The One Where I Play Sherlock Holmes

It’s been quiet here for a bit, so I figured it’s time to tell you about my super power.

Some people know the fire and electrical codes inside and out. I swear to booze that there’s this one guy at LLNL who is the goddamn Cement Listener and can tell where subsidence is going to occur and what’s been poured with bad concrete mix through carpeting. While I may know a thing or two about radiation, nuclear weapons, coffee, and booze, my true gift seems to lie in walking into empty rooms and figuring out what it had been previously used for and where to find all the fuck ups. This makes house hunting with me fun too.

A couple years ago, I walked into a former chemistry lab that was being decontaminated and about to be released with my co-worker.  He’d found some very low level contamination and wanted my opinion as to what it was.  So, I brought my gamma spectroscopy unit along and set it up for a 15 minute count. Scan running and with some time to kill, I started looking around the mostly empty room and, since he’d been doing the decon, asked my co-worker what this lab was formerly used for (the idea being that if I could figure out what it was used for, I could make a more educated guess as to what the low level contamination was). Unfortunately, he had no idea.  His response: “Umm…chemistry?”  Not helpful.

So, I started looking around a bit more closely.

Five minutes later, I announced that this lab used to have a custom built wooden fume hood (AKA a “Berkeley box”) where they did uranyl gluconate chemistry, had an electron microscope, and likely did nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging with the samples as well.  I declared the contamination to be naturally occurring uranium and its daughter products.  Ten minutes after that, the gamma spec unit confirmed my declaration.

Of course, this prompted my co-worker to ask how in the fucking fuckity fuck fuck did I do that.  It goes like this:

There was very worn and faded tape in a strange pattern on the floor next to some major electrical hook ups. This normally indicates the 5 Gauss line for a big magnet where people with pacemakers aren’t allowed to get any closer.  Also, there were several cracked up tiles all in one spot right outside the the tape line.  Floor tiles don’t like having liquid nitrogen spilled on them over and over again, something students who’ve never played with a cryostat receiver before often do as they nervously jiggle a transfer dewar.  To me, that adds up to an NMR unit.

One of the lab benches along the wall had a hole in the ceiling above it and several large drilled holes in the front counter. Clean spots told me something had been sitting in one place on the counter below the hole in the ceiling. The holes in the counter are where the knobs for gas, compressed air, and house vacuum used to be installed. The clean spots were from where the sides and sash of the makeshift fume hood used to rest.

There is a room within the room full of grad student sardine can workstation dividers with no windows, a sliding door, and a whole lot of terminated pipes for pluming on the walls.  This in and of itself is not a big hint, but the small pass through door in the wall combined with the sliding door (which replaced a previous door based on paint jobs) told me that room used to be a dark room. Dark rooms mean films are being developed and the only film developing I’m familiar with that involve something radioactive at a very low level are those of electron microscopes. Depending on the application, they like to use uranium, lead, and osmium acetate for contrast media in sample preparation. This means they used to have at least one electron microscope. An x-ray diffraction unit is also a possibility, but you generally wouldn’t find working in tandem with an NMR unit.

My co-worker nodded and boggled at this for a bit and then frowned. “Wait a minute…you said electron microscopes use uranyl acetate as a contrast agent. Why do you think that it’s uranyl gluconate instead?”

I smiled, nodded sagely, and pointed at a piece paper thoroughly taped to some unistrut in the middle of the room.  “Elementary, dear Watson. On that piece of paper are all the IP addresses for this lab to map to their former servers and printers. Note that the network written there is ‘glucose’ and the not-at-all-secure network password next to it is ‘Glucose1’.  I suspect glucose and glucose compounds were rather important to this lab.  Besides, the stains in the bottom of the cabinet where you’re seeing contamination look a lot like long dried Kool Aid on wood. Thus, uranyl gluconate.

It’s not about knowing what all the equipment does. Most of it is understanding people, particularly what happens when there’s not enough time, money, and/or interest to do things right the first time.