What Is Novichok?

On March 4, 2018, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Since then, journalists have been scrambling to find out more about the alleged poison, a mysterious substance identified by British authorities as “Novichok”.

First off, it isn’t just one chemical, but appears to be a whole new class of nerve agents, a type of chemical weapons which disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves control vital body functions.

So far, we are familiar with two main classes of nerve agents. The “G-series” was first synthesized by German scientists during World War II. Among this group are tabun, also known as “GA” (invented in 1936), sarin, also known as “GB” (invented in 1939) and soman, also known as “GD” (invented in 1944). (Interesting detail: the Third Reich’s military refused to deploy nerve agents as weapons even though by the end of the war, between 500 kg to 10 tons had been produced. But that’s another story). After the war, GF (cyclosarin) was added to this group in 1949.

The second group, the V-series agents, go back to mostly British development, which was continued with work done the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Members of this class are VE, VG, VM, VR, and VX.

Novichok (Russian: Новичо́к, “newcomer”) seems to be a class of nerve agents different from the two above. It was developed by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s as part of a secret weapons program reportedly named “Foliant”. The specific intent was to be undetectable by standard NATO methods at the time, to defeat NATO protective gear, and to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors and classes of chemicals. All in all, over 100 chemical variants were developed and tested.

Most of what little is in the public domain about this can be traced to publications by two Russian chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov, writing for the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992. Mirzayanov claimed he made his disclosure out of environmental concerns, after measuring levels of deadly substances 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration in the vicinity of Russian chemical weapons facilities. Mirzayanov was arrested in October 1992 and charged with high treason. He served some time in prison, and subsequent to his release, left Russia to live in the U.S. However, during Mirzayanov’s trial, some more details about the Novichok program emerged, and the Russian military was forced to acknowledge the existence of this group of chemicals.

According to Mirzayanov, the most potent compounds from this family, Novichok-5 and Novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX. The agents are reportedly capable of being delivered as a liquid, aerosol or gas via a variety of delivery systems, including bombs, missiles, artillery shells and spraying devices.

The absorption of nerve agents into the human body can be by skin contact, ingestion, inhalation or injection. Generally speaking, these chemicals were conceptualized as weapons of mass destruction and for wide dispersement. The pin-point use as murder weapons in targeted assassinations appears to have been an afterthought. But it is now well documented in several instances, such as the murders of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailov in 1995, or the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia on February 13, 2017. (The U.S. Department of State has claimed the assassination was a plot conducted by agents of North Korea, using VX).

And here it gets extremely troubling. It would appear that nerve agents, due to their rapid effectiveness in extremely small doses, make ideal weapons for assassinations. However, these chemicals require highly specialized skills and facilities to develop, manufacture and deploy – all of which is difficult to conduct except in the presence of state-sponsored weapons programs. Even where chemical weapons treaties led to the controlled and audited destruction of chemical weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt that small batches of all these substances were retained, and that of course, the process of making them (even in very small quantities) is well understood by those who were involved in these military weapons programs.

So are we looking at a coming new era of silent state-sponsored assassinations? Could this become a method for governments or institutions to get rid of regime critics, political dissenters or opponents, alleged traitors, whistleblowers and others deemed a threat, on a large scale?

It could well be. The other options – an illicit trade of these substances, or the possibility that criminal organizations, terrorist groups or rogue individuals may have found ways to cook them up in hidden labs – are equally scary.

Either way this will play out, the future on this issue looks gloomy.

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    Extract From A Letter By Thomas Jefferson To Charles Yancey

    Monticello Jan. 6. 16.

    “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

    Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800






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    The Tragic End of Laika The Space Dog

    60 years ago today, topping the spectacular success of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union again amazed the world with the launch of Sputnik 2. This satellite was much larger than its predecessor, and it carried the first living passenger to space: Laika the dog. The mission paved the way for human spaceflight by proving that life could be sustained in space.

    Ever since I was a boy I have been wondering what happened to Laika. My books only reported that she did not survive, but did not give any details. Unfortunately the truth of the matter is rather sad and shocking. I believe Laika’s fate should be mentioned.

    At one time, she was a mongrel stray dog wandering the streets of Moscow. She ended up in an animal shelter, and was one of several dogs picked up for the space program. Her age was estimated to be around three years, and she weighed 6 kg (13 pds).

    During her training, Soviet personnel called her “Kudryavka” (Russian for “Little Curly”), “Zhuchka” (“Little Bug”) and “Limonchik” (“Little Lemon”), but somehow “Laika” stuck. In addition to her, two alternate dogs were being trained: Albina and Mushka.

