The non-science of Fringe: The Bishop Revival

Fringe: Season 2: Episode 14: “The Bishop Revival”

Also, they have the Ark of the Covenant.

Also, they have the Ark of the Covenant.

From a highly contagious and indiscriminate infection last week to a minutely targeted biochemical weapon this, the Fringe team are completely on the back foot when it comes to actually preventing mass killings. Oh, and Earth-2 move over – the Nazis are back! Actually, they never went away (maybe they were hiding in the hollow earth?). In this post, I’ll be making the usual comments about how much suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the show.

This episode is debunked at Popular Mechanics and Polite Dissent, and you can read more about it at Fox, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

Random thoughts

Here’s one thing that watching Breaking Bad has taught me: if sales of a dangerous chemical are highly controlled (in this case, chromium trioxide), and said chemical can be made easily from a precursor molecule (in this case, sodium chromate) then the precursor molecule will also be highly controlled. Actually, sodium chromate is just as toxic as chromium trioxide so our poisoner didn’t need to worry so much about converting it.

There are a few references/links to colour and the Holocaust (perhaps due to the fact that Holocaust Memorial Day is January 27th) in this episode. I’m not sure I can adequately bring them all together, so I’ll just list them here in case they make sense to you.

  • The victims’ blood turned bright blue (more on that below)
  • The Prussian blue test is a chemical test for cyanide (Prussian blue is a pigment composed of an iron/cyanide complex)
  • Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is commonly called Prussic acid
  • The Sterno buffet burners look an awful lot like Zyklon B cans
  • The “B” in Zyklon B stands for blausäure, which means “blue acid” – the German word for Prussic acid

Sangre azul

Our Nazi doctor’s asphyxiation weapon seemingly turned the blood of its victims a deep blue, not unlike poster paint. This may be an extended metaphor concerning the Zyklon/Prussian references mentioned above, or it may be a deliberate attempt at showing the effects of cyanide poisoning. If the latter, it is a little lacking (though I’m not a medical doctor, so feel free to correct me here).

Cyanide does cause death by asphyxiation, principally by inhibiting cytochrome c oxidase, a protein that takes oxygen from the blood and delivers it to cells as water. Hence if this process could not happen then the haemoglobin in the blood would have a surfeit of oxygen, making it a bright red colour. Chromium poisoning, on the other hand, doesn’t cause rapid death and, while chromium complexes are often highly coloured, doesn’t affect the colour of blood.

Deoxygenated haemoglobin is blue, which may be what the Fringe writers were going for. However, the haemoglobin in our victims would probably be either oxygenated and red (as noted above) or would form a complex with the cyanide ions (and this complex is pink).

As a final bit of trivia, oxygenated haemocyanin (the copper-based oxygen transport protein in most molluscs and some arthropods) is blue.

A quite rudimentary toxin

The spectrometer that Peter puts the candle toxin sample into looks like an infrared (IR) or ultraviolet (UV) spectrophotometer. MIT taught him well, because he doesn’t touch the sides of the sample cuvette (container) that will be exposed to the radiation beam (skin oils etc. can affect the results).

The spectra on the screen look like the components of a Fourier transform technique, and it would be possible to spot the C≡N triple bond (it has an IR absorption at 2250 cm-1). However, in such a large and complex molecule it would be near-impossible to conclude that HCN is present from the IR spectrum alone.

Speaking of that large and complex molecule, HCN and CrO3 are dangerous by themselves, but can’t be contained somehow in a larger molecule to be delivered when needed. Either they’re part of the mixture (in which case they would affect everybody), or they’re integrated into the delivery molecule (in which case they’re not HCN and CrO3).

Water’s suggestion to make chromium trioxide from sodium chromate looks like this:

Na2CrO4 + H2SO4 → CrO3 + Na2SO4 + H2O

And no, we do not have the technology to create molecular seahorses. Especially not in 1943, which predates the invention of the equipment necessary to verify you’d actually made the seahorse by several decades.

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