Science History and Schadenfreude: A Polluting Scientist Gets His Comeuppance

This is really random, but I just finished Chapter 10 in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a wonderfully educational and entertaining science book that explains the universe from the beginning for laypeople to understand and build their scientic appreciation, understanding, and curiousity.

Learning about particle physics (the topic of Chapter 10) could get a little dry, but Bryson makes it fascinating and mind-blowing. Enter Thomas Midgley. The New Scientist describes him as a “one man environmental disaster.”

Back in the 1920’s he invented tetraethyl lead (TEL), which ended up in all sorts of products, not just leaded gas. TEL was used in toothpaste tubes, tin can soldering, and paint to name a few everyday items. Lead being a neurotoxin, employees in his factories were getting sick and dying. He covered it up, even after suffering from lead poisoning himself. He stayed away from his own invention except to demonstrate how “safe” it was to the media. He did that by pouring leaded gasoline on his hands and breathing in vapors from a beaker for 60 seconds. Great guy.

Not to be outdone by himself, he then went on to invent cholorofluorcarbons (CFCs), or Freon. You know, those chemicals now known to create holes in the ozone layer.

Midgley’s inventions have inspired articles such as Interesting Engineering’s “Thomas Midgley Jr.: The Man Who Harmed the World the Most:

With his inventions, Thomas Midgley Jr. contributed to the poisoning of three generations of children, increased the risk of skin cancer and other skin problems related to exposure to UV rays, and contributed greatly to global warming.

Thankfully for the planet, Midgley died at the age of 55 in the most ironic fashion. He had developed polio and designed a system of ropes and pullies to help get himself out of bed. He accidentally strangled himself with his own invention.

If you’d like to read more, the History Channel also has an article about Midgley.

Strangely, Amazon doesn’t carry the Special Illustrated Edition that I am reading, which is fine, because I like the idea of supporting independent booksellers anyway, which is what Alibris does.

Published in 2004, there are a few discoveries that have been made since, so Bryson’s book is not as accurate as it could be, but pretty darn close. One example is when discusses the Higgs-Boson particle which, at the time of publication, was merely theorized and the search was on. They were not sure it existed. Now we know it does, and was discovered in 2014 at CERN.

With such beautiful images A Short History of Nearly Everything, is worth the purchase. This book is a keeper.


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