The Chemistry of Objects
Metal Canister. Discovered at Majdanek, 1944.
The casual observer may, at first glance, mistake the canister behind the glass for a dented coffee can. The label is almost entirely gone, the faded gold paper clinging in shreds to the flaking, rusted metal. But if the visitor looks closely at the largest shred they may make out a group of small black letters, gone indigo with age and sun. Giftgas! the letters shout. How funny it sounds, like a children’s party favor. How exciting! A handful of bright plastic packets. Laughing gas tied off with curled satin ribbons.
But the letters do not shout in English, and the contents of the canister were never meant to be merry. The word is German. The English translation: poison gas. This can is not a coffee can, and it has never contained beans or laughing gas or party favors; it has instead poured pellets of gas into sealed chambers through special vents, smothering those inside. Polish Jews who’d never seen the sea, drowned in their own blood.
Grecian urn engraved with images of the Siege of Kirrha, circa 590 B.C.
The history of chemistry starts with a greed for gold. But soon after greed comes process, then order, then method, and the method improves over time. Paracelsus, Boyle, Lavoisier, Dalton—they demand rigor and develop theory. And as they mix and measure and observe reactions—the making and breaking of chemical bonds—it is not alchemy, not magic and spells and incantations, but chemistry. Hard, precise work, in the service of something more.
There is also a parallel history, its stain spreading in the shadow of chemistry. It begins in earnest with alchemy, but really, has always bedded down with war. Chinese writings from 1000 B.C. describe a “soul-hunting fog” filled with arsenic. In the West, there is the poisoning of wells—first by the Greeks, then by the Germanic tribes at war with the Romans. To this last, the Romans respond nobly, armis bella non venenis geri. War is fought with weapons, not with poisons. Which would be admirable prose but for the Romans’ own tainting of enemy wells in Anatolia.
Rediscovered along with alchemy, chemical warfare is chemistry’s hideous offspring, locked away in the attic until its grotesqueries are required. Leonardo DaVinci proposes making a powder of chalk, sulfide of arsenic, and verdigris. He recommends launching the powder at enemy ships with projectiles, in order to asphyxiate those on board.
In 1854, a British chemist suggests the use of chlorine-filled shells to end the siege of Sevastopol. He is roundly rebuked by the British Ordnance Department for bad form, but simply shrugs. No doubt in time, he says, chemistry will be used to lessen the suffering of combatants. No doubt in time.
Like Frankenstein, we become dangerous makers. Our hearts lean toward what burns in nature, and whether for pleasure or profit, through accident or malice, we create best what kills best. And try as we might, we cannot seem to climb out of this paradox. We are monkeys with test tubes, apes at the evolutionary table. The big brains.
9 mm Luger pistol, manufactured 1911 in Germany.
It is 1915, and the couple is arguing. He is quick, canny, but also by turns saturnine; he can sink faulty logic with a single dry shot. He is a well-known wit, respected in the scientific community: a brilliant, brainy chemist.
Then again, so is she. And she is turning his arguments inside out, spreading their guts on the dining room table and picking them carefully apart. He says he has discovered a way to end the war. She raises an eyebrow. He says he wants peace, only peace—but he is also a good Prussian nationalist, and he loves his country. And he loves his country winning.
Ach, Fritz, she says. It goes against everything, everything we do. She is a pacifist, a romantic idealist; when emotional she becomes raw energy bubbling over. It’s immoral, she says. It’s inhuman. She says everything she can think of, everything to win the argument.
But she has already lost. His resolve is hardened toward the weapons of war. And so in the spring of 1915, he will put his idea into practice and release chlorine gas from pressurized cylinders at Ypres, allowing the wind to carry it over the enemy’s trenches. French and Algerian boys will watch the creeping gas cloud, green and sulfurous, surprised like anything as they begin to choke on their own breath.
He will be pleased with his success.
That night, her neurons will refuse to stop firing, refuse to stop etching a Mobius strip of dying men across the inside of her eyelids. She will not find relief or release from all that blood, until she remembers his army pistol: a blunt instrument, and a simple answer to the series of complex processes that add up to her.
Standing alone in the garden, she will use classical mechanics to combat chemistry, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion—until it meets bone and flesh and a critical mass of muscle. Or to put it another way: a bullet will travel along a certain path at a certain velocity, propelled by a striking device and a firing pin. When it reaches the heart it will not stop but merely slow as it plows through tissue, disconnects nerves and stifles breath and life. It will be an elegant victory, if a somewhat messy execution. A jagged exclamation point at the end of the last argument.