Chemistry is a very selective science. I am not saying it chooses only certain types of people, but that in all chemists there lays a never-ending desire for learning. There is an instinctive outlook on life that perpetuates an existence of exploration. It takes a certain kind of person to taste the ocean spray on their lips and wonder why it tastes salty. And it takes a chemist to experiment that interest.

Chemistry is for the curious.

It is also for the creative. That is not a word that people often associate with chemists, but it takes a creative mind to visualize molecules, atoms, and molecular interactions that one would not even know existed without other chemists’ curiosity. It is undeniable the vital role that chemistry plays in everyone and everything’s lives’. As I sit at this computer trillions of reactions are occurring, in my mind, with the keyboard, in the air.  My body chemistry is making sure I am warm, that my K+ Na pump is working in all of my cells, that I am kept alive, it even created me, all of us, and everything around us. Part of what makes chemistry so fascinating is that it is literally everything, everywhere, all the time. Things are always interacting at atomic levels and the result is what we experience. Chemists alike understand that with this great knowledge come great responsibilities. 

The knowledge of chemistry can be used to kill cancerous cells, or stop an infection, or help pump adrenaline when you are freaking out about that chemistry test you didn’t study for. We use it to make wine, Cheetos, and conversely, it can also be used to kill people. I remember turning 18 and being called by the US military recruiters to see if I wanted to join the army. They asked what major I intended to study and when I told them Chemistry they sounded enthralled. They explained that they have tons of laboratories set up to assist our armed forces. I had always known that I was not interested in the army, but this was the first time I contemplated that I could use this knowledge as a weapon. I absolutely did not want to use chemistry to help hurt people, or even to help people who hurt people. I knew even then, the potentials that chemistry has in harming people. This was made evident when on August 21st 2013, while we were all getting ready for the school year, the chemical gas Sarin was used against civilians in Syria. 

The chemical weapon attack in Syria was horrific. The videos of children lying side by side, surrounded by their parents was more than terrifying and heart wrenching. So what could kill 1500 people without spilling a drop of blood? Sarin is a nerve agent chemical weapon, which means it is one of the most toxic and fast acting chemical weapons known of. They have similar effects as certain types of insecticides called organophosphates in terms of how they work. It makes you think about the insect massacre that happens so our fruit is bug free. Sarin works by attacking the nervous system by stopping the nerve endings in muscles from switching off. The result is not being able to breath due to the inability to control the muscles involved in breathing. You basically suffocate because your muscles go into this crazy spasm, which you can see is happening from the videos.

For you biochemists reading this, Sarin specifically inhibits acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that destroys the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter used at the neuromuscular junction where signals are transmitted between neurons from the central nervous systems to muscle fibers. Thus, your muscles are never signaled to relax.
Sarin Gas Structure
The effectiveness of chemical weapons was shown so deadly, cruel, and untargeted that in 1993 an Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was created. They wrote a treaty that would prohibit the use, manufacturing, and stockpiling of chemical weapons by any state that signed it. Currently 188 state parties have signed this treaty, but Syria was not one of them.

The effects of the gas were tragic, and yet you cannot blame chemistry for it did exactly what it was intended to do. Obviously it was the people who released the gas that should be blamed for the mass murder, but what about the chemists who make such weapons of mass destruction? At what point do we stop blaming the shooter and start blaming the bullet maker? The chemists who came up with Sarin gas designed it to be a lethal gas. We chemists hold great knowledge and in some ways more powerful knowledge than doctors and yet there is no real ethical code for chemists like there is for doctors. Why would a chemist use his specialized knowledge for malicious intentions? And who would?

Fritz Haber
My searches lead me to a man by the name of Fritz Haber.  He was a Jewish German physical chemist who revolutionized the way we grow our food, and the way we fought WWII. He thought of fixing the Nitrogen in the air to use as fertilizer. Without this Nitrogen fixation process, the world could not support it’s current population. But this discovery came about during World War II when it was believed that by cutting off Germany’s Nitrogen deposit supplies that the war would be over within a few months. Thanks to Haber’s Nitrogen Fixation process however, the war was able to continue. Haber devoted his research to chemical warfare for Germany and thought of using Chlorine gas, which was one of the first chemical weapons ever made. It is such an odd thought that the mind that saved millions from starving also killed millions in battle and in gas chambers in concentration camps. Why would such a brilliant mind commit this atrocity against his fellow man? Fritz Haber was not evil, he was curious and in some ways forced to work for the German government in order to avoid persecution himself. Yet his research on chemical weapons was intended for mass death only. Was he in the wrong along with the Germans?

So I guess what this search really asked me was how would I use my knowledge of chemistry after college? At what point does synthesizing an anticancer drug and knowing that at the same time you are poisoning water supplies from that same synthesis make it unethical? All I believe is that I am interested in chemistry because I am interested in everything. And as chemists we may be faced with hard questions. Hopefully, because we understand the intricate network that is life, we will not allow others to disassemble its beauty. How can one truly determine the moral compass of the chemist?

Sarin gas being released in Houla, Syria