Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Disappearing Nitrogen

Ed Young (left) and Doug Rumble (right) with isotope vacuum line requiring liquid nitrogen, circa 1993

            Every workplace has its dose of office politics. The Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory was no exception. As just a rank-and-file staff scientist, we had serious domain over our laboratories, but little sway in the grand scheme of things. All of us were assigned lab duties. Mine was “ethanol disbursement officer” meaning that I had the keys to jugs of pure unadulterated alcohol that could intoxicate the entire campus. George Cody’s duty was to keep track of a large liquid nitrogen cylinder at the loading dock of the Lab. Sometimes that chore kept him busier than he would have liked.
            Liquid nitrogen is used for many things in a laboratory. It’s temperature is -196°C. It will freeze just about anything. In fact, if liquid nitrogen drops remain on your skin for too long, you’ll get a nasty burn. Accordingly, dermatologists use liquid nitrogen to remove cancerous tissue and unwanted moles on skin. George used it to cool his NMR magnet and needed over 100 liters every week, usually on Friday afternoon. I used it for making chemical products of amino acids. Doug Rumble needed it for measuring oxygen isotopes in rocks.
Doug Rumble (l) and Craig Schiffries (r) using an isotope line with liquid nitrogen, circa 1992
            Filling the big cylinder outside happened via a delivery truck about every 4-5 weeks and was quite expensive. Not only was there a definite need to have liquid nitrogen on hand at all times for science, but there was a cost issue as well. Users were asked to fill out a simple signup sheet posted by the door. Often folks forgot. In the winter of 2004-2005, there were several times in which the big cylinder was somehow left open, bleeding the precious liquid into thin air, leaving the cylinder completely empty. No one would admit to leaving open a valve or forgetting to shut off the main tank. Although no person admitted to a mistake, people began to talk about seeing a raccoon in the area, thinking that just possibly….
            In response to Lab hallway theories and discussions, I penned a “Nancy Drew” story with the names of Carnegie people thinly disguised. For those of you who have never heard of Nancy Drew (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Drew), she was a young gal who often solved mysteries that her police chief dad struggled with. In my day (1960s), all girls in middle school (10-13 years old) read Nancy Drew books. Some reacted to my story that I had the mentality and sense of humor of a high school student. Younger folks on campus thought that I was pretty bad ass. If I could have figured out how to put that on my CV, I would have.
            Below is my first Nancy Drew story. Not anywhere near the Great American Novel, but a start.

-------- Forwarded Message --------
[Everyone] Special Notice for Alert Scientists
Wed, 26 Jan 2005 13:18:23 -0500 (EST)
Marilyn Fogel <m.fogel@gl.ciw.edu>

The Mystery of the Disappearing Nitrogen

by Nancy Drew

Nancy was drinking a glass of whole milk after school one afternoon, when
her father, Chief Inspector Albert Drew, came home, threw his brief case
on the floor and bellowed out a loud, "Dagnab it!" Nancy jumped almost a
foot off of her chair, because her normally serious and competent father
had almost never (but not quite) used a swear word.

"Gee Dad, what's up? Can I help?"

"Its the most puzzling case I've ever had to deal with. There were clues
everywhere, and now this!" he answered her. Nancy took a sip of milk,
offered the Old Man a cookie, and waited for him to continue.

"At first," he said, "I was certain we had a simple open and shut valve
case with the liquid nitrogen tank. It was certainly nothing a little
common sense and good old gum shoe work could solve. But this afternoon
the case was blown wide open by the most disturbing news."

Nancy nodded, drank more milk, and offered him another cookie.

Bolstered with sugar and chocolate, he continued, " The tip came in this
morning and I just can't believe it yet. My head is blowing off steam like
a leaking nitrogen tank. I was snooping around the gas cylinders, poking
my head in the dumpster, and looking at the tell tale patterns of 4 liter
nitrogen dewars in the snow, when I first saw it."

Nancy poured another glass of milk, this time adding a shot of brandy
while her father was deep in thought. She offered him some brandy to go with his third cookie.

"There high in a tree next to the liquid nitrogen tank was the fattest
raccoon I have ever seen, and I can tell you that while I've been on the
force, I've seen a lot fat ones waddling through vacant alleyways. But
this one was different! He had a Huge Grin and suddenly starting talking
to me. I noticed that he was holding a hose made of braided stainless
steel and he was inhaling deeply."

Nancy got a clean glass from the sparkling cabinets in her mom's clean
kitchen and filled it with brandy laced with a bit of tequila. For the
Inspector, she topped off his glass with tequila this time, hoping it
would not ignite as he lit his pipe.

The Chief went on. "As I stared at the Raccoon, he started talking to me.
Then, I started answering him and even went on to ask him some questions.
Before you knew it, I was deep in conversation with him. Without much
prodding he admitted that he was the culprit responsible for the liquid
nitrogen losses over the weekend and Monday night. Imagine that! Not
only was this raccoon capable of filling up a dewar (and presumably then
inhaling it), he was also mischievious enough to do it twice. I thought it
was the biggest break in my career, when suddenly the raccoon dissolved in
front of my very eyes."

He downed his tequila, wiped his mouth, and drank staight from the bottle
this time. Nancy poured herself a shot, salted her hand, and tipped her
head back to deliver the tequila straight home.

Inspector Drew drew himself up to his full, incredible height, his crewcut
trimmed and waxed just so, his shoes polished and brilliant, before
admitting the last piece of information that would trouble the family for
a long time. "All that was left of him was his big shining smile. I used
my cell phone to take a picture of that smile, but guess what? Blank,
nothing there. I slapped myself a couple of times, fired off a few rounds
of my service revolver, and looked again. There they were. Tracks. Raccoon
tracks in the snow. I heard the laughing of that raccoon as the gas valve
opened again as I watched it."

Draining the remaining tequila in the bottle and sitting down finally. He
blurted out what he was afraid of from the start. "Nancy, I am convinced
that Raccoon was no ordinary urban animal seeking food. I believe he came
straight from Titan, the distant methane moon. He must have needed to
breathe pure nitrogen because all organisms on that planetary body are
anaerobes, shunning oxygen."

"Daddy!' Nancy squeeled, delirious with the news. "You've found
Extraterrestrial Life!" just before she and the Inspector passed out at
the kitchen table.

Stay tuned for Chapter Two.
To be continued.

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