A Bit Of Chemistry

You may be familiar with the bellingcat organization. Eliot Higgins started looking at and identifying munitions in Syria on a blog called Brown Moses, which he used as a pseudonym for a while. He was profiled in the New Yorker in 2013.

I have been interested in open-source intelligence for a long time. I started with an unclassified problem: how to find trash burial sites at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for potential cleanup. We did a bunch of work with overhead photos and other data, data fusion as it was called at the time. We hired some folks to do infrared photography – the burial pits would collect water and be a lower temperature than surrounding areas.

That was back in the 1990s. My team did some pioneering things.

Earlier, I had a project on a destruction method (supercritical water oxidation) for hazardous wastes. The chemical weapons people, who were just beginning to face the enormous problem of destroying their very hazardous chemicals, asked if that method might be suitable. They eventually decided not to use it, but I had to study chemical agents for a year or so.

Higgins was particularly looking at chemical weapons in Syria and where they were coming from. It’s generally accepted now that the Syrian government has been responsible for the chemical attacks. The information was developed early by the bellingcat consortium (which I’ve contributed to for some time in small ways) and confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international organization responsible for such things.

That’s a long preface to say that today bellingcat published an article of mine. There are still people who do not believe that the chemical attacks in Syria were carried out by the government. That’s been an argument all along. One of those people is Ted Postol, an emeritus professor at MIT. He and Higgins plan to debate in October. So I went back to Postol’s early arguments and worked through the chemistry. It’s pretty bad.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.


  1. J R in WV · August 6, 2018

    Hi Cheryl:

    Reading your bellingcat piece, and I think I see a grammar bit hosed up not quite half way through, where you write:

    “Postol finds the ratio of the numbers of moles of isopropanol * of moles of isopropamine to be 2.5, which he concludes is the number of HF molecules one isopropamine molecule will soak up.”

    I think you need some text like “to the number of” at the * between the “ratio of the number of moles of isopropanol” and the “of moles of isopropamine” since ratios are typically like number of one thing to the number of the other thing, and you don’t have that “to the number of” the other thing in your sentence.

    Not a chemist, but I know what ratios are and a little bit of grammar.

    Otherwise well done piece!


    J R in WV


    • Cheryl Rofer · August 8, 2018

      Yes, I know that sentence is imperfect. If someone gives me trouble about it, I can straighten it out.


  2. morrellk · August 18, 2018

    Bellingcat! I love their work. Thanks for writing that up & sorry to see the troll-commenters.

    Have you written more about your work in the 90’s? Maybe you’re writing a book…


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