Miracle Makers





By 1910 Wilbur and Orville Wright were well-beyond their historic flight trials at Kitty Hawk. In the seven years since flying their homemade aeroplane 850 feet across the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the brothers had risen infinitely higher in the public esteem, becoming the first international celebrities of the 20th century and the lavished guests of kings, princes, presidents and millionaires alike. With little financial means and no formal scientific education, the two bike makers from Ohio had achieved the unachievable: manned, motor-propelled flight. Now it was time to bank some coin.

Realizing the money that could be made in military contracts, the brothers negotiated terms with the US Army and a syndicate of European financers. While Wilbur trained Italian military pilots in Rome and struck deals with German manufactures, Orville flew demonstrations for generals and statesmen near Washington DC. Every breathless, exhilarated bigwig agreed: the Wright flying machine was a miracle. Just a glimpse of what was in store for the children of men.

By World War I the practical aircraft, not even ten years old, was sporting all sorts of decimation doodads. Unseasoned young aviators who’d never driven a car now piloted God’s free air in rattletrap biplanes, strafing enemy soldiers, dumping ordnance. By the second Great War aerial fleets were dripping various forms of death with unparalleled efficacy. Thermite. Jellied gasoline. Magnesium. Annihilation by blast, by vacuum pressure, by earth shock and chemical.

“Before the Wright Brothers no one working in aviation did anything fundamentally correct,” wrote one service member of Kitty Hawk National Park. “Since the Wright Brothers no one has done anything fundamentally different.”

Like so many miracle makers before them, the Wrights proved there was nothing the human genius could not dream. Only the scale and ingenuity to which that dream might be used against humanity – only that, consistently and inevitably, evaded the brightest imaginations.

The critical glitch with mankind, suggests the Law of Unintended Consequences, is that it cannot advance itself without simultaneously accelerating the flow toward its own destruction. Every step out of the cave shadows is a leap toward oblivion.

No advancement in warfare, no matter how horrifying, ever weaned civilization off of war. But Doctor Gatling had a hunch.

One day at the onset of the Civil War it occurred to him that the incogitable horror of military combat was in direct proportion to the size of the forces involved. The more soldiers sent into battle, the greater abundance of mass graves, diseased wounded, and piles of sawed-off flesh. What the sick and violent world needed, Gatling reckoned, was a weapon so hellish in capacity, so certain to produce vast sums of human waste, that no commander with a pennyweight of tactical sense would dare commit an army against it.

In the years leading up to the war Gatling had patented a steam-powered tractor, a cotton plant cultivator, and a series of rubber washers to keep machine gears tight and running. At the core of his best efforts blazed a fixation with productivity. Now, stimulated by the thought of boundless death tolls, his inventive genius conjured an image of six rifled gun barrels spinning around a central axis, spewing lead at a blistering rate. The new firearm would automatically reload cartridges, have the range and accuracy of the trusty rifle, and would rain so many bullets, so torrentially, that entire regiments would burst into puddles as soon as they got within sight. Surely such a nightmare technology, once perfected and beheld, would only enlarge the pale of universal fraternity. Every race awakened to the futility of war.

Within ten years of hitting the scene, Gatling’s death-dealing super gun was fueling Darwinian bloodletting all over the globe. Colonizing empires seeking a toehold, titanic industries searching for markets – every rich and cultivated power with a crude interpretation of “survival of the fittest” jumped at the chance to implement a tool that could mow down a mob of savages while saving on labor. With a handful of Gatlings, a mere corps of infantrymen could snatch a thousand miles of land and fast-track the expansion of the western race. They could wipe clean the untamed frontier of wigwams and powwows, shatter the objection of all its First Nations, or blast into oblivion the sovereignty and dominion of the African kingdoms. Among the paleo foes treated to some Gatling music were the Dakota, the Cree, the Shoshone and Ashanti. At the battle of Ulundi, as British infantry closed in on the royal capital, the defiant Zulu took up their hide shields and hardwood spears, swept forth across the grassy plain, and were shredded by the hundreds in a matter of minutes. One on top of two, two on top of three. Heaped and piled like threshed wheat.

Once it was the civilized world that could hardly defend itself against the “poor and barbarous races,” noted one popular history of science. Now it was the poor and barbarous who were “everywhere at the mercy” of the imperialist drive. For those on the wrong side of this social development, Gatling’s dream had come to pass. The gun had opened their minds to the futility of war.

