Better Living through Chemistry?

Why chemists need to be humanists.
June 23 rd 2016

Nothing captures the optimism of the post–World War II era than Du Pont's corporate slogan "Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry." And nothing shows it like their Wonderful World of Chemistry musical production at the 1964 World's Fair.

These new forms of matter, or new processes for transforming matter, are cultural artifacts that have a tremendous influence on human culture.

Singing the praises of Du Pont's modern plastics and synthetic fabrics, this musical production gave voice (and dance) to the widespread technological optimism catalyzed by a wide variety of new products that caused dramatic changes in people's day-to-day lives: plastics, synthetic textiles, antibiotics, pesticides, food products, refrigerants, as well as efficient processes to synthesize fertilizers and convert crude oil into gasoline and a wide variety of consumer goods.

But just as the Du Pont singers were proclaiming the wonders and promise of modern chemistry, the belief that the products of modern chemistry really led to "better things" and "better living" was called into question, as a dark side to some of these new synthetic chemicals was exposed. The insecticide DDT, for example, had been hailed as a "miracle compound" for its ability to increase agricultural yields and for its role in virtually eradicating insect-borne diseases in several developing countries. But soon significant negative effects on wildlife, ecosystems, and risks to human health due to the widespread and indiscriminate use of DDT were documented, along with evidence of insect resistance. These negative and unanticipated effects were brought to the public's attention in Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, which launched the modern environmental movement and challenged the paradigm that the products of modern chemistry lead to better living. That optimism remains for some today, but it is clouded by an increasing awareness that this "better living" comes with costs to creation and often to our own human health.

Chemistry: A Transforming Vision

Chemistry has always concerned itself with two essential projects: understanding the nature of the material world (What is matter composed of? How is matter organized? How does matter behave?) and manipulating the raw materials of the world into new forms of matter that are more useful and valuable (How can matter be transformed?). These two projects have worked in tandem to develop an incredible level of knowledge of the structure and behaviour of the material world and have provided new products and technologies that have played an important role in shaping human cultures throughout history, and continue to do so in the present in profound ways.

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, describes culture as "what we make of the world," referring both to the cultural artifacts we make and to how we make sense of the world. What chemistry aims to do is to create new forms of matter from the raw materials of the created world. These new forms of matter, or new processes for transforming matter, are cultural artifacts that have a tremendous influence on human culture. To get a sense of the significance of chemical innovations on the trajectory of human history, it is worth telling the stories of two key chemical discoveries. These stories also show the complexity and tensions behind assertion that chemistry leads to "better living" for human society. (The details of these stories are wonderfully told by Thomas Hagar in The Alchemy of Air and The Demon Under the Microscope.)

The atmospheric nitrogen that was "fixed" into ammonia could subsequently be converted into other forms of nitrogen useful for fertilizers.

From Air to Food

In the past century, the global population has approximately quadrupled. Perhaps the most important factor behind this is the tremendous increase in global food production due to the availability of synthetic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers arising from one basic chemical reaction: the conversion of nitrogen in the air into ammonia. It is estimated that today almost half of humanity is alive because of the discovery of this one chemical process. It is arguably the most important discovery of the twentieth century.

As an essential component of most biomolecules, nitrogen is a vitally important chemical element for life. In fact, nitrogen is often a limiting nutrient for the growth of living organisms: once an organism's supply of nitrogen is depleted, it ceases to grow further or dies. The peculiar thing about nitrogen is that, although it is all around us, making up about 80 percent of the atmosphere, it is completely useless to nearly all living organisms. Atmospheric nitrogen takes the form of dinitrogen molecules (N2), which cannot be used directly by plants and animals. We humans get our required nitrogen through our diets by eating plants and animals, which ultimately get their nitrogen from the soil, typically in the form of ammonium (NH4+) or nitrate (NO3-) ions.

