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This reminded me of the story of how we got unleaded gasoline as described in a recent RadioLab episode titled, “Heavy Metal.”

It starts with this guy Clair Patterson in a lab trying to figure out the age of the earth by dating a meteorite. The first thing he has to do is calculate the amount of lead in the meteorite — except his readings are way off. He realizes he has to control for that variable by determining the amount of lead in the lab.


from the episode transcript:

LYDIA DENWORTH: So first he started with glass beakers he was using.

AVIR: The vials are the first thing you're gonna look at. So he tests the vials. And he goes, "Shit."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Clair Patterson: Lead.]

AVIR: These glass vials are made with lead, so let's get some new vials.

LATIF: Right.

AVIR: So gets new glass vials. Special order, never made with lead. Runs a sample again. It's still off.


AVIR: And so then he's like, "You know what? In the sample where I put the granite, I also put some water in it." And he realizes, actually, the water is coming from lead pipes.


AVIR: And so he's like, "Oh, crap. That's the problem." So he has to triple distill the water, boil it off, make sure he catches it in a vial that has no lead in it, to make sure that his water doesn't have any contamination from the pipes it came through. So he runs the sample and it's a little better, but there's still lead there. So now he's, like, obsessed. And Patterson, he's working in this lab.

LYDIA DENWORTH: And it was pretty grubby.

AVIR: He looks at the walls and he's like ...

LYDIA DENWORTH: There is peeling paint.

AVIR: So he tests the paint.

LYDIA DENWORTH: It was in the paint.

AVIR: So they repaint the walls. But still ...

LYDIA DENWORTH: There was way too much lead.

AVIR: Then he looks at his desk where the mass spectrometer is sitting on, and he figures out every joint in the desk is soldered together with lead.

LATIF: Oh, man.

AVIR: So he needs a new desk, new chairs with no lead. And then he uses Saran Wrap to cover every desk and every chair and every object in the room.

LATIF: [laughs].

AVIR: And still, too much lead.


AVIR: And so he thinks maybe there's some lead in the dust on the floors. So he starts mopping the floors. He gets the lead numbers to come down a little bit. And then one day, he notices a co-worker's lipstick is messing up his samples.


AVIR: So he tests the makeup and he's like, "Okay, there's lead in there too.


AVIR: We can't wear makeup in this lab. And he eventually—he starts to get the lead number lower and lower. But then one day, he's working in the lab, and a little piece of his hair falls onto the desk, and the lead numbers shoot up.

LYDIA DENWORTH: He said, you know, "Holy shit!"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Clair Patterson: Your hair!]

LYDIA DENWORTH: It's on him.

LATIF: [gasps] Wow! He's the contamination himself!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Clair Patterson: The lead from your hair will contaminate the whole damn laboratory. Just from your hair. [laughs]]

AVIR: And so he shaves his head.

LATIF: [laughs]

AVIR: But then one day he decides, "Okay, well I'm just gonna test my skin." And he ends up seeing that there's a bunch of lead in his skin.

LATIF: Oh, no!

AVIR: It's everywhere.

LYDIA DENWORTH: There was lead in absolutely everything. And in the end, he made people—they had a little anteroom and you had to—you literally had to strip down to your underwear and put on this Tyvek suit.

AVIR: Which gets washed in acid.

LYDIA DENWORTH: And have little booties on and put plastic over their hair.

AVIR: He builds positive pressure air vents so the air is constantly blowing and pushing anything inside the lab outside of the lab. So even if you walk in with a little microgram of lead, the air may push it out.


AVIR: He basically invents what we now call a "clean lab."


AVIR: But he ultimately gets his samples down, his blank samples down to 0.1 micrograms. So that's one tenth of one millionth of a gram.


AVIR: And that took years.


So this is something like: repeated experiments to isolate the variables that matter in one context only to make a scientific discovery in another context.

"[T]here are forces at work which cannot be dispersed by the stroke of a lawmaker's pen" is a statement as profound as it is succinct. Well done.

This made me think of gun-free school zones and how they appear to be completely ineffective at preventing children from getting shot at school. #EXAMPLE