22

I read this short story at least 50 years ago. It was probably in a collection, probably by Asimov, but also probably in a collection of murder mysteries rather than SF stories. He wrote so many stories and I don't remember the title, so I cannot find it.

A chemistry researcher dies in a conflagration in his lab on Earth. The fire might be accidental, the result of a lack of caution - but the man was known to be careful. The starting point is tracked to the explosion of a pressurised hydrogen container, but the explosion has destroyed whatever evidence could have been on that container.

Either the policeman in charge knew a lot about chemistry, or a chemist amateur sleuth was allowed on the scene. Anyway, platinum black (a potent catalyst) was found on the exit valve of a pressurised oxygen container, just far enough from the other one not to be totally destroyed. Now who would put platinum black there? High pressure oxygen won't react with air even in the presence of platinum black. It made no sense!

The solution is finally found: one, and only one, of the suspects had recently spent a long period of time on a satellite with a hydrogen-methane atmosphere, to study chemistry in these conditions. Only there could he have got used to the idea that pressurised oxygen would explode in the atmosphere in the presence of platinum black. Nervous at the idea of a murder, he first put the catalyst on the wrong container. He realises his mistake and puts also some more on the correct hydrogen container, but does not clean the oxygen one, or not enough, and is exposed for this reason.

1
  • 2
    I really enjoy these ID questions... I've even asked one myself. However, when the story is the top result of a google search of "platinum black sf story" (a wiki entry) I question the research effort. Albeit there was only the one hit, and maybe it didn't hit on first search, I don't know. Not going to d/v, but also not u/v'ing.
    – CGCampbell
    Nov 22, 2023 at 10:23

2 Answers 2

40

It is, as you suspect, an Asimov; "The Dust of Death" (1957), originally published in Venture Science Fiction Magazine, January 1957 and thereafter collected in Asimov's Mysteries.

"An oxygen cylinder. There was platinum black inside the tip of the nozzle. Quite a bit of it."

"Platinum black? On the oxygen cylinder?"

The murderer had worked most recently on Titan:

"Well, this is ridiculous, but if you stuck the oxygen jet into a container of hydrogen gas, platinum black on the gas cylinder could be dangerous. Naturally, you'd need a big container to make a satisfactory explosion."

"Suppose," said Davenport, "our murderer had counted on filling the room with hydrogen and then having the oxygen tank turned on."

Gorham said, with a half-smile, "But why bother with the hydrogen atmosphere when—" The half-smile vanished completely while a complete pallor took its place. He cried, "Farley! Edmund Farley!"

"What’s that?"

"Farley just returned from six months on Titan," said Gorham, in gathering excitement. "Titan has a hydrogen-methane atmosphere. He is the only man here to have had experience in such an atmosphere and it all makes sense now. On Titan, a jet of oxygen will combine with the surrounding hydrogen if heated, or treated with platinum black. A jet of hydrogen won't. The situation is exactly the reverse of what it is here on Earth. It must have been Farley. When he entered Llewes' lab to arrange an explosion, he put the platinum black on the oxygen, out of recent habit. By the time he recalled that the situation was the other way round on Earth, the damage was done."

You can read the story at the Internet Archive.

1
  • Thanks for the link to Internet Archive
    – Alfred
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:06
12

This is indeed by Asimov - a short story called "The Dust of Death". First appeared in Venture Science Fiction (January 1957) and collected in Asimov's Mysteries. It can be read here: https://s3.us-west-1.wasabisys.com/luminist/SF/VE_1957_01.pdf

1
  • 1
    This story starts on page 83, to save some scrolling for anybody else using this PDF
    – muru
    Nov 22, 2023 at 5:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.