In order to sustain food production in a given location, something must be done to replenish the soil nitrogen. Soil bacteria living symbiotically in root nodules of plants such as alfalfa, clover, and beans have the unique capability of converting N2 molecules in the atmosphere into forms of nitrogen useful for growing plants. Crop rotation, which helps to maintain soil fertility, encourages the "nitrogen fixation" performed by these bacteria. The spreading of manure and compost also helps maintain soil fertility by returning usable nitrogen to the soil. In order to further increase crop yields through the late 1800s, European nations began importing vast amounts of nitrogen-rich guano (dried bird or bat feces) and the mineral saltpeter (potassium nitrate) from the west coast of South America and applying it to their fields.

At the close of the 1800s, however, there was great concern that food production in Europe could not keep pace with the growing population. Sir William Crookes, president of the British Academy of Sciences, argued that "England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril," since there was not enough natural fertilizer in the world to meet the needs of the twentieth century. He stated that the greatest challenge of the day was to find a way to make fertilizers synthetically: "It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty. . . . It is the chemist who must come to the rescue."

It is ironic that the inventor of a process that today keeps nearly half of the globe's population fed is also considered the father of modern chemical warfare.

The scientist who ultimately solved this great problem was the Jewish chemist Fritz Haber working in Germany. In 1908, Haber discovered that nitrogen (N2) from air could be made to react with hydrogen (H2) under high pressure and high temperature in the presence of a metal catalyst to form ammonia (NH3). Carl Bosch and his team at the German chemical company BASF were able to develop the high-pressure-reaction vessels to scale the process up, and the first nitrogen-fixing ammonia factory was opened in 1913. The atmospheric nitrogen that was "fixed" into ammonia could subsequently be converted into other forms of nitrogen useful for fertilizers.

Or explosives. World War I broke out shortly after, and the British navy blocked nitrogen-containing saltpeter imports into Germany. Haber was able to modify his fertilizer-making technology to supply the raw materials for making explosives for the German military. Haber's involvement in the military deepened as he became the driving force behind the use of poisonous gases in the trenches, like those used on Canadian troops in Ypres. It is ironic that the inventor of a process that today keeps nearly half of the globe's population fed is also considered the father of modern chemical warfare. The irony of Fritz Haber's life is even more profound: he was Jewish and desperately wanted to make contributions to German society. While he was lauded in the years that followed World War I, the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s changed all that. Seeing that Jewish researchers were being fired from universities and government, Haber resigned his prominent position and left Germany for good in 1933, dying shortly after in Switzerland. Perhaps the greatest, and most tragic, irony is that the Nazis used Zyklon B—an offshoot of the pesticide research Haber had carried out—in concentration-camp gas chambers to kill Jews, including some of his relatives.

The Haber-Bosch process contributed to the rapid expansion of fertilizer production in the post–World War II era. Along with the use of pesticides, mechanization, irrigation, and new crop varieties, the increased availability of nitrogen has led to dramatic growth in agriculture yields. In 1913, when the first ammonia factory came online, the global population was about 1.4 billion. Today the global population has exceeded 7 billion. It is estimated that about 40–50 percent of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies have at some point been "fixed" over a metal catalyst in the Haber-Bosch process. In other words, almost half of the world's human population would likely not be alive without the Haber-Bosch process!

Increased food production arising from this chemical innovation has certainly led to "better living" for most citizens of the world. In nations where synthetic fertilizers are used in significant quantities, widespread food shortages and famines no longer occur. For this we should be deeply thankful.

Awe of the material world might not be sufficient for a proper use of chemistry, but its absence makes proper use impossible.

On the other hand, the rapidly increasing use of synthetic fertilizers does not lead exclusively to better living. In many underdeveloped nations, challenges in food distribution and access to fertilizers remain. And here in North America, the overabundance of cheap food has contributed to an obesity epidemic. There are also significant negative effects on the creation, as the global nitrogen cycle is being altered to the point where we have exceeded one of earth's key "planetary boundaries." There is a tendency to use an excess of fertilizer, and these excess nutrients end up in streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, where they cause unwanted algae blooms and deoxygenated "dead zones." Furthermore, soil bacteria can metabolize excess nitrogen fertilizers into nitrous oxide (N2O) gas, which enters the atmosphere and can cause depletion of the ozone layer, promotes warming of the atmosphere, and contributes to the formation of smog, which often plagues urban areas.

