Science Talk December 20, 2006 -- The Use of Radioactive Isotopes in the Cloak-and-Dagger World of Cold War Espionage and Ode to Grad Students
Welcome to the Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for seven days starting December 20th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, a discussion of the cloak and dagger world of radioactive spydust with historian of science, Kristie Macrakis. That conversation includes some discussion over the recent polonium poisoning case involving Russian secret policeman Alexander Litvinenko. We will have a Christmas poem dedicated to those working late in the labs and we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Kristie Macrakis. She is a science historian at Michigan State University who specializes in 20th century German science. She has just completed a book called Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi's Spy-Ttech World. One chapter of the book is called "Radioactive Spy Dust." I called her at her office in East Lansing.
Steve: Professor Macrakis, great to talk to you today.
Macrakis: Thanks for calling, Steve.
Steve: My pleasure. What is spydust and how did you get so interested in it?
Macrakis: Spy dust is actually the vernacular name for a police technique used to track people, and it was called spy dust in 1986 by the CIA because they discovered that the KGB had used a chemical marking material to track their officers and they dubbed it spy dust. So it's not really dust that is used on spies, but it actually has a very fascinating history. So, it's basically marking or tracking material used to track people to track money. It had its origins in criminalistics to track people who stole money from the money box.
Steve: So, a lot of the material in the book chapter about spydust concerns the KGB and the Stasi in East Germany; however, the origins of spydust are really in England and other western countries.
Macrakis: Yeah. When I was researching it, I had expected to find that spy dust originated with KGB because I was researching the Stasi, the East German secret police and intelligence agency, which no longer exists. I actually found out this as kind of fascinating that [it] originated in England in the 1930s when forensic science originated. They were playing around, actually, with radioactive isotopes to use them as tracer[s] on paper and money and things like that. So I think it's interesting that today, in December 2006, that the British police are tracing radioactive isotopes using the method in a kind of reverse way when they are trying to trap the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko.
Steve: You talk in the chapter about Doctor Franz Laederisch of the Stasi, who was the developer of a lot of the spy dust, and some of these stories are right out of James Bond movies, and you have got
the literally the silver boy. You want to tell everybody about the silver boy?
Macrakis: Yeah, that's actually a very intriguing, but chilling, technique. I think a lot of these people watched a lot of James Bond movies and got inspired with some of these techniques.
Steve: Because these techniques were being developed after James Bond movies started to come out in the '60s. We are talking about the '70s now, right?
Macrakis: Right. Yeah, the so-called "Cloud Program" that had the code name "Cloud," and presumably that has to do with the mushroom cloud from dropping a bomb, but the cloud program occurred in the 1970s—started in 1972—and Franz Laederisch was the head of it. He was a trained physicist from Leipzig. He appears to be a very competent physicist and one of the methods they developed was this air gun. They actually used it. The idea was you could shoot sort of [a] poison-tipped bullet like James Bond and you shoot it into the tire and it would leave its mark on the tire, and then you could track the car through busy Berlin traffic by marking the tires with this radioactive bullet.
Steve: Amazing, and there was also …scandium-46 was a popular isotope that was used, and a lot of this was really to trace people's movements and their contacts. In that sense, it's different from
a [the] poisoning that's currently in the news with [the] Litvinenko case.
Macrakis: Yeah, sure, yeah. Tracers are used to track people, sure, and the East German police, they were the users of scandium-46, which had a half-life of about 83 to 84 days, and it was the gamma emitter, which means it was very penetrating, unlike
the polonium 210, the famous radioactive isotope used to poison Litvinenko. That was an alpha emitter, so it wouldn't be a very good method to use the [in] tracking; however, I do see some connections if you would like to hear about them.
Steve: Let's first talk about why a beta emitter is a better tracer than an alpha emitter.
Macrakis: Well, gamma and beta emitters, they are much more penetrating. So, for example, using the technique of the air gun and tracking the diplomat's car, you know, you could get further away and you could still get a reading on your scintillating counter or Geiger counter, and so it was important that it was a penetrating emission, whereas an alpha emitter, the polonium 210, you know, you can …just as you try to stop that with a piece of paper, and so it does not get very far, to Stasi also. And this is even more chilling than the tracers. At the borders they use cesium 137, a gamma emitter, so they could see if people were smuggling people through the border in car trunks and things like that, and that was very penetrating. So, it could penetrate through concrete walls and through cars and things like that.
