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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Column: Make science, not war

Sometimes, buried in the wreckage of blood and hate, you find that violence has a bright side.

An example: Soldiers during the Civil War told stories about the piles of rotting limbs outside hospitals. Doctors at the time saw thousands of men with mutilated arms and legs and had no choice but to whip out the bone saw and start cutting.

“They ended up hacking off lots and lots of limbs,” said UC Davis history professor Ari Kelman.

For the Union side alone, historical records place the numbers of amputations at 30,000. One reason for this huge number was the development of rifled shotguns. The new guns had ridges in the barrel that improved aim by sending the bullets spiraling out. The bullets moved steadily enough to hit a target, but still slow enough to cause terrible damage to a human body.

“When [a bullet] strikes the person, it has the tendency to just sort of explode,” Kelman said. “A lot of these wounds are catastrophic and the only thing to do is amputate.”

Off the battlefield came a huge population America had never seen before: thousands of young men missing limbs.

“In the wake of the [Civil] war there’s a booming trade for prostheses,” Kelman said.

Artificial limbs at the time were very crude: picture simple hooks and peg-legs. But the demand for prostheses led to improvements in the field. Today, soldiers wounded overseas, as well as civilians in car crashes or construction accidents, can receive high-tech prostheses. The technology isn’t perfect, but thanks to pressure from the war-wounded, science has advanced.

Wars are terrible, brutal things. But out of the horrors of war, we’ve seen some amazing scientific progress. We can deal with soldiers dying for our freedom, but what if they die for our science?

Back in the 1930s, scientists knew that penicillin could cure bacterial infections, but the strains of the penicillium fungi they worked with were too weak to do much good. One scientist had luck applying penicillin directly into patients’ infected eyes, but getting the weak serum to work internally seemed futile.

Then came World War II. Soldiers were dying from infected wounds, and the call went out for a more powerful strain of penicillium. In 1943, scientists got their hands on a strain of penicillium found on a moldy cantaloupe from a market in Illinois. This strain was more potent than any other strain found worldwide, and researchers could finally start mass production of penicillin.

By the time Allied forces invaded Normandy in 1944, the U.S. had 2.3 million doses of penicillin. Since then, the medicine has saved countless soldiers from dying of non-fatal injuries. It’s also saved countless college students from bouts of strep throat.

There’s nothing surprising about inventions during war that make it easier to kill people; the rifled shotgun and the atomic bomb are not inventions we should be proud of. But penicillin is a miracle born during wartime.

Another example: Submarines were built for war, but now they aid in deep-sea geological, biological and archaeological research.

I feel weird saying I hate war when I can’t hate everything about it.

I wrote a news article last week about an aluminum alloy developed by UC Davis scientists. The alloy is 30 percent more effective against projectiles, and the U.S. Army and Navy are hoping to use it for construction of armored vehicles. I asked Julie Schoenung, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis, what she thought of her research being used in war.

She explained that the U.S. military has very strict standard for materials. If you’re a materials scientist, the most challenging research is often for the military.

And – like with artificial limbs – the alloy has peacetime uses too. Scientists are considering using it in hip replacements or NASA’s rocket engines. Without the “war on terror,” the alloy might never have been invented.

“War shakes society up, and in the turmoil you often see new ideas,” said Kelman. “It can provide a kind of innovative spark that can change the technological landscape.”

Kelman doesn’t think the trade-off between war and scientific advancement is worth it.

War is a great motivator. Government spending on science goes up during wars, and yes, they should always work to help our troops survive. But should I feel guilty for later reaping the hard-won benefits of inventions like penicillin drugs?

I wish I had an answer – a more concrete conclusion – than saying that at least we can find a bright side to the carnage.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT hopes you’ll read the guest science opinion next week by writer Hudson Lofchie. E-mail Madeline at science@theaggie.org.

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