The Haber-Bosch process, and the increased agricultural output it has enabled, has dramatically shaped human culture over the past one hundred years. It will continue to be an indispensable element of twenty-first-century global human culture. Without it, the world as we know it, with 7 billion humans living on this planet, could not exist. There is no going back, especially since the population is projected to increase by at least another 2 billion over the next century. In the words of Vaclav Smil, humanity has "developed a profound chemical dependence."

Giving It Up for a Miracle Drug

Despite the technological progress of the early 1900s, there was one thing that people then shared with all of humanity that had come before them: they were nearly helpless in the face of bacterial infections. It was not uncommon for people prior to the 1930s to die from bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, or even from strep throat or infected cuts. The discovery of antibiotics changed all of that.

Some of the most dreaded bacterial diseases used to be those that were caused by Streptococcus bacteria. Strep bacteria are all around us: in dirt and dust, on our skin, and in our noses and throats. Although most strains are harmless, a few strains of strep can be deadly when they get into the wrong place such as beneath the skin or into the blood, often through a wound. During the 1920s, strep diseases in North America and Europe were estimated to kill 1.5 million people a year, including the teenage son of American president Calvin Coolidge, who in 1924 contracted a strep infection in his blood through a blister on his foot after playing tennis. He died within five days, and there was nothing the doctors at that time could do.

How should we be directing our creative energies as they apply to chemistry?

Inspired by the German physician Paul Ehrlich's observation in the early 1900s that certain dye molecules could selectively stain bacteria, chemists began searching for "magic bullet" molecules that were toxic to disease-causing bacteria but did not negatively affect the host organism. Over a period of nearly five years of persistent work, Gerhard Domagk and his team at the German company Bayer tested hundreds upon hundreds of new synthetic dye molecules for antibiotic properties. Remarkably, at times they were "producing every working day one new substance never before seen on earth." By the end of 1932, the 730th compound tested—a dark red dye molecule called "Prontosil Red"—was found to have remarkable action against strep bacteria in laboratory mice. The first person to be treated with this new antibiotic compound, long before it was fully tested, was Domagk's own daughter, who was desperately ill from a strep infection from a simple pinprick. Her recovery was fast and complete. In 1936, a strep infection threatened the life of another son of an American president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's son had a strep infection in his throat that developed an abscess, causing his throat to close. Prontosil Red was administered and Roosevelt's son recovered fully. Coolidge's son had died only twelve years earlier.

It was soon discovered that the active antibiotic agent was actually the relatively simple and inexpensive molecule sulfanilamide, one of the breakdown components of Prontosil Red in the human body. Chemists went on to design thousands of molecular variations of sulfanilamide to reduce side effects and improve treatment of specific diseases. These compounds, collectively referred to as sulfa drugs, were hailed as "wonder drugs and miracle cures" in the 1930s and 1940s, as previously untreatable diseases and infections could now be fully cured.

The alleviation of much death and suffering that these "miracle drugs" have provided is another gift that we should be thankful for. But it too has a dark side. Widespread use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which, in the worst-case scenario, may give rise to diseases we have no treatment for.

Bacteria occur in vast quantities, have short life cycles and rapid reproduction rates, and can easily share DNA, meaning that genetic mutations that confer antibiotic resistance can rapidly develop and be passed on to other strains of bacteria. Since the discovery of sulfa drugs, there has been a dynamic "chemical warfare" between humanity and the bacteria that cause disease. The issue of antibiotic resistance—sparked by over-prescription and misuse by patients, unnecessary use in home-cleaning and personal-care products, and extensive use in high-density livestock production—is listed by the World Health Organization as one of the three most important public health threats of the twenty-first century. Thomas Hager closes Demons Under the Microscope with an insightful comment that demonstrates the tension around this question of "better living through chemistry":

With the knowledge that comes through chemistry comes great responsibility to wield this power and authority with great care.

