The press explains liquid explosives and their challenge to airline safety – Knight Science Journalism @MIT

Science writers at many major outlets got an abrupt assignment when word broke early Thursday of terrorists the British caught as they plotted and prepared to destroy airliners with easily-smuggled-aboard liquid explosives. What are they, how hard are they to detect, what machines or detectors might help thwart them? These vital explainers were prominent among the mix of news packages on this dramatic development.

Reporters were able to obtain a remarkable amount of information in one day. That fact, as always with such things, raises the question whether enterprising journalists should have raised these warnings before (and, no doubt, would have led to worry that such stories are dangerous how-to manuals for mayhem). Most don’t get into the details of chemistry. But one explosive cocktail, used by the “shoe bomber,” called TATP, and supposedly dubbed “Mother of Satan” by terrorists, is in several stories.

We have several double bylines among accounts. The main focus of most of them is the number of potential liquid explosives and the general ease of disguising them as shampoos, sodas, or other innocuous fluids. NPR’s Jon Hamilton reports that one place to find liquid binary explosives is in police bomb-squad supply boxes. They use it to blow up suspicious packages. Can we be safe? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s David Templeton put things this way in his lede for an already-nervous public: maximum security would require officials to “strip each passenger bare and do a body-cavity search” before waving the naked traveler toward the gate.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette David Templeton[1]; New York Times Kenneth Chang, William Broad[2] on the explosives; New York Times Matthew L. Wald, Eric Lipton[3] on detecting them; Washington Post Rob Stein[4]; The Independent (UK) John von Radowitz[5]; The Times (UK) Mark Henderson[6]; NPR (audio) Jon Hamilton[7]; Newhouse News Service Chuck McCutcheon[8]; Richmond Times-Dispatch A.J. Hostetler[9]; USA Today Alan Levin, Dan Vergano[10]; Los Angeles Times Karen Kaplan, Denise Gellene[11]; Boston Globe Bryan Bender, Gareth Cook[12]; Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Jennifer Bails[13]; The Telegraph (UK) Nic Fleming[14]; Reuters Maggie Fox[15]; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Mark Johnson[16] on detecting such explosives;

Grist for the Mill: American Technion Society Press Release[17] via PRNewswire; DefenderTech Press Release[18] via Bus.Wire;


  1. ^ David Templeton (
  2. ^ Kenneth Chang, William Broad (
  3. ^ Matthew L. Wald, Eric Lipton (
  4. ^ Rob Stein (
  5. ^ John von Radowitz (
  6. ^ Mark Henderson (
  7. ^ Jon Hamilton (
  8. ^ Chuck McCutcheon (
  9. ^ A.J. Hostetler (
  10. ^ Alan Levin, Dan Vergano (
  11. ^ Karen Kaplan, Denise Gellene (
  12. ^ Bryan Bender, Gareth Cook (
  13. ^ Jennifer Bails (
  14. ^ Nic Fleming (
  15. ^ Maggie Fox (
  16. ^ Mark Johnson (
  17. ^ Press Release (
  18. ^ Press Release (

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