Science can catapult humanity forwards by leaps and bounds. Other times, it can be the worst thing that can happen to us. The invention of nuclear fission can power entire countries, but nuclear bombs can flatten cities.
Thomas Midgley JR was a scientist that worked in Charles Kettering’s Lab in Dayton, Ohio. He searched for years to find an additive to fuel to prevent engine knocking. After working his way through the periodic table, he settled on using tetraethyl lead.
Now, one hundred years later, there’s a reason we don’t add lead to gasoline – lead poisoning kills people. It took sixty years before leaded gasoline was outlawed in America. Sixty years of pollution and poisonings before we realized the health hazards that came with no-knocking engines.
Midgley didn’t stop there. Early refrigeration units used bad-smelling chemicals like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. After heading back to the periodic table, Midgley invented dichloroflouromethane – the first of the Freons.
Freons, unlike leaded gas, aren’t toxic – at least to humans. We used them for years in refrigeration, air conditions, even aerosols. Dichloroflouromethane – or CFC’s, as they came to be known as – seemed to be a great invention. Then we discovered that CFC’s destroy our Ozone layer. The health of our globe depended upon a global ban of CFC’s. Now they’ve been replaced by chlorine-free additives.
Unfortunately, Midgley’s last invention was a bit more personal. After contracting polio at the age of 51, he lost the use of his legs. He invented a contraption that helped him get himself out of bed.
It strangled him.
Science and innovation are utterly indifferent to good intentions. Midgley only wanted to invent things that made life easier and more comfortable for everyday Americans, yet he single-handedly caused more harm to our health and environment than possibly any other scientist. Modern scientists must be aware of possible side-effects of their research. Agent Orange was meant to be a harmless defoliant, and instead caused thousands of cases of cancer, birth defects, and other diseases. We are not immune from the cost of our hubris.
- Jennifer Brees