A Day in the Life of Nuclear Bombs. The Age of the Universe.
Oh, and Uncle Terry's Basement Laboratory

Personal Profile for Reporting Science & Technology

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A sadistic big brother led me inside the ”butcher shop”, down a flight of stairs, out of the sweltering heat of a Houston summer day, to the poorly-lit basement filled with enough mad scientist toys to make Dr. Frankenstein drown in his own drool. Fear my brother had hoped to instil by describing the inside of Uncle Terry’s creepy lab, quickly gave way to curiosity the moment this young boy saw the two giant, buzzing mass spectrometers and other machines crowding my uncle’s desk into a corner of this basement lab of Butcher Hall. Not a man for simple explanations, I left Rice University that day in 1988 only understanding that Dr. Terry Marriott ran a mass spectrometer.

Sixteen years down the road, the memory of that basement filled with Jacob’s Ladders and vacuum tubes still excited the boy in me, but the understanding of what my uncle does remained rather vague. With Terry’s impending retirement and waning health, I took it upon myself to expand my understanding of what this man, who came from a background of farming wheat and raising cattle in Oklahoma, had actually been doing for the past twenty-seven years of his life.

Mass spectormetry or mass spectroscopy will not be found in the middle of any virulent scientific debate, but one can be pretty sure to find this device as a referee on the sideline to any scientific discovery.

When I asked my uncle how he would describe what he does to a “non-scientist”, he replied: Generally, I provide mass information on a variety of molecules such as proteins, peptides, nucleotides, oligo-nucleotides, bucky balls, decomposition products of derivatized carbon-nanotubes, and precise mass and elemental composition confirmation for some relatively light (~<=1,000 amu) unique synthetic molecules.

“Right.” I nodded and immediately reverted to that same Homer Simpson understanding I had at age twelve: My uncle runs a mass spectrometer.

Some time in front of websites my uncle referred me to helped fill in the Grand Canyon gaps still remaining in my comprehension of this contraption the size of a Volkswagen that analysed a vile no bigger than a PEZ dispenser.

First developed in 1897 by Sir J.J. Thomson at the University of Cambridge, this device has undergone revolutionary change over the last century but remains fundamentally the same to Thomson’s first model. There is a vacuum system, ionisation source, ion detector, a mass analyser and a device to introduce a sample into the system. The mass spectrometer has been referred to as the smallest scale in the world. Ironic moniker for a device that fills an entire basement at Rice University.

In short, a mass spectrometer (MS) determines the molecular weight of chemical compounds. This means the device can tell what something is made of and can thus determine how it is built. To use an analogy, the electron microscope is to the MS what the reflecting telescope is to the radio telescope. The applications of this device however, are far more impressive than this simple explanation suggests.

“What interested me in mass spectrometry, MS, was the fact that the study of MS involves various aspects of physics and physical chemistry as to the formation and manipulation of ions.” Dr. Marriott said, “In the last 10 to 15 years the ability to analyze bio-organic compounds has increased the use of mass spectrometry for biological studies immensely.”

The MS in its various forms can date geologic samples, aide in drug testing and discovery, examine inherited metabolic diseases, analyze forensic evidence, respiratory gases, protein structure, DNA, RNA, viruses, atmospheric chemical make-up and collect isotopes to develop nuclear devices. And this is only a general run-down of what the MS can do.

Terry Marriott went to work for Houston, Texas’ Rice University in 1978, fresh from receiving his PhD in Organic Chemistry, for motivations any good Southerner would concur with, “because they offered me a job and it was the only job available at the time in the Southern US; all other jobs were very far North like Detroit or Fargo, ND (I dislike icy cold weather).”

These large, highly specialized, big gun MS’s operated by highly trained doctorates are by no means obsolete (the machines or the people) but, “in the near future however, people will be working on more efficient ionisation methods and smaller and more efficient and easier to use mass spectrometers,” according to Dr. Terry.

The handheld devices used in airports to detect explosives are a form of very specialized mass spectrometer, and strangely enough, hint to the only potential controversy directly associated with these devices. At present the smaller models of MS’s can only be used for detection of certain substances, but industrial-scale MS’s can barrage Uranium-235 with electrons to break off isotopes and collect them. This was the process used to construct the first nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Terry Marriott’s retirement next month will hopefully happen before any terrorist groups obtain an industrial-scale MS, learn how to use it, construct and detonate a nuclear bomb.

Most of my uncle’s research in recent years has involved biological or bio-chemical analysis. It is caustic reality for a man who’s daily routine now begins with intravenous antibiotics, injections of anti-coagulants and is waiting for surgery for kidney problems and a hip joint replacement.

That young boy in me that still gets excited when Bill Nye the Science Guy comes on TV, hoped my uncle’s research had been more dramatic and romantic, like dating the age of the universe. But now I finally understand what this more unusual member of our family has been doing with his life. It’s interesting it took the journalist in the family only sixteen years to get a clear picture. I like to think the average layman would take at least as long.