On Whodunnit? and Why They Have a Terrible Team of Science Writers

This is my bakery's Bohemian Beer Bread.  Look at those ears!

This is my bakery’s Bohemian Beer Bread. I made this!  Look at those ears!

With my burgeoning career as a bread baker extraordinaire, I seem to have neglected the rest of the world.  I’ve gotten lost in the gelatinization of gluten and starch to form dark, crunchy crusts; forsaken my friends for the sweet smell of a proper poolish (pronounced poo-leash) or a tall biga (pronounced bee-gah).  But let us not forget that my love of chemistry runs deeper than my love of fresh baked bread.  I love to know why the bread reacts the way that it does and I love the feeling of working the bread with my hands and knowing that I made something.

At the end of the day, I’m beat.  I go home, drink a beer, and sit my butt in front of America’s favorite past-time: reality TV.  Don’t get me wrong: I hate reality T.V.  But sometimes…it’s like a train wreck and I HAVE to watch.  The latest in a long-line of guilty obsessions started last week with the show “Whodunnit?” – a reality-show that was kind of loosely (read: mostly) based on the game Clue.  Each episode, a player was “killed” and the other players had to determine the cause of death, ultimately looking for the killer.  It was the second episode that upset me the most.  The show started by announcing the players who had been “marked for death” and quickly killed off a character (start at 2 minutes 10 seconds on the video for the death scene, the reveal is at 33 minutes 0 seconds).

The following will spoil the episode, but I assure you that you won’t be missing much from your life for not having the experience of viewing the episode on your own.

The overall premise of Dontae’s death (he’s the flaming dude) involved a rather convoluted process.  First, the killer soaked a set of pajamas in benzene.  The killer then swapped Dontae’s old PJ’s with these special PJ’s.  Later that evening, knowing that everyone would be wearing their pajamas and their special wool socks, the killer pulls the fire alarm sending everyone running about in a frantic frenzy.  Dontae, wearing his benzene-soaked PJ’s and his wool socks, runs across a shag carpet and builds up static electricity; when Dontae tries to open the door, the static discharges and ignites the benzene.

This plan is awful!  Let’s break the general assumptions down:

  1. Dontae isn’t going to notice that the new pajamas – or that they smell funny.
  2. Dontae isn’t going to notice the skin irritation from the benzene.
  3. The benzene isn’t going to evaporate to an extent that would render the flammability risk to be quite low.

The problem is that these are terrible assumptions.  Allow me to explain why Dontae could have survived, and could have caught the killer, too.

Benzene is not odorless.

Let me start by giving you the Materials Safety and Data Sheet for benzene.  These MSDS’s give scientists an idea of the chemical they’re working with: chemical and physical properties, how to handle accidents, and how dangerous the chemical is.  Most of all, it gives scientists a strange set of data called “organoleptics.”  My personal favorite has always been when the label for the taste.  For benzene, it specifically states that benzene smells like petroleum spirits/gasoline.

According to the show, the super-sleuths suppose that Dontae couldn’t smell the benzene.  But we know better.  I don’t think the average person has smelled benzene before – trust me, it smells like chemicals.

Benzene irritates the skin.

With Dontae somehow unable to smell the benzene fumes on his new pajamas (look – this is a show about a crafty murderer and a different set of pajamas is super suspicious), he dons the clothes and goes to bed.  Watching the show, it appears that the folks were able to get a few hours of sleep in before the fire alarm went off that evening (approximately 4:38 AM).  At this point, Dontae has been wearing the inflammable pajamas for, let’s call it….five hours.  During this time, the benzene from the pajamas would have evaporated a little, getting onto his sheets, and onto his skin.

According to OSHA, acute benzene exposure can cause major skin irritation.  This is because benzene dries and defats (not defeats – de-fats, i.e., removes fats) the skin.  I’ve woken up in the dead of night because my feet itch – I couldn’t imagine full-body redness.  If this is the case, he probably would have removed the pajamas.  It’s what I would have done.

Benzene has a very limited range of flammability.

flammable pjs

Most people know that you need three things to have a successful flame: oxygen, fuel, and energy.  And most people know that “light” solvents (like benzene or gasoline or nail polish remover) readily evaporate in air.  So why was our killer willing to risk the evaporation of her murder weapon?  The show shows the killer as using a spritzer bottle to “douse” the pajamas in benzene.  Then, these pajamas must have been hung to dry for some short period of time – just so they didn’t feel wet.  This probably cut the local benzene concentration in half.  Normally, I’d offer data on this type of thing, but no one has ever really looked into the evaporation rate of benzene-soaked fabrics (possible science experiment with gasoline, folks).

Due to the nature of benzene, a LARGE percentage of the applied benzene would be lost to skin absorption, evaporation, and diffusion into Dontae’s sheets.  It’s entirely possible that the “flannel” nature of his pajamas was a bigger concern and a larger contributor to his ignition.


While the premise that benzene is a highly flammable chemical is absolutely true, the presuppositions required to allow me to believe in Dontae’s death are just too much.  Benzene smells like chemicals.  Benzene irritates the skin.  And benzene is too volatile.  Dontae could have foiled the killer’s plot and found the culprit by looking for the player who smelled like benzene.  Fear not – it’s just TV.  Dontae survived.  I just wish the episode could have been better researched.



2 responses to “On Whodunnit? and Why They Have a Terrible Team of Science Writers

  1. I’ve been harping about this in the reddit thread since week 1. Thank you for being very eloquent with this.

  2. Pingback: On Life and the Turns it Takes | Kentucky Chemistry·

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