Remember those stick-figures of chemical compounds you were forced to memorize in high school? Remember how useless it seemed at the time? Can you still articulate the difference between a covalent bond and an ionic one (without checking Wikipedia)? If not, pay attention: You might be caught flat-footed during the zombie apocalypse.
The CDC suggests (half-seriously) having a zombie-preparedness kit (after all, it would also be useful in case of pandemics and hurricanes). But chemist and blogger Raychelle Burks has a simpler solution—one that would have greatly de-grossified a famous scene from The Walking Dead, in which Rick and his fellow apocalypse survivors slathered the guts of dead humans all over themselves, to jam the zombies' chemosenses with the smell of rotting flesh and thereby, escape.
"They used chemical camouflage," explains Burks, to trick the zombies into thinking they were fellow undead. The only problem: Icky and dangerous exposure to blood, guts, and pathogens. Burks has a better idea. "There's a couple of key chemicals that smell really stinky," she explains on this week’s episode. "Two right off the top would be—and they've got great names—cadaverine and putrescine…and they do smell like their names." In fact, these chemicals are used to train cadaver dogs, which search for dead bodies. "You could make up a death cologne," Burks continues. "Kind of use chemical camouflage to your advantage so that you can sneak through a zombie horde."
Known as Dr. Rubidium on Twitter—a name she chose because element 37 of the periodic table, Rubidium, has the symbol "RB," the same as her initials—Burks is a self-described "magical unicorn": A black, female, analytical chemist working at Nebraska's Doane College. Professionally, much of her research has focused on how to create quick chemical tests to help law enforcement officials detect the presence of explosives, and particularly those that are peroxide based, which are both extremely dangerous, and also fairly easy to make.
On the show this week, we talked to Burks about a wide range of chemistry-related topics, including the widespread confusion over terms like "natural," "organic," and "chemical."
This episode also features a discussion of a controversial study concluding that hurricanes with female names are deadlier, as well as new research into how spiders use their webs to detect sound vibrations.