 It was 1966, the height of the Cold War, and a prominent Yale physiologist had just drafted a blunt, imploring letter to President Johnson. His name was Arthur Galston, and he liked plants.

He liked them so much, in fact, that he had devoted the full reach of his prodigious curiosity to uncovering every bio-miraculous secret they possessed. He yearned to know how plants grew, how they reproduced, why they thrived and died and stretched toward the faintest shafts of light. Everything imperceptible about them, all that was imperfectly known, tantalized and provoked.

A few decades earlier a new type of agriculture, soybean farming, had exploded in the United States. With the dawn of World War II had come the need for vegetable oil extracts that could lube the Allied war machines in their respective theatres. Galston, then a graduate student, was inspired. For his PhD thesis he discovered the chemical means to make the soybean fruit and flower faster than normal. Applied judiciously, the compound increased the number of buds and harvestable pods. At higher concentrations, it did something quite different.

Galston observed that when applied excessively the chemical became a veritable touch of death. Fresh leaves rotted and shriveled. Floral buds fell off the stalk. In providing farmerkind with a fantastic agricultural tool, the young plant lover had serendipitously discovered a most sinister defoliant. And he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Shortly thereafter the US Army got their lab gloves on Galston’s research. Using his compound as a model, they analyzed all its death-promoting properties, then mated it with another chemical to produce an even stronger, more effective herbicide – one that had particular applications in the densely overgrown jungles of Vietnam.

For as long as warfare had been around, overmatched nations had used the cover of wilderness to move supplies, launch ambushes, and level the odds against elite invaders. Now the most elite of all invaders had the antidote. With painstaking secrecy the almighty US government set out to eradicate every tree, bush and mangrove that stood between it and surefire knowledge of Viet Cong activity. Thousands of 55-gallon barrels, containing 45 million liters of poison, rolled weekly into southern Vietnam, each canister painted with a coded orange stripe to distinguish it from the other botanical death potions. To ecologists and humanitarians, it was a toxin to weep about. To soldiers in the field, it was simply Agent Orange.

Upon learning that his compound was a key ingredient in a colossal defoliation campaign, a disgusted Galston gathered the signatures of America’s topmost biologists and fired off a petition to the Johnson administration. He informed the nation’s officialdom that Agent Orange was laden with trace contaminates of dioxin, the deadliest substance known to science, and that the mass dispersal of herbicidal agents would bring about a cultural disruption of catastrophic endurance. Destruction of forests meant destruction of exportable timber. Prolonged chemical strikes meant prolonged toxification of soils and extensive nutrient dumping into water systems. As for any military advantage, the elimination of upperstory foliage to expose hidden enemy trails would in fact only transform the concealment problem. With more access to light, thick stands of bamboo – impervious to herbicides and just as congenial to screening guerrilla activity – would spread unabated and neutralize tactical gain. And all this was to say nothing of the wholesale famine and displacement that would arise from the killing of rice crops, the contamination of fish and crustaceans, and the forced migration of starving locals to relocation centers. Any way one looked at it, every living thing was cooked, Galston explained. It was the typical protest of a remorseful genius. Deftly argued, factually grounded, and much too late.

Throughout his life Galston did everything in his power of inquiry to make the world a more bioethical place. From his fertile mind had sprung a queen’s garden of breakthrough conclusions about protoplasts, polyamines, plant hormones and molecular physiology, and for these contributions he’d received a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and a place in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His human performance had been exquisite. Yet in the end it was only those lethal drums with the bright orange stripe that anyone remembered. Six years after his futile letter to the White House – with the soils of Vietnam sick with impurities, with great swathes of habitat despoiled of their vegetational splendor and reduced to fields of ashen sticks, with millions of acres desecrated or destroyed, and with generations of skin diseases, stillbirths, fetal malformations and mental retardation yet to come – Galston published a brief case history of the fallout of his discovery.

“I used to think that one could avoid involvement in the antisocial consequences of science simply by not working on any project that might be turned to evil or destructive ends,” the paper began. “I have learned that things are not that simple.”

How does it happen? How do these immense and visionary minds – whose force and range reshape our world, whose keenness of insight subverts the dogma of quackery and tyranny of superstition, whose knowledge of the higher laws of nature elevate the common understanding beyond feudal ideology, and whose profound acquaintance with the universe exemplifies all that may be fathomed in a lifetime but seldom or never is – how does such brilliance fail to foresee the misuse of its discoveries, the perversion of its genius? The most obvious of inevitabilities.

