A Gilbert chemistry set, circa 1950-something.You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Before consumer product safety was a thing, there was another thing. It was called the Gilbert chemistry set.
It was packed with stuff that fascinated ten, or eleven, or twelve year old boys: chemicals that when mixed together would foam up suddenly and almost explosively. Things that would create real explosions if you mixed them together and put a match to them. Thin strips of metal — specifically magnesium, that would catch fire and burn brilliantly.
I had two Gilbert chemistry sets in my childhood, a small one and then a bit later the monster deluxe size. It was packed with test tubes, a wire test tube holder, a metal test tube rack, an alcohol lamp (in lieu of a bunsen burner, which would have required a gas hookup) and vial after vial of chemicals. Potassium nitrate. Sodium salicylate. Sulphur powder. Powdered charcoal. Calcium carbonate. Acetic acid. And on and on.
The chemistry sets came with instructions for “experiments” that the users could try, with relatively — I say relatively — little danger, if the instructions were actually followed. I followed one or two of them. So did other friends of mine who also had Gilbert chemistry sets. The results were boring, but we weren’t discouraged. That was because we knew that doing what the book said wasn’t the real aim of owning a chemistry set.
Boom! Kavoom! Varoom!
The aim was to blow things up. To make stuff go boom. To get huge flashes of light and loud noises.
It wasn’t easy. The most I ever achieved was to set an inch long strip of magnesium on fire in the bathroom. Wow! Wowee! You’ve never, ever seen such a hot flame coming out of a sliver of metal no bigger than a paper clip. The problem was, I couldn’t put the fire out.
I held it with a pair of pliers and blew on it. That just made the flame glow brighter and hotter. I held it under running tap water. Nope. Nada. Finally, I just tossed it into the adjacent empty bathtub, where it finally burned itself out, melting an indentation into the enamel bottom of the tub in the process. Fortunately, the magnesium got used up before it burned right through the bottom of the tub, or when my father came home I would have been in a whole lot of deep…well, anyway, that’s not my point.
The nearly universal urge of young males to mix two things together, or maybe three or four things, to see how much an explosion they’ll cause hasn’t gone away. Al Queda realized that a few years ago when it started making lethal international mischief by posting articles on the Internet with headlines like, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” Whatever you may rightfully say about the evil intentions and clunky grammar of Al Queda recruiters, they sure as hell know what gives young guys a thrill.
But now something a whole lot worse than mix-them-yourself explosives has come along.
Here comes the “gene bomb”
—and there’s no way to duck
The New York Times is reporting on the arrival of “D.I.Y. gene editing.” Evidently it’s more or less affordable. Moreover, it's relatively easy for a fairly bright idiot to splice two or three genes together the way my generation mixed chemicals, just to see what trouble he can create.
In one case, a kid in Palo Alto California who “barely earned a high school diploma” has already been kicked out of the local science fair “for reckless genetic engineering.”
Reckless? How reckless can playing with genetic bits and pieces of DNA (the official name for this kind of screwing around is “biohacking”) really get?
Plenty. Again, from the terrifying article in the Times by Emily Baumgaertner:
Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials. The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles. To some experts, the experiment nullified a decades-long debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research center in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.
Scenes of agony and raw horror
Do I need to work out the details for you? Okay, but I will anyway.
Do I need to work out the details for you? Okay, but I will anyway.
A trust fund kid — or a kid with a Go Fund Me or Kickstarter page whose girlfriend rejected him — buys some mail order genetic material. Let’s say he buys some that can be combined with other genetic material to make a virus for Influenza, or Plague, or Ebola, or Measles. He mixes and centrifuges and otherwise combines the stuff with a bit of this and a smidgeon of that in his home laboratory. And Kaboom!
Nevermind a mad gunman with an AR-15 blowing away 15 or twenty kids. The population of the entire high school, if not the entire town, will lie writhing on the ground, vomiting and soiling themselves, and coughing up splenetic blood until they die in screaming agony.
And remember, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a thumb-sized vial of virus in his pocket is…Speak up, NRA! I can't hear you!
As for all you Evangelicals, hoping that fomenting a war between Israelis and Palestinians will lead to the Rapture, (after which the Israelis, and all other Jews for that matter, can and will go to hell, in your opinion) don’t waste your time. That end-times crap only worked when God was in control. It no longer works when a pissed off high school kid, or an Al Queda operative, or a Donald Trump minion, or a fat Korean dictator with a bad haircut, or a creep with a missing superego can easily tamper with God’s clocks.
But you’re a survivalist Evangelical? So what are you going to do? Move to New Zealand? Viruses travel in the wind, on the wings and in the air conditioning system of the airplane that’ll get you there —if you ever get that far. Death sticks to all the accoutrements of civilization. Death will attach itself to the bottoms of your shoes. So you'll wear hazmat booties? And how are you going to get them off, and where are you going to put them once they come off, and on and on.
O sin-free man,
where you gonna run to?
Will you hide in a virus shelter, assuming you can build one? And then you'll come out when? Once the food runs out? There’s nothing outside of the shelter for you, ever again. In fact, if you dare to take one step out, you’re doomed.
Face it, the evangelical hope for an afterlife is doomed. Nobody is going to ride a moonbeam to heaven. We’re all gonna die, left behind right where we’re gagging, and vomiting blood, and defecating in our pants. The knowledge of how to make that happen is out there. The equipment is small enough to hide in a teen-ager's bedroom closet or the trunk of a car. The price is within reach.
A good guy with a gun — even a gun with thirty rounds in its magazine — is no help at all when the targets are each a couple of spliced bits of DNA, too small to see without an electron microscope, and there are billions and billions of targets all over the walls of your kitchen, and your bedroom, and your office, and your safe room, and your toilet seat.
See you all in hell, suckers. And don’t worry about how you’ll get there. When the time comes, we’ll all find it right where we’re standing.