Steve: We have to spend just one moment. You talk in the book chapter about one of the detectors that the Stasi would use to actually see if there was any radioactive emission going on, and this detector is, I mean, it is not even James Bond, it's out of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Macrakis: (laughs) I know what you are talking about. Yeah, the Stasi was ahead of its time. This was in the 1970s. They developed a detector that there were two versions of
it. One of it had a vibrating device that you could put under your armpits, so, you strap this harness onto yourself, and so if your Geiger counter or your scintillating counter started vibrating under your arm, that means you got some activity. You could also use the other version, which was then hidden in the hand or the briefcase and so it would vibrate. So, you could just be walking down the street, you know, you walk just like an absentminded professor, and your handle would start vibrating and that meant that you found your prey.
Steve: Right, and the miniaturization technology didn't exist yet, and so, if you see a photograph, as you have in the book chapter of this harness with a vibrator that goes under your armpit there, I mean it's like, you know, it's not quite the size of a pair of football shoulder pads, (Macrakis laughs) but it's pretty big and clumsy, and this is just an amazing device. Now, [is] there
is any evidence that any of this radioactive material was indeed used back then on dissidents as a way to actually sicken them rather than trace them?
Macrakis: Well, I actually tried researching this, and they tried to use it on dissidents to trace, and they put it on their manuscripts and things like that. I haven't found any evidence that suggests they deliberately tried to kill them using radioactive isotopes; however, that kind of information would not be written down on paper in a Stasi file. Even the stuff I was telling you about – the radioactive machine at the borders – they wrote that in pen and handwriting and they didn't type it so the secretary wouldn't read it. So, there were some things that were secrets. I have found some indirect evidence indicating that they had sorted that out and they knew that radioactive isotopes would cause cancer in people and could kill people, and so I have a list from a toxicologist from the Humboldt University who worked as a consultant for the Stasi, and he has different lists of poisons like thallium, which is the favorite, and ricin, which was used in the famous Markov umbrella case in London. You know, these dissidents, some of them died of cancer. No one died of radiation poisoning that I know of – that would have come to light. I think that the KGB has tried the deadliest (unclear) in using poison.
Steve: Well, since we were talking about the KGB, let's move on to the Litvinenko case because, you know, everybody is conjecturing because Putin was with the KGB. Any guesses there as to what was going on? If it was a purposeful murder, they certainly didn't do much to cover their tracks.
Macrakis: Yeah, when the case first emerged
that [I] was shocked because it didn't sound very professional. In other words, in the Markov umbrella case, you got jabbed by [an] umbrella in London and the guy walked off and, you know, it's not as well [if] he had, you know, tea with him at a restaurant. He was identifiable, and that's the same with Kokars in the 1950s, who was poisoned with thallium and survived. Now, these are all cases where they were bungled because they weren't silent, I mean, there are also other cases that didn't become known because they weren't bungled. So, you could take it either way until this case is solved: either they are working in the open and are brave and they wanted to send a message, or else they bungled it. But they certainly knew what they were doing with the radioactive isotopes they used because they knew that it was an alpha emitter, so it wasn't easily detectable. Then, if you ingested a quantity of it, that you would die, and so whoever decided to use that radioactive isotope knew what they were doing, and for me, I see ways the Stasi story can illuminate what's going now in the sense of, I think that spy agencies have access to these radioactive isotopes. The Stasi had access to the Academy of Sciences Nuclear Research Center. They could get all the radioactive isotopes they wanted. They had a secret cooperative agreement with them and I speculate that the KGB—now the FSB, the internal successor organization—probably has the same sort of access. In other words, to have access to a radioactive isotope like that, you would have to be the secret services, who would have access, or smuggle or [smugglers] might have access, although that's a lot of polonium to have access to. I mean, it is a very high dose.