To Galston, the evolution of inhumanity was a history of intellectual talent eschewing social involvement, of great brains being too preoccupied, too averse to political controversy, or too optimistic that others, better trained to lead crusades, would handle humanitarian problems. In every age of dramatic change there’d been groundbreakers like him. Inventors and scientists for whom discovery had been the one and holy thing, who’d hermetically sealed themselves in laboratories or workshops, apart from philosophical entanglements, and lunged headlong into their projects, supposing little of their social responsibility but to produce a definitive scientific advancement.

Yet even Galston, who would spend three-quarters of his life ruing the abuse of his research, stopped short of invoking a moral imperative. No innovation, however ethically benign, was guaranteed to benefit mankind. That wasn’t the fault of innovators. 

Could one truly forbid a gifted mind from desiring to understand and improve everything which surrounded it? Could anyone really blame it?

In the late-1930s the Nazis had a problem. Nobody liked them. 

That fact alone wasn’t a big deal. You couldn’t build a master race without burning a few bridges. But global unpopularity came with some consequence. The heftiest, perhaps, was that no one wanted to feed you.

The solution, Nazi ministries decided, was self-sufficiency – eliminating Germany’s reliance on imported food. To do so, several things were needed. More arable land (a few invasions would fix that); more crop surplus (starving conquered territories would do the trick); and better production methods. Things like irrigation, propagation, pest control.

When it came to killing leaf lice or slaying the mighty wooly aphid, the Germans knew just the guy: Dr. Gerhard Schrader. Schrader’s passion for chemistry had evolved from a poignant disdain for civilization’s most unsolvable problem: hunger. It was toward the eradication of this ageless scourge and the tiny sap-sucking insects that perpetuated it that he had diverted his scientific talent. But devising a poison that could devastate creepy-crawlies without harming the higher order of mammals was tricky business. Initial experiments with traditional fumigants were insufficient. Lice and weevils perished, but not with the totality the Third Reich desired. Eager for better results, Schrader cranked it up a chemical notch. He tinkered with cyanide and phosphorus, created a substance that trapped an organism’s nerve cells in a state of maximum overdrive, then tested the solution on a colony of leaf lice. Within a minute every last louse was belly-up and gyrating, dying a spasming death. Into existence had come sarin gas.

The production of chemical poisons was an emphatic Hell no! under the Treaty of Versailles. Then again, Schrader reasoned, this wasn’t a battlefield toxin. This was a gift to agriculture – to every German farmer whose grain was getting ravaged by weevils, and to all the gaunt masses beyond Germany who perennially lost tons of harvest to the mandibles of greedy vermin. His conscience subdued, Schrader sent a sample of the fumigant to his superiors in Berlin, who promptly had another idea. Placing healthy apes in gas-tight inhalation chambers, Nazi researchers observed as mere vapors of Schrader’s poison provoked a violent torment within. The apes thrashed against the walls, vomited on their chests, urinated mindlessly, choked on their mucus and froth, and writhed in racking abdominal pain – all before slipping into seizure and dying of respiratory collapse.

When Schrader learned about the tests a crushing disappointment overtook him. There was only one reason to experiment on man’s closest biological comparison. His nerve agent would never be used for agriculture. It would be stuffed into munitions and launched at civilians in the enemy’s homeland. Or pumped into brick basements packed with POWs. In the future, when rockets traveled thousands of miles and carried hundreds of bomblets, purebred fanatics would deploy the toxin on communities of ethnic undesirables, while disciples of hate and terror released it into public spaces buzzing with commuters. Like the wretched apes the people would thrash and vomit, choke and shit, and succumb to quaking death throes as low moans of anguish trickled from their burning lungs. Ghouta, Halabja, Tokyo – Schrader saw it all. A new era of extermination that would go above and beyond the simple slaughter of bullets.

At the end of World War II, Allied intelligence tracked Schrader down and brought him in for questioning. Investigators prepared for a lengthy interrogation and some classic German stonewalling. Instead, a contrite Schrader told them everything. He talked about the origins of his research, his desire to protect crops and improve nutrition; he described the discovery of his poison and recalled the sacrificial apes. And he confessed something else. Early in his research a lone drop of trial solution spilled in the lab and constricted his pupils to the size of pinheads, filled his head with razor pain, and blocked the air from his lungs. It was a trace exposure that would hospitalize him for three weeks and nearly take his life. Yet even then, ravaged by his own discovery, directly touched by its terrible power, he did not experience a moment’s hesitation. Only the intrigue of unexpected results, the thrill of research evolving. An eagerness to get back to work. 

