Wednesday, June 3, 2015

WWWTP? BBC's Sherlock Edition

Chemical degradation by microscope? Incorrectly-scrawled structures? Wikipedia analyses?
Looks like Scotland Yard should send their consulting detective back to University.

I'm referring, of course, to Sherlock, the BBC reboot that re-imagines Detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John H. Watson as modern* Londoners, with text messages and nicotine patches in place of telegrams and pipes. Quick reminder: the Sherlock of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original books represents the first fictional character ever recognized by the Royal Society of Chemistry for contributions to science.

Sherlock Holmes hacks into a secret British government database and finds...pyridine and phenol!
Credit: Benedict Cumberbatch and BBC-One

In "The Hounds of Baskerville," Holmes and Watson investigate claims of a giant, red-eyed monster lurking outside - wait for it - a secret military research laboratory called Baskerville. Naturally, the dynamic duo break into the lab under false pretenses, questioning a scientist accused of genetically re-engineering a pet bunny to glow green.**

They later return to Baskerville with a hypothesis: a psychoactive drug, perhaps hidden in an innocuous foodstuff. Holmes sets to work using the analytical instrument of choice for modern chemists - the light microscope. Using nothing more than a pipette and glass window that would have made Bob Woodward proud, Sherlock performs some crude chemical degradation studies:

Who needs NMR, kinetic studies, or a mass spectrometer? I have a mallet and a watch-glass.
Credit: BBC-One

(I'm guessing Sherlock wrote "D-Deuterium?" at the top left to remind himself that the evil research agency might have tried improving their mind-control drug's physicochemical properties : )

The silly Hollywood chemistry builds to a peak when Dr. Watson timidly investigates a scary chemical structure on the lab wall. Don't blink; it's only on-screen for about a second:

"Vancomycin" - Close enough for television?
Source: BBC-One
Well, at least the creators got something right - vancomycin certainly ranks as a "chemical weapon," but it's for killing marauding bacteria, not innocent townsfolk. That chlorocyclohexane on the right *should* be fully aromatic, and I'm sure if I had a higher-res image, I'd start to spot some more structural snafus.

I won't spoil any more of the show, but there's a few other chemical flights of fancy, such as Sherlock analyzing multiple components of floor wax using nothing more than some colored test tubes and his nose. Readers, cue up your online streaming service of choice, and have a look at episode 2.2 - let me know if I've missed more molecular mishaps.


* Spoiler - the goofy hat remains. Not a bad look, if you ask me.

**The show does mention that the green fluorescent protein was isolated from a jellyfish, which might be the most accurate science in the entire episode.


  1. Even as a non--chemist I laughed quite a bit about that scene.