Monday, September 16, 2013

This week's C&EN

Couple of interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:
  • This Sarah Everts piece on chemistry in Nazi Germany is pretty remarkable; I wonder what a similar analysis of American Chemical Society actions during World War 2 or the McCarthy Era or the early Reagan years would produce... (trying to think of similar 'interesting times' in America, not drawing a parallel.)
  • Looks like the helium crisis is getting pretty dire because of Congressional inaction. I don't have much hope here. (article by Andrea Widener)
  • Rick Mullin has an interesting comment on the 'echo chamber' problem in science communication, including this quote: "Bloggers I have spoken with agree that even the good science blogs tend to be echo chambers, read largely by like-minded scientists."

9 comments:

  1. No, i'm sure when most people think about the rise of Nazi Germany the first thing that comes to mind is the election of Ronald Reagan.

    For a guy who always claims to be not political i'm a little surprised at you, CJ.

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    1. I actually regard Reagan with quite a bit of fondness (now I've turned off both political sides!).

      I'll tell you what I was thinking:

      Everts' article is about the actions of the German Chemical Society during the Nazi years (times of great turmoil.) They appear to have responded to overt/passive political pressure with purges of membership and the like.

      I think it would be interesting to see:

      1) What were the actions of the ACS to respond to the war effort? Were there any political missteps?
      2) Were there McCarthy-era purges of the ACS? (For that matter, were there efforts on the part of Soviet sympathizers to integrate themselves into American scientific societies?)
      3) I think you and I could agree that Reagan's early 80s rhetoric and actions were designed to counter the Soviet Union. What was the ACS' response to Reagan's actions/rhetoric? Did they go for nuclear disarmament? What was the ACS internal debate on SDI?

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    2. Re: “For that matter, were there efforts on the part of Soviet sympathizers to integrate themselves into American scientific societies?”

      I’m sure there were many, but one of the most profound may have been chemist Harry Gold, who served as a courier for at least two Soviet spy rings separately involving Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass. When the FBI interrogated Gold in 1947, he told them a story about meeting a John Golos at an American Chemical Society meeting in 1940/41, ostensibly to discuss various chemical engineering processes (Gold was working at the Pennsylvania Sugar Company and likely was engaged in industrial espionage as well).

      Jacob/John Golos was a Soviet operative and the meeting may have been in connection with Gold’s activation as a courier. More detail can be found in ‘The Invisible Harry Gold’ by Allen Hornblum (2010).

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    3. Fair enough. I have vaguely positive memories of the guy as well. Or at least i don't think of him as an American Nazi, or think the 80s were so reactionary.

      As for your questions, all i can suppose is that the chemical industry used to be a relatively conservative profession, as was the chemical academy (at least up through the 60s). So, lots of go along to get along type attitudes. But there might be some interesting stories in there, as (second anon) describes.

      btw, did you read the article in a recent New Yorker about the Hays Code office and how it squashed Hollywood's attempts to do anti-Nazi films?

      --(first anon)

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    4. 1st anon: Glad (I think) you're understanding where I was coming from. I didn't intend to troll anyone.

      I did indeed hear about that story, but I think it was either on "All Things Considered" or "On the Media." A very weird story.

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    5. Yep, it was OTM: http://www.onthemedia.org/story/316688-collaboration/transcript/

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  2. Second anon back again:

    Yes, here's a radio interview of Hornblum on the topic of Gold:

    http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2010/12/09/8952/

    There are others as well--interesting stories all.

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  3. For a chemist’s viewpoint inside the IG Farben Buna/Monowitz synthetic rubber plant at Auschwitz - the Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi wrote about his year in the concentration camp, part of which was spent working in a lab at the factory. He actually had to interview for his forced labor job in the lab! IIRC, he was quizzed about the contents of some German text that was used at his Italian university, where he earned a masters degree. This is all described in his book 'Survival in Auschwitz'.

    I do recall him writing that the plant did not produce even one kilogram of rubber throughout the entire war. Using slave labor apparently did not make for a productive plant.

    I have to say the C & E News is pretty forthright, and honest about the IG Farben/Bayer involvement in the Third Reich. It reminded me of the book Bayer produced back in the late 1990s, to celebrate the history of the company, a copy of which was generously given to our company library. When the book comes to 1933, it literally skips the next 12 years. Suddenly, it’s 1946, and all’s sunny again. And no mention of that Auschwitz plant, either.

    As for my fellow American chemists – I definitely know some who would have participated in a Nazi-like scheme, if it meant furthering their careers. We all know the type. Using forced labor, getting rid of your colleagues, turning a blind eye to atrocities – these individuals would have no problems, whatsoever. They would sleep well at night.

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  4. The Oregon State University Library’s web site has a narrative about Linus Pauling’s experiences in the peace movement.
    “His [Pauling’s] brand of politics -- a mix of socialism, pacifism, liberalism, human rights promotion, and support for world government -- was decidly out of step with mainstream sentiment in America during what became known as the McCarthy Era, a time of anti-Communism, loyalty oaths, and public fear leveraged by politicians.”
    Link: http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/pauling/peace/narrative/page1.html

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