    The dogs were subjected to noises and forces similar to what they would experience during launch. In order to adapt the dogs to the tiny confines of Sputnik 2, they were kept in progressively smaller containers for up to 20 days. Of course all this meant tremendous stress for the dogs, who stopped urinating and defecating and deteriorated physically. The dogs were trained to eat a gel food, presumably because it produced little bodily waste and was easy to transport and dispense.

    The schedule was extremely tight, because Nikita Khrushchev wanted a launch on or before Nov. 7 (the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. It would have been impossible to design a re-entry and landing system in such a short time. As a result, Laika’s flight was planned to end in a fireball. But before re-entry, Laika was meant to be poisoned by remote control.

    After the final selection was made, Laika was placed in the satellite three days before launch. Just prior to launch, her fur was sponged in an alcohol solution and iodine was applied. Electrodes were attached to send back telemetry of her bodily functions.

    The data showed that during peak acceleration of the launch, her pulse rate increased from 103 to an incredible 240 beats per minute. The poor dog’s breathing quickened to three to four times the normal rate. After engine cut off and in the weightlessness of Sputnik 2’s orbit, she relaxed somewhat, but it took three hours for her life signs to return to normal. She was clearly agitated but appeared to be eating her food.

    There had been a problem during launch: one part did not jettison properly, which prevented the climate control system from functioning properly. As a result, the interior of Laika’s vehicle reached 40 °C (104 °F).

    Soviet sources gave many conflicting accounts of what happened next, but fact is that Laika suffered a slow and awful death. Perhaps the most authoritative (and most recent) account is contained in a paper submitted by Dr. Dimitri Malshenkov to the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, in 2002. It asserts that Laika died from overheating between the 5th and 7th hour of the flight.

    Laika has not been forgotten, nor should she be. Her name lives on in numerous books and articles, on postage stamps from various countries, in brands of consumables and in pop music: (iTunes currently lists hundreds of items containing “Laika” in either the artist name or song title). 



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    Sold: Handwritten Note By Albert Einstein

    Here’s a note Albert Einstein wrote while staying at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo in 1922. As the story goes, he handed it to a Japanese courier who had come to the hotel to deliver Einstein a message. Selling price at auction in October 2017: $1.56m (€1.33m )

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    Opossum Science

    According to a friend’s recent social media post, a 15-pound opossum has been caught under her house in the Los Angeles area.

    The responses were an interesting, but typical cross section of America’s modern-day urbanites: one well meaning person commented how beneficial opossums were (and listed a whole range of “pest control” supposedly performed by opossums. Another pleaded to have it released alive in some other place “where it could thrive”. Another was concerned about possible “babies somewhere”, and yet another said how sad it was that the opossum “had to leave its home”. One commenter even inquired if the intent of the capture was to keep it as a pet.

    I probably should keep my mouth shut, but the science writer (with some academic background in biology) finds this rather difficult.

    The reason why I find this interesting is because here is a good illustration of what the relationship with nature has turned into — as least in big cities. On the one hand we engineer completely synthetic environments with a couple of dispersed token shrubs and sad trees, as if to distract from the fact that we have sealed and suffocated most of the natural Earth beneath our feet. On the other hand, we romanticize every critter and think if it’s alive out there somehow, it must be part of nature and thus, it has every right to be here among us. In a strange twist, we humans are suddenly said to be “encroaching” on the territory of beasts, and not the other way around. This, after we have thoroughly destroyed or at least altered almost every natural habitat on Earth – or perhaps because of it.

    There are now city slickers in California who are willing to accept the occasional hiker or resident getting killed or maimed by a bear or mountain lion as if this was just an unfortunate but rare and unavoidable accident. I have even seen bizarre comments not suggesting, but proclaiming it was the home owner’s or hiker’s fault for “being in the animal’s habitat”. “Leave the animals alone,” suggested one. “Nobody needs to live there. Nobody needs to go hiking in the backcountry. That’s why we have gyms.”

    People have started to perceive wilderness as if it was just the no-go section of Disneyland, the wild animal zone of the park into which humans should only be allowed with severe restrictions and at their own peril — after obtaining a permit and signing liability waiver and consent forms. And the anthropomorphic worldview of children has not just become mainstream — it is now considered the new normal. This extends also to how mainstream America treats its pets, which, or who, as some have suggested, should be given civil rights independent from their owners.

    But back to opossums. What does science really tell us about them?

    Being the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, they are comprised of 103 or more species in 19 genera. None of them is native to California. 

    As far as wildlife zoologists can tell, they were introduced in San Jose in 1910 from the East Coast. They are an invasive species and therefore not well suited to live in the California wilderness at all. Outside of their natural habitat, they are opportunists thriving in or near human habitation, which they exploit. 

