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José Ramón Isasi, Professor of Chemistry-Physics

Another Nobel for 'Chemistry'

Sat, 12 Oct 2013 08:42:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

Alfred Nobel, the industrial chemist who became rich through the invention of dynamite, made it clear in his will that one of his annual awards should go to the individual or organization that had contributed most to the cause of peace. It is clear that the use given to explosives such as dynamite can be diverse and, therefore, it is not an intrinsically "bad" material.

In 1918, the German of Jewish origin Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize from Chemistry "for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements". It was not a trivial finding . Thanks to the industrial process of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, it is now possible to feed seven billion people, thanks to the sometimes much-maligned chemical fertilizers. Of course, some of these same compounds, such as ammonium nitrate, are also potent explosives. Well, this same person was decorated for his patriotism during World War I, not only for eliminating German dependence on nitrate from Chile thanks to the procedure designed by him, but also for his leadership in the war Chemistry. Thus, chlorine gas, a simple element to obtain and heavier than air, was devastating in trench warfare. It was followed by other even more lethal gases. However, the psychological effects experienced by the soldiers were, if anything, even more important. Would the heavy and uncomfortable masks be able to filter out this new gas being tested by the enemy?

protocol Images of the horrific effects of mustard gas soon brought the signatory nations of the Geneva Convention (1929) for the prohibition of biological warfare to agreement and Chemistry. And what is so special about these types of weapons? Obviously, the main difference with respect to conventional weapons is that the latter can be argued to be intended only for military purposes. This is not the case, of course, for those designed to harm human targets. It has been said of chemical and bacteriological weapons (toxins, of biological origin, can be considerably more lethal than the worst chemical weapons) that they are the "poor man's atomic bomb". It was precisely the American Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists of the 20th century, who was the first and only person to date to receive a second solo Nobel Prize, this time the Peace Prize (1962), for his activism against nuclear escalation. He had previously refused to participate in the project Manhattan (the development of the atomic bomb) although he was awarded the presidential medal for collaborating in other military projects during World War II.

            Just a few years ago, a group of archaeologists found the oldest evidence of war Chemistry (apart from the poisoning of drinking water supplies, practiced long ago) precisely in Syria. Apparently, a group of Roman soldiers was gassed at the exit of a tunnel by Persian troops burning a mixture of sulfur and bitumen. Today we know much more Chemistry, both for better and for worse.