If sulfa, the first miracle medicine, shows anything, it is that there is really no such thing as a "miracle" in science. Every great drug discovery (and every modern technological advance) carries with it . . . two opposing qualities: one positive, healing and helpful; one negative, often unintended, sometimes deadly.

As these stories demonstrate, each chemical discovery also contains the possibility of new problems. Progress is never simple and not always miraculous.

Stewarding the Periodic Table

So where does that leave a chemist today? Does the Christian tradition have anything to offer chemists looking to make a better world through their vocation? What are the elements of chemical stewardship?

The first is a rediscovery of awe in the face of the material world. For a Christian and a chemist this implies an awe of God—an acknowledgement that the material world we study is God's creation and design. Matter is worthy of study simply because it is from God, it is designed by God, and it is deemed to be very good by God. One important aspect of chemistry is uncovering and discovering the creational laws of nature that God has put in place and sustains. As we learn more and more about the material world through the discipline of chemistry, a Christian should be moved to a sense of wonder and awe at God's elegant, ordered, yet mysterious design of matter. Awe of the material world might not be sufficient for a proper use of chemistry, but its absence makes proper use impossible.

Chemists also need to be humanists. Being a Christian and a chemist means recognizing that God has created human beings as his image bearers here on earth. He has not only given us the ability to investigate and understand his creation, but has actually tasked us to be creators, to make something of the material world he created. The enterprise of chemistry is so much more than just understanding the nature of matter. It also includes creating new forms of matter that have never existed before. Christians who work in the field of chemistry should express their God-given creativity in unfolding and developing the potential that lies within God's creation.

If the "better living" of the Du Pont slogan can be understood as a way of serving our neighbours and enhancing creation with care, then a Christian chemist has much to contribute.

And this leads to another important question that needs to be asked: What should we be creating? How should we be directing our creative energies as they apply to chemistry? With chemical knowledge of the material world comes a great deal of power, even mastery, over the creation. Through chemistry, we have gained the power to heal through medicines, but also the power to kill through explosives. We have gained the power to provide clean water, yet have the power to pollute our streams, lakes, and oceans. We have the power to convert air into fertilizer for food, yet have the power to pollute our atmosphere, causing smog, acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. With the knowledge that comes through chemistry comes great responsibility to wield this power and authority with great care, particularly for the Christian. God indeed calls humanity to fill the earth, to subdue it, to have dominion over the creatures of the earth (Genesis 1:26–28). However, all of this must be done in a way that serves and protects the creation, as we are called to "work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15). As Andy Crouch argues in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, power and authority are gifts from God that are to be used for the flourishing of people and the creation. If the "better living" of the Du Pont slogan can be understood as a way of serving our neighbours and enhancing creation with care, then a Christian chemist has much to contribute.

There is much potential to apply knowledge of chemistry to developing new technologies or refining existing technologies to fulfill needs for food, medicine, energy, and clean water in affordable and practical ways. Knowledge of chemistry can also serve creation itself: we can monitor and mitigate environmental pollution, design chemical processes that require less energy and produce less waste, develop new materials for more efficient energy use in buildings and transportation and so on.

If I had been at the World's Fair in 1964, I don't think I would have joined in singing wholeheartedly "Better things for better living through chemistry." But I might have just hummed and tapped my foot.


Darren Brouwer is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, Ontario where he teaches chemistry and environmental science, carries out research on developing new methods for structure determination of materials, works with students on monitoring water quality in local watersheds, and ponders the relationships between Christian faith, chemistry, culture making, and creation care. He has studied at Redeemer University College (B.C.S.), University of Guelph (B.Sc.), University of British Columbia (Ph.D.), and Regent College and has held research positions at the University of Southampton and the National Research Council of Canada. He and his wife Jessica live in downtown Hamilton with their three children who are learning to love birds, books, and bicycles.