At the turn of the twentieth century Germany’s two largest pharmaceutical concerns, Bayer and Merck, were duking it out in the realm of therapeutic compounds. The folks at Bayer had just landed a critical blow, patenting a nifty hemostatic medicine that stagnated abnormal bleeding. Looking to counterpunch, Merck turned to 23-year-old chemist Anton Köllisch. His mission? To synthetize a sufficiently distinct clotting agent that sidestepped Bayer’s existing patent. The result was an analog every bit the equal of their rival’s drug – with one issue of note. Of the several chemical intermediates that made up the new substance, one of them happened to be MDMA.

In Köllisch’s lifetime MDMA never evoked a wisp of interest. It wasn’t even given a name in the patent specification. By all appearances it was simply a derivative of the initial material – a substance that had formed before the desired substance. Half a century would pass before its toxicology was revisited, its psychotropic effects detected, and its chemistry re-synthesized, crammed into tablets, and abused by the thousands. By then Köllisch was long gone. Killed in World War I after trading his lab coat for a German uniform.

Today, Anton Köllisch is a footnote in medical literature: an obscure young wunderkind about whom almost nothing is known, not even the date of his death. The few details that exist suggest a man disposed to pushing boundaries and desiring of important work; a man who, when he was lucky enough to find such work, committed his mind to doing exactly what it’d been uniquely endowed to do: break ground. His life predated nearly every marvel and device we know today. He was dead before computers, before refrigerators, before garbage bags with drawstrings. To think that he could have imagined a culture of sex-clad ravers piled into urban basements, swaying liquid-like to electronic ambiance, so insensibly euphoric, so crazed for touch and sound and light and love that they lost the urge to rest or drink, the sense of their own deadly overheating – to envision all of that deriving from a nameless intermediate? Impossible. No mind, no matter how gifted, could fathom such fantastic consequence.

For the plain and needful multitudes, as we are guided (as we must be) further from the cave shadows, we can only ask our ushers to broaden their vision darkly at that moment of breakthrough: to envisage the foulest savageries, the blackest perversions, and for one dutiful moment, at least, give thought to the unmade future that will surely reach back to their triumph and twist what it takes.

As a child, like most American children, I leaned the legend of Albert Einstein. A mind as rich and magical as any the world had previously known. Conceived within his intellect, I was taught, were feats of thinking so exceptional that they changed our understanding of creation and illuminated the universe on the largest of scales. From the mysteries of time, to the secrets of gravity, to the push and pull of space itself.

I learned about Einstein’s mind, how it worked, how it was able to take conundrums of extreme complexity and turn them into precise visual parables. When the principles of relativity didn’t jive with the laws of light and magnetism, Einstein imagined a solitary man standing upon a railway platform. Then he conjured a pair of lightning bolts striking on either side of the man simultaneously, their brilliant flash waves reaching the man’s eyes at the same moment. At that very instant he visualized a passing train traveling at the speed of light, and on that train a lone passenger – a beautiful woman dressed in fine clothes – gazing out upon the man just as the lighting crashed. As the white-hot flash waves travelled out from each strike, Einstein envisioned the train moving toward one and away from the other. And he imagined, in a kind of cinematic slow-motion, the flash wave from the front strike reaching the woman first. Two figures observing the same event at the same instant: one in motion, the other standing still. Time elapsing for the first but not for the second. A daydream that gave birth to special relativity.

Across his life Einstein imagined dozens of thought experiments just like that. From these experiments came profound new theories on the equivalence of gravity and acceleration, the warping of time and space, plus a singular mathematical sentence – energy equals mass times the speed of light squared – that changed everything forever. Mass, Einstein reasoned, was really just congealed energy. And it was this basic but pivotal fact that inspired other exceptional minds to probe how that energy could be amplified and harnessed and converted into a force of supreme reckoning. In time the new science was turned into a top-secret project. It was stuffed into a pair of radioactive bombs, then heaved upon the cities of an American enemy. One after another the atoms inside the bomb split into fragments. The fragments smashed into more atoms, which fragmented in the same way. Each fissioning particle releasing its terrible energy until, at last, that unspeakable kaboom, that vaporizing flash. The galloping sphere of shock and fire.  

Some years later, when informed of his role in the heritage of atomic obliteration, a startled Einstein would struggle to comprehend. All his life he had seen through the thickest veils of existence. But never, not once, had he imagined anything like that.

“Is it so?” he simply replied. Meekly, mournfully, astonished.

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