Methoxsalen (We knew the world would never be the same...)

People did a lot of goofy stuff with regard to chemistry in the gee-whiz days of the 1940s and 1950s. In some ways it's great we've come past that, in a lot of ways it's terrible. The same generation that gave us thalidomide also gave us Chuck Yaeger. I am all for small cell phones and $10 digital cameras, but it's hard to beat the dizzying highs and lows of realizing mass-energy equivalence.

Forty years after its realization as theory by Einstein, it was realized in practice in the form of a bomb, which ended a global war, the end of which started a singularly unique era of tension. Manhattan Project Director Oppenheimer famously remarked: (54 second Flash video well-worth watching in that link)

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

Less than a decade later, the political climate, shaped in no small part by the profound effect of the war work of liberal-minded scientists, resulted in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance during the Red Scare (by the way, he named names). Less than a decade later, JFK awarded him the Fermi Award.

The world became very different, very fast, and you've got to wonder if we even have the hang of it yet.


Back to the comforting, at least slightly-predictable bosom of organic chemistry. Symptomatic of the times was a cavalier attitude towards better living through chemistry. Tranquilizers like the previously-covered meprobamate and placidyl were overprescribed for perhaps-imagined ailments.

Methoxsalen is a coumarin containing photosensitizer. It is still used in the treatment of psoriasis, but its most famous use is certainly John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, wherein the drug was used to achieve a turbo-suntan. With this shocking visual effect, this white man passed as black in the medieval Southern United States (segregation was still alive and well) and chronicled his experiences.

The white-man-passing-as-black-with-the-aid-of-wonder-drugs archetype was later reprised in Steve Miner's magnum opus, Soul Man, which can be seen on Comedy Central about 10 times a week.

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There is a similar (if not identical) chemical in lime peel oil. When I was about 12 the back of my hand became extremely tan in an amorphous blobby shape. The doctor asked if I had been doing tequila shots, then prescribed me some kind of skin bleach. "Phyto-photo-dermatitis"

There is no E=mc^2 in a fission or fusion warhead within a few shakes of detonation. The numbers of electrons, protons, and neutrons in the devices before and immediately after detonation are identical. Initial energy output is simply reshouffling of nuclear binding energies. Binding energy is a mass deficit. Beta-decay adds a little mc^2 thereafter.

If I'm remembering correctly, while it is true that Oppenheimer named names in the lead-up to losing his security clearance, he implicated only a few people. The people he did accuse had either

1. almost certainly approached him about passing information to the Soviet Union before/during his tenure at the Manhattan Project, or
2. almost certainly been guilty of passing information to the Soviet Union about the Manhattan Project.

It's my impression that he didn't indiscriminately accuse people, that he had good reason to believe those he accused were guilty, and that some of the impetus to remove his security clearance came from his reluctance to name people as Communist party members or sympathizers.

If you don't trust my memory (I wouldn't), try American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.