    The myth that opossums have all these wonderful benefits is greatly exaggerated, and some of these claims are simply false. Some are a mix of fact and fiction. For example, the immune system of opossums is quite remarkable. They seem to have immunity to many snake venoms, which is a topic of scientific inquiry as it may help us to make better anti-venom for victims of snake bites. Opossums also possess a high degree of natural immunity to the rabies virus. While all this is scientifically very interesting, it is incorrect to assume that the presence of opossums will rid the neighborhood of dangerous snakes.

    Opossums pose a threat to both wildlife outside their natural habitat, and to domestic pets. In California, the purported benefits of opossums could be had with native animals such as raccoons and skunks, on whose territory opossums encroach.

    The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program has this to say:

    “Opossums are considered a nuisance in gardens and near homes where they feed on berries, grapes, tree fruits and nuts, and defecate on garden paths and patios. They get into fights with dogs and cats and can inflict serious injury with their mouthful of sharp pointed teeth.

    Opossums carry diseases such as leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease. They may also be infested with fleas, ticks, mites, and lice. Opossums are hosts for cat and dog fleas, especially in urban environments. This flea infestation on opossums is particularly concerning for transmission of flea-borne typhus, which is increasing in prevalence in Orange and Los Angeles Counties.”

    So there you have the scientific truth.

    It should be noted that it is illegal to relocate an opossum without a permit. For two reasons: (1) It has virtually no chance of surviving in the California wilderness, but it might introduce new diseases and parasites acquired near humans and from their pets, to wild animals. (2) It can only thrive by scavenging from human habitation, and releasing a captured opossum near someone’s else’s home amounts to gifting the problem to someone else.

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    How To Land A Rocket (Or Not)

    The first time I visited SpaceX, it was still a startup company operating out of an industrial warehouse. Since then, SpaceX has become the darling of the New Space movement, and it has a long list of pioneering accomplishments. Among them: the first landings of spent rocket stages for later re-use.

    The idea had already been proposed by Wernher von Braun’s team in the 1960s, who hoped to land and re-use future versions of 1st stages for the mighty Saturn V rockets. At the time, the concept could not be pursued due to the tight timeline of the Apollo program.

    After the moon missions had been prematurely ended, the Saturn rocket program was eventually put on ice and then canceled entirely. Wernher von Braun thought that the upcoming Space Shuttle program should be supplementary to a continued development of the Saturn multi-stage rockets into a whole family of vehicles with partial reusability.

    A part of the proposed Saturn heavy lift rocket family.

    In terms of reusability, a multitude of concepts were studied. Propulsive landings would have been too much of a technical challenge at the time, so most proposals included parachutes and a splashdown on water, a paraglider apparatus, or wings. For instance, here some historic papers on the matter:

    (Warning: these are large files. Download times may vary). 

    Recovery Of The SI-C Stage Of The Saturn V – A Preliminary Feasibility Study (PDF, 1.9 MB)

    Recoverable S-IB, Chrysler Corp. Space Division (PDF, 11.9 MB)

    Candide Materials for Saturn Paraglider Recovery System, Goodyear Aircraft Corp. (PDF, 1.9 MB)

    As Von Braun began to vehemently criticize NASA’s sole focus on the Space Shuttle program, he and his Saturn rockets were cast aside. Von Braun was given an inane desk job in Washington D.C. and left NASA a few years later. But as it turns out, Von Braun’s was right, and his suggested route would have been the correct one. Almost five decades later and into the foreseeable future, multi-stage rockets, not winged bodies, still provide the most reliable and least costly transport to space. Not only that, costs can be dramatically reduced, as SpaceX has clearly demonstrated.

    It took a private company, SpaceX a long time to make von Braun’s vision of reusable rocket stages a reality. It wasn’t easy, as this video compilation attests.




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    Why The iPhone X Is Revolutionary: 5 Reasons

    I believe Apple’s latest introduction, the iPhone X represents a technological turning point. It’s not so much the phone itself, but the underlying technologies behind it that are truly groundbreaking. Ushered in with the iPhone X, their widespread adoption will have consequences far beyond mobile phones. Here are five reasons:

    1. Face Recognition (and real time facial mapping)

    Face recognition technologies are available from others, but what Apple has come up with leaves everything else in the dust. This goes far beyond taking a photo and comparing it to a stored image. Apple’s Face ID technology projects invisible dots (in the current version: 30,000 of them) on the user’s face. It then uses stereoscopic viewing from two cameras to essentially create a 3-D map of the user’s face. No special lighting is necessary. In fact, because of IR illumination, this works even in the dark. What’s remarkable is not only the small size of this system, but also that it works fluidly. It is capable of capturing facial expressions in real time. Mapping and processing are so rapid that the data stream can be used to animate virtual characters, as Apple demonstrated with its animated emojis and mask overlays.

