some Dutch money people to bankroll the business and embarked on two clinical trials in the Netherlands. That was in 2005. For two years after that, nothing happened. The whole thing seemed stuck in limbo.
And then one day in April 2007, they got an email. A woman called Caroline, a friend of one of the Dutch backers, had just been told she was dying of cancer. She was 33, with four children and – according to doctors at the Royal Marsden hospital – had only three months to live. “If there’s the remotest chance the drug might prove beneficial…” the backer emailed.
So on Good Friday 2007, Pambakian travelled to Caroline’s home, with a vial of B71 in her bag.
“You wanted to try out a theory,” GMC prosecutor Stephen Brassington says at the hearing.
“I wanted to offer her a treatment,” Pambakian snaps back.
So she prayed, and then she injected Caroline with a mammoth 6mg of the drug – a dose four times higher than they had given the Dutch trial volunteers. Caroline survived the injection, but later died of her cancer.
Brassington is incredulous. This is not how science works, he says. Science is all about assiduously gathering data, about treading gently, about conducting delicate clinical trials.
“I didn’t have safety data in thousands of people, that is true,” Pambakian admits. The way she says “thousands” is fierce, irritated, superior, as if the GMC panel live so far inside the box, they can never understand the kind of maverick thinking that changes the medical world.
When Pambakian arrived back at the cottage, they decided to make themselves test subjects. Of course, they were far from the first doctors to self-inject at home. For centuries, scientists have been deliberately infecting themselves with gonorrhoea and yellow fever; they’ve become morphine addicts and cocaine addicts in their hunt for new anaesthetics. The doctor who discovered in 2003 that stomach ulcers came from a bug and not from stress did so by drinking a potion containing the bug. So the Pambakians mixed up some more gigantic 6mg doses. And they injected themselves. And that’s when Yolanda said she didn’t feel well, and she slumped on the sofa.
“When the ambulance crew arrived, you told them that it was a treatment for asthma,” Brassington says.
“When the ambulance crew came, there was no time to sit and discuss the workings of the drug,” Pambakian replies. “I just wanted them to concentrate on getting the tube down her lungs. On giving her a chance to live. I’d have told them anything.” She pauses. “Anaphylactic shock is extremely rare. We’re talking about a few people a year in the whole country. It was not in my mind. Perhaps it should have been, but it wasn’t.” She falls silent for a moment. “Now it’s on my mind all the time. Now I don’t take a Nurofen without thinking about it. Now it’s on my mind all the time.”
And at that she seems to diminish, like a balloon losing its air.
“Your judgment entirely deserted you,” the prosecutor says.
“I think ‘entirely’ is a bit…” She trails off.
“Doctors who ignore the proper, ethical process of clinical research expose their patients to unnecessary risk,” he says.
“I suppose so, yes,” she says, quietly.
“You fell seriously short of the standards expected from a registered medical practitioner,” the prosecutor says.
There’s a short silence. “Yes,” she says.
A few days later, the GMC gives its judgment: “Your name will be erased from the Medical Register.” And she leaves the hearing, no longer Dr Yvonne Pambakian, but Yvonne Pambakian.
Soon after I watch her hearing and meet Richard Handl, I receive a slightly alarmed email from Jason Bobe, who runs DIYbio.org, an online community for home science experimenters. I’d emailed him as part of my research. He says he’s worried my article may discourage home science. Maybe, he suggests, I should talk to Victor Deeb, whose experiments in his basement went disastrously wrong in a very different way and whose story might offer a counterbalance.
Deeb lives in a small Massachusetts town called Marlborough. He’s retired, in his mid-70s, and although he’s lived in the US almost all his life, he still has a strong Syrian accent, which gets stronger as he becomes more incensed down the phone.
Three years ago, on 5 August 2008, a policeman happened to be driving past Deeb’s house. “He saw smoke billowing from the air conditioner in an upstairs room, so he called the fire department.” Deeb speaks in short, exact phrases, as if he considers our conversation to be like a chemical experiment, requiring complete precision.
A plug had shorted in the bedroom. The fire department put out the fire, glanced into the basement and immediately called for emergency reinforcements.
“The whole fire department came,” Victor says. “The FBI. Even the CIA was here. It couldn’t have been any more crazy. They went into the sewer system to see if I was dumping anything down the toilet.”
What they had found in the basement was 100 bottles of chemicals. None was hazardous. There was nothing poisonous. “I was working on a coating for the inside of beverage cans containing no Bisphenol A,” Deeb says.
BPA, he explains, is standard in beverage can coatings. The problem is that it can seep into the drink and play havoc with our hormones, causing men to grow breasts and girls as young as seven to have periods. Back in 2008, he says, “there were few references in the media to the negative effect of BPA. Currently, there is a deluge of articles. So my desire to eliminate BPA was ahead of its time.” He pauses. “I spent an enormous amount of time with the authorities, trying to explain what I was working on, but they had no perception. No concept.”
And so he watched as they hauled away all the chemicals and test tubes in a truck. “I had a box full of files and notes and comments,” he says. “Twenty years’ work. They hired two PhD chemists to go through the box, looking for confirmation that there were hazardous materials in the basement. When they couldn’t find anything, they left the box out in the rain. It destroyed all my notes. Twenty years of my life and work and efforts to help others down the drain.”
“When they realised their mistake, I presume they apologised and paid you a settlement,” I say.
“The opposite!” he says. “They’re suing me for the cost of emptying my basement.”
For America’s online community of home science experimenters, the most outrageous moment of all came when the enforcement officer, Pamela Wilderman, explained her decision-making process to the local paper: “I think Mr Deeb has crossed a line somewhere,” she said. “This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.”
“Allow me to translate Ms Wilderman’s words into plain English,” wrote Robert Bruce Thompson, the author of Illustrated Guide To Home Chemistry Experiments. “‘Mr Deeb hasn’t actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don’t like what he’s doing because I’m ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals, so I’ll abuse my power to steal his property and shut him down.’ There’s a word for what just happened in Massachusetts. Tyranny.”
Before I hang up, Victor Deeb says he wants to remind me of something. He says that for every David Hahn and Richard Handl, there’s a Steve Jobs and a Charles Goodyear. “They started at home. Goodyear developed the vulcanisation process by mixing sulphur with virgin rubber on his wife’s stove in their kitchen.”
And then he is gone, to do – he says – what he spends every day doing. He’s going to try to remember what he’d written on the pages in the box that was left out in the rain.