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Author Topic: His: 341, The Darker Side of Science  (Read 833 times)

Offline Letonna

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His: 341, The Darker Side of Science
« on: February 20, 2015, 03:07:23 AM »
Ever wonder why drugs have to go through rigorous testing before their approved? Or why there's such a big fuss over keeping rivers clean? Or ever wonder why history tends to talk about the good scientists, but never the bad ones? This series of lecture will explore some of the dark points of science. Everything from pesticides, to pharmaceuticals, to computer chips.


His 341

Pesticides, Zyklon-B, and the Nazi’s



The world had a problem during the industrial revolution. It came in the form of weeds, bugs, and unwanted animals destroying crops. With the boom of the modern factory, and the surge of populations, food demands increased as well. The farm went from being this mom and pop rural operation to a more refined, factory farm.

Historically, people used everything from powdered sulfur, lead, mercury, powdered nicotine, and poisons from various plants as pest control methods. Those likely went over as well as one would imagine. With the industrial revolution and the blossoming of science, came new possibilities in controlling the pests of modern farming.

During the industrial era, it was common to use certain extracts from tropical plants to make an effective, nontoxic(to humans) mixture that could be applied to fields. This worked well for countries who had access and frequent trading with places that had these resources[Colonies].

In the late 18 hundreds, it was discovered in California that hydrogen cyanide gas(cyanide) was great at killing pests in trees and orchards. It was also used to fumigate grain silos and ships. This worked well for applications that had lots of open space, but wasn't viable as a direct-to-crop pesticide because it existed solely as a gas. One could hypothesize, that to solve this problem, we could use a solid form of a cyanide compound, like a salt. Potassium cyanide is viable. However, it could easily stick to the plant in a dry climate, and kill people.

With the first world war, Germany found itself cut off from a lot of tropical trade coming from the nations that produced the previously relied upon compounds. In 1919, a chemist by the name of Fritz Haber(also known for the famous Habor Process of converting nitrogen gas to ammonia) discovered a cyanide compound that had the same toxicity, but could be formed into a slow release tablet, that leaked the toxin in the presence of water and heat. This would be known as Zyklon A.

The chemical structurre of zyklon A

The product was soon banned by a wary post world war world, because Germany had used similar chemicals during the war as weapons. It wasn't until the early twenties, another chemist by the name of Bruno Tesch, discovered that Hydrogen cyanide gas could also be compressed into a tablet of similar structure. He used special water absorbing clay, and warning irritant, and marketed it as Zyklon B.


By the late 1930’s, Degesch( a state owned chemical corporation) was mass producing the chemical for use all over the world. It was widely successful. It was used in applications from delousing, general farming, use in warehouses, trains, and sanitizing clothing. By 1943, it accounted for 70% of the company’s profits.

Bruno Tesch eventually became the CEO of Degesch, and a key Nazi party member. His loyalty to the party and the cause of racial purity helped solidify the use of Zyklon B as a tool for mass genocide. It is believed during the Holocaust, Zyklon B ended the lives of at least 1 million people. Many gas chambers often have a Prussian blue stain on them. This is due to a cyanide salt that forms. Cyanide compounds are sometimes Blue.

By the end of the Second World War, Bruno Tesch was eventually captured, and tried for war crimes. He was found guilty of conspiring in genocide by willingly selling a chemical to the nazi’s for use in murder. He was executed in 1946 along with other top  members of Degesch.

Tesch, along with other war criminals at the IG Farben Trial

Cyanide based products are still used in some parts of the world. The Technique developed by Haber and Tesch was valuable for modern pesticides to be around today. The ability to keep pests under control, and to have inexpensive pesticides is crucial for many developing nations. What I want to emphasize is it’s not the science that is evil. Science is, and always will be neutral. It is man that makes it evil, and twists it into doing horrendous acts.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2015, 03:13:05 AM by Letonna »

Offline Musitant

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Re: His: 341, The Darker Side of Science
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2015, 03:51:55 AM »
Great read! An incredibly interesting topic and one that's very relevant to today.

While reading you gave me the impression that pests were an invention of the Industrial Revolution, but after a little more reading (and Wikipedia) I realized what you were trying to say.

Offline Letonna

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Re: His: 341, The Darker Side of Science
« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2015, 12:51:11 AM »
Tantalite: The Mineral of Death, and the genocide you may have never knew happened



Also known more commonly as coltan, it’s a very useful mineral, consisting of the elements Tantalum and Niobium. Both elements have been known and used as alloy additives for many years. But it wasn’t until the age of the computer chip came to be when we eventually decided computers didn’t need to be operated in warehouses and be the size of a small house, we aimed at compacting the computer. As many of us know, technology got small fast. You can compare a computer from the 80’s to one today and see a clear difference.