    The point is that artists and developers will be able to apply this technology in new ways: the iPhone X is the first affordable, portable motion capture device for special effects. Since the mapping process works in real time, making fantasy characters talk and show facial expressions will be as easy as talking to the phone. This could mean: animated virtual announcers, talking heads and fictional characters for advertising, music videos, entertainment and perhaps even drama. Animating cartoons, which took many hand drawings by skilled animators in Walt Disney’s days, has become child’s play. Another application could be video games. Multi-player gamers could adopt fictional characters whose speech and facial expressions mimic the real player’s face, but expressed on the virtual character.

    A mere expansion of the technology’s capabilities might make it possible to turn the iPhone X into a fully fledged 3-D body scanner or even a motion capture device. Imagine this: put the device on a stand and walk in front of it in the nude. Now turn around by 360º, and let the iPhone capture a 3-D scan of your body. Again, the data set could be used to bring fictional characters to life, but it could also be used for online shopping. No more need to try on clothes in a store! You could simply get a 3-D simulation of yourself wearing the clothes you are considering. Finding the right size would be automatic. Or people could simulate the look of make-up, jewelry or hairstyles.

    Another conceivable application of face mapping technology might be improved speech recognition, for instance in a noise environment. Like a human lip reader, the technology would decode facial expressions to improve the legibility of spoken language. Those hard of hearing might even be able to use the phone as an artificial lip reader.

    2. Universal Wireless Charging

    Battery capacity is still an achilles heel of mobile devices. Right now, incompatible charging devices and cables mean that we all got into the habit of charging our devices overnight, with chargers we own. Or we carry cables, chargers or external batteries.

    What if you could simply “top off” your battery almost everywhere you go? The wireless charging technology Apple demonstrated works on all mobile Apple devices, such as iPhones, the AppleWatch and EarPods.

    What Apple is pushing for is a truly universal standard. It would charge all mobile devices, of all manufacturers. This would mean: no more personal chargers are necessary. Everyone could simply use shared wireless “charge pads” located in homes, vehicles, workplaces or public venues. Businesses could either provide charge pads for a fee or allow their free use as a means of attracting customers.


    3. Elimination Of Buttons And Ports

    In a radical departure, the iPhone X does away with one of the original iPhone’s key features: the “home” button. Apple wants to get away from buttons and ports for one main reason: these are incredibly difficult to insulate from dirt, water and dust. By eliminating all points of entry, water and dirt resistance will become the new standard.


    4. OLED Displays

    Organic Light Emitting Diode displays have major advantages, but also some disadvantages. Apple’s new OLED iPhone X display (which interestingly is made by Apple’s prime competitor, Samsung) is an industry-first when it comes to size and quality. And it promises to have overcome the known OLED disadvantages.

    The last remaining problem is the price: OLED displays are still much more expensive than traditional LED screens, which explains the whopping price tag of the iPhone X. But Apple’s hardcore fans are early adopters almost regardless of cost. And this might give Apple enough sales volume to create a breakthrough opening for OLED technology. In addition to the cost reduction by volume, there are emerging manufacturing technologies (such as printing and roll-to-roll vapor-deposition). When scaled up, these could significantly reduce OLED costs. In a few years, all mobile device makers might offer OLED displays.

    5. Grid computing

    With its vastly improved processing speed and wireless capabilities, the iPhone X can offload an increasing amount of data onto the cloud. Already, some features of the upcoming iOS 11 are hinting where we are going with this. In iOS 11, rarely used apps and data, and even iMessages and their attachments are no longer stored on the device but on iCloud, from where they can be retrieved if needed. We can expect this trend to accelerate.

    In addition, the new faster WiFi and “short-link” radio technology (Bluetooth) processing would enable new capabilities such as wireless screen sharing, or the use of the iPhone X as a remote microphone or camera.

    And of course, enhanced access to distributed grid computing makes digital voice assistants like Apple’s Siri steadily more powerful. Siri is already becoming increasingly contextual, and I would expect this trend not only to continue, but also for Siri to become more visual as well. For example, a hearing impaired user might point the iPhone X at a written text and have Siri read it aloud. Or, users might be able to point the camera at a tree and ask Siri: “What kind of tree is this?”

    All in all, although the outside of the iPhone X does not look radically different from the original iPhone, the technology inside represents a quantum leap compared to what was possible only 10 years ago.



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    Ink Chemistry

    There can be no doubt that writing ink is one of the most significant inventions in the history of human civilization. It surpasses in global, historical and cultural impact even the wheel, the stirrup, or the plough.  Liquids for writing and drawing on flat surfaces were discovered by many cultures independently, but first evidence of their use goes back more than 3,000 years.

    Ink also has a fascinating, complex chemistry, which is the subject of my article for Pen World magazine.

    See here for a PDF version of the article. If you love pens and the art of writing, please subscribe to the magazine!




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