Steve: It was a very high dose, a much higher amount of polonium 210 than you could procure through normal means if you were using it for some legitimate research purpose.
Macrakis: Yeah, right. I mean, it was in the paper. People so can get it on the Internet. You could never get that amount on the Internet and it is actually not that easy to get it on the Internet.
Steve: Interesting stuff. The chapter is "Radioactive Spy Dust." It is in the book Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi's Spy Tech World, and you just finished the manuscript. You just sent it into the publisher.
Steve: And it will come out by the end of 2007.
Macrakis: Yeah. Thank you very much for talking to me about it.
Steve: Scientific American's Web site has featured numerous articles on the Litvinenko case. Just google Scientific American and Litvinenko.
Now it's time to play TOTALL.....Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL......Y BOGUS
Story number 1: A new variety of wheat can make cakes that don't need sugar.
Story number 2: Human beings' sense of smell is actually good enough to track a scent like a bloodhound does.
Story number 3: People with a particular genetic mutation feel little or no pain.
Story number 4: Scientific American magazine is parodied in the current issue of National Lampoon.
Story number 1 is true: Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization has developed a variety of wheat with twice the normal wheat sugar content. [IT] should be available commercially in a few years. So, watch out for cakes and cookies that say sugar-free on the label. That might be technically true, but the stuff inside still going to be sweet and filled with calories.
Story number 2 is true. People can indeed track a scent relatively well if they are willing to put their nose right on the ground and if the scent is chocolate. That's what was used in one study anyway. For more, check out today's edition of the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science.
And story number 3 is true. A few people have a mutation that robs them of any sense of pain perception and that's a really bad thing. Pain reminds you not to do things like leave your tongue on the red hot movie projector bulb. For more, see the item in our blog called, "More on the Mutation That Let's You Stick a Knife Through Your Arm." That’s really what it's called. It is at blog.sciam.com.
All of which means that story number four about Scientific American magazine being parodied in the current issue of National Lampoon is TOTALL....Y BOGUS, because Scientific American magazine is in fact parodied in the current issue of Mad magazine. What, us worry?
It is an official rule of journalism that all outlets this time of year must, by guidelines set down in the famous Times versus Sullivan case, publish a very bad parody of the Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, better known as, Twas the Night Before Christmas. In keeping with that august tradition, here is the Scientific American podcast's offering called, A Phone Call From the Funder:
'Twas the day after Christmas and throughout the labs,
All the students were anxious, all the postdocs kept tabs
On the sighting of he who would bring them their fate,
Who would tell them soon to rip up or postdate
Their checks for their food and their rent and their stuff,
Because being a researcher's tool can be tough.
He was there in his office, the PA, they could see,
But they dare not disturb him, they feared what could be,
For his grant to do research, which they aided, abetted
Was up for renewal, was filed and vetted.
The assistant professor, he pulled at his hair.
He so needed the funding to buy a new chair
And some new test tube holders, so high was the price,
And accordion folders and beakers and mice.
Both the kind near the keyboard that gives tendonitis
And the transgenic kind predisposed to bronchitis,
And a graduate cylinder to be filled up with fluid
By that graduate student, who says he is a dude.
The assistant professor, he rose to his feet
And he called out for mercy, his panic complete.
NIH, NSF, NCI, ACS, HHMI let me see some loggias,
I need research dollars.
My checks I have been kiting,
I am this close to selling aluminum siding.
At that very moment the phone started ringing.
Students and postdocs, they thought they heard singing.
The assistant professor let out a low moan.
He took a deep breath and he hung up the phone,
And came out of his office, his hands slightly shaking,
And straightened his knees, which were still also quaking.
The students and postdocs sat still, held their breath
Till the student, who lisped, said, "What's up? What? Confess!"
The assistant professor stood still for a moment
Then broke into a grin and that smile did foment
A cheer from the students. They sounded sweet as honey,
For they knew that the lab would be swimming in money.
The funding is decent, is what the prof tells.
No issues the research involves no stem cells.
And now, flush again, prof reverts to a jerk.
He says, "Don't just sit there! Go on, back to work!"
Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out news articles and science video news at our Web site, www.sciam.com, and the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and thanks for clicking on us.