There were many factors that made this possible. Engineering, physics, programming, design, but also a little chemistry. It was discovered quickly in the latter part of the 20th century that the element tantalum was a fantastic element to use in various components in computer chips. It could do the same job of a bulky resistor and capacitor, but in a fraction of the size.

A resistor containing Tantalum

Niobium had similar advantages. When combined with lithium and oxygen, it could become magnetic. This was incredibly useful in applications where size was very important, such as cell phones. There is no way we would have been able to produce cell phones so small and so quickly if we had not discovered this property.

An example of a ferromagnetic alkali compound containing Niobium

Demand for these elements was naturally high in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. Although Australia was the biggest supplier of the mineral, it was also discovered a large deposit existed in central Africa, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a few years after this the Ituri conflict exploded in central Africa.

This brief explanation won’t do it any justice by far, but in a nutshell it was a bitter, bloody conflict between two ethnic groups in north eastern DRC. Eventually the UN had to get involved(but not before tens of thousands of people died). The boom in demand for the mineral only fueled warlords who ruled over land where the mineral could be found.


For individuals living in poverty stricken central Africa, mining and war were the only sources of a steady income. It is reported that farming is fell out of favor with young Congolese men because it is too much of a gamble on how much will be reaped at the end of the season. Mining offered immediate cash.

This doesn’t mean mining was any better of an economic move either. With no central government, no roads, and no tools, mining was hard, labor intensive, and dangerous work. Most mines are run by militias. There’s a good theory called the Resource Curse, that Professor Musitant can probably explain in more detail, but essentially it refers to a new demand for a resource in a country that has no infrastructure to exploit it.

In a report by the UN in 2003, the smuggling and mining of coltan has helped fuel a crisis that resulted in 5.4 million deaths. Also according the the UN, 125 corporations and individuals, and 3 countries were accused of breaching international trade norms. Even the drug and pharmaceutical company Bayer was suspected of distantly involved. It was truly an international source of fuel to a regional fire.

But like all bubbles, it’s bound to burst. The demand for coltan has decreased in recent years. It’s still valuable, but advancements in metallurgy and methods to recycle electronics has allowed us recapture the metal from old computer components. There have also been internation shifts to buy from more industrial nations like Australia, China, and Brazil, mostly because of pressure from advocacy groups.

In Conclusion.

The reason I say ‘the genocide you never heard of’ is because I honestly think a lot of people don’t know about this. Most of us here in Taijitu are fairly educated, but I guarantee most people I know never heard of it. And that’s not necessarily their fault. I personally didn’t even know about it until one of my chemistry professors mentioned it off hand when I was in school. It was never taught in any history class I ever took. I’m not really a history expert, but I feel Africa is left out of history books too often. It seems like the history I was taught seemed to be pretty white, and I think a lot of it is glossed over.

Although it could be argued the conflict hasn’t ended, a lot of advocacy from international charities and special interest groups has brought some awareness to the region. Companies and nations no longer(for the most part) buy from unethical suppliers of Coltan. It’s been labeled ‘Africa's Blood Mineral’ because of all the death and carnage associated with it. The Key thing to remember is Technology did not cause the genocide of 5.4 million people. It was an unfortunate side effect. However, it seems progress, especially industrial progress, is laden with many unfortunate side effects. As we mature as a species and civilization, we can only hope we become more savvy consumers, and more ethical patrons of history.
« Last Edit: February 24, 2015, 02:42:39 AM by Letonna »

Offline Eluvatar

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Re: His: 341, The Darker Side of Science
« Reply #3 on: February 27, 2015, 04:50:55 PM »
I think the main problem is the deficit of social advancement, rather than the surfeit of technological advancement. By social advancement I mean the development of inclusive institutions, justice, the rule of law...

When there is not a strong system of government answerable to all, the acquisition of wealth through extracting resources will be the province of those with political and/or military power.

I would agree, however, that when there are valuable natural resources, the above tendency can be more extreme. If you can get rich just by making people dig up valuable ore, why bother setting up refineries, workshops, or any kind of capital-intensive development?

It is a moral failing of the modern world, I think, that we ignore the social problems of many parts of the world and thus inevitably exploit them by fueling extractive behavior.

(My apologies if I'm using too much of the jargon from Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson).
                                 
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