Brian Andresen remembers the day clearly: It was a winter afternoon in 1994, and San Francisco public health officials were on the phone, desperate for help. A weird green rain had just poured down over a swath of the city, and residents were freaking out. Was this a secret government experiment gone awry? Some weird public art project involving huge amounts of Gatorade? Had the environment become so polluted that the rainwater was now iridescent? Some people were even concerned that the stuff might have come from a UFO. "It was dark green. Light green. Shiny green. Just lots of green rain everywhere," a woman who'd witnessed the bizarre storm told the San Francisco Examiner. "I don't know where it came from or why, but it was kind of beautiful."
The authorities wanted answers, and fast. "The health department ran their typical environmental tests and couldn't figure out what it was," Andresen recalls. "People were saying it had burned their skin." So they turned to him. Andresen was director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Forensic Science Center -- a high-tech chemistry lab he founded in 1991 that does everything from explosives testing to national security investigations to cracking difficult homicide cases. A trained chemist who had spent much of his career analyzing everything from weapons residues to unknown poisons, he was all set up to tackle such problems.
First and foremost in his arsenal was what's known as a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer -- an "exquisitely specific" instrument that first separates a chemical mixture into its constituent parts and then obliterates each of the purified components to determine its basic chemical composition. It doesn't tell you exactly what you've got, but offers strong clues and weeds out thousands of erroneous possibilities. Say your sample lacks nitrogen: You can instantly count out large classes of drugs, poisons, and biomolecules.
As television news crews fanned across the city chasing what was a strange story even by San Francisco standards, the chemist got down to business. His GC/mass spec results indicated a potential culprit, which Andresen further investigated by going out to his 1969 Pontiac GTO and drawing some antifreeze to compare with the mystery rain. Bingo! The liquids were closely related: Standard automotive antifreeze is ethylene glycol. This stuff, it turned out, was a mixture of glycols, including propylene glycol, a less toxic version that also can serve as antifreeze.
But how could antifreeze have rained down on San Francisco? Andresen and his colleagues got SFO on the horn and found out that not only is the stuff used to deice airplanes during the winter -- and it was indeed winter -- but one of the central flight paths matched up exactly with where the green rain had fallen. Mystery solved. The freakish phenomenon was airplane deicer that had jelled on the wings and melted as the plane descended. "People were very relieved," Andresen says. "It helped the community a lot."
The mystery of the chartreuse precipitation was just the first of many high-profile cases for a fledgling lab that now stands at the forefront of forensic sleuthing and chemical counterterrorism.
For CSI fans, this here's the real thing, the place authorities sometimes call "the lab of last resort," the place they turn to when they're fresh out of ideas. Powered by the know-how of fifteen of the country's leading chemical and biological detectives, it has earned a near-perfect track record of beating the scientific challenges in its path.
Three years ago, its scientists solved a perplexing serial murder case years after the bodies were buried. They helped nail a sophisticated Fremont bomber who had stumped federal authorities. They were instrumental in identifying the suspects in a long-unsolved Northern California triple homicide. They've designed portable forensic analysis tools that authorities now routinely use in the field. Hell, these guys have even made their way into a Tom Clancy novel. And when they're not solving crimes, they're watching your back: The center is one of only two US labs certified to determine if a laboratory, factory, or government is stockpiling or manufacturing chemical weapons. And in the event of a domestic chemical or biological attack, these are the people Washington will call on to figure out what in hell has been released and what in God's name we should do about it.
The Forensic Science Center's spacious facility sits on the sprawling campus of Lawrence Livermore, well hidden behind two sets of security checkpoints. If you didn't know where you were, and ignored the government minder who hovers over your interviews and the large plastic blue and white signs reading "Visitor: Unclassified Discussions Only," you might mistake the place for a cutting-edge high-tech firm.
The center's scientists are primarily chemists with backgrounds in toxicology, pharmacology, nuclear physics, biological weapons, DNA, explosives analysis, and forensic instrument design. Apart from their being mostly men, the Far Side stereotypes don't seem to apply. These are good-looking, socially adept, articulate dudes with nothing about them that screams "geek" save the fact that mere science mortals often can't make head or tail of their conversations. Recently retired director Andresen is a friendly, unassuming man who plays drums for a band called Rock Harbour alongside a Lawrence Livermore nuclear scientist (keyboards), a chemical and biological weapons guru (rhythm guitar), an electrical systems master (bass), and a circuitry whiz (lead guitar) who doubles as an air sampling expert for the Department of Homeland Security. The forensic team's other crackerjack scientists shoot hoops, play guitar, ride their bikes to work, and dig the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.
That's right, folks: The men and women who've figured out how to prevent America's nuclear and munitions stockpiles from accidentally detonating are into punk rock. "If you have to cope in a Third World jungle or deal with cops and investigators like we do, it gets you out of your ivory tower real quick," explains chemist Pat Grant, an amateur basketball champ who calls himself a big goth fan. "There's nothing like getting out in the real world to get you out of geekdom."
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