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Alas, the nerve agent sarin is in the news these days.  German chemists invented it in 1938, and it was named after the team who did so: Schrader, Ambros, Ritter and van der Linde.  The Nazis soon began producing it for use as a weapon, but they made at most 10 ten tons of it... which is a lot, but nothing compared to the roughly 20,000 tons of another nerve agent they manufactured, called tabun.

The Nazis never got around to using sarin on Allied troops.  In the 1950s, NATO started making it.  Ambros, who had been convicted as a war criminal, served only half his sentence: in 1951 he was released in order to help the US Army develop its own chemical weapons program.

In 1953, a 20-year-old engineer named Ronald Maddison died during human testing of sarin at a chemical warfare testing facility in England.  

In 1988, Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 Kurds with sarin, and used it four times in his war with Iran.  In 1993 it was banned by the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.  In 1994 and 1995, the Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo killed 21 people with it, and injured hundreds more, in two separate incidents.  And on August 21 of this year, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people were killed with sarin in Syria.

What is this horrible substance, and how does it work?

The black balls in this picture are carbon atoms.  The white ones are hydrogen.  The two red ones are oxygen, the orange one is phosphorus, and the yellow-green one is fluorine. 

Sarin gets into your synapses and prevents acetylcholinesterase from getting rid of acetylcholine... so your nerves keep sending the same signal.    70 milligrams per cubic meter of air can kill you in a minute.  First you get a runny nose, tightness in the chest, and constriction of the pupils.  Then come vomiting and uncontollable defecation and urination.  Then you twitch and jerk.  Then you go into a coma and suffocate in a series of convulsive spasms.

If someone gives you atropine and pralidoxime really quickly, you might avoid this fate.

Raina R.'s profile photocarlo rovelli's profile photoJohn Baez's profile photoDeen Abiola's profile photo
I remember practicing using dummy Atropin injectors during ABC training in boot camp.  It was an unpleasant concept.  No color or smell to warn you, if I remember correctly. Just the thought of it makes me shudder.
Why do people get so upset about the use of gas to kill people though and not other weapons? 
The main thing that's prevented the use of chemical weapons really is the difficulty in delivering it. The Aum cult is a good example: they had money and resources, planning time, and in-house experts; and they were targeting an enclosed underground subway system with very dense population. Still, they managed to kill "only" 13 people in all. It's a pretty good guess that had the five cult members simply carried bags with explosives instead they'd have killed and seriously injured many more than they actually did.
+Tony Bonavera - I guess it is the concept that scare us.  You can illogically rationalize away the risk of bullets and grenades by thinking you are able to hide and being able to see mines and tripwires, but something that spreads without sound, without taste or smell, and is invisible - and - most importantly - which can be in the air you need to breathe to live... I guess it is the terror of not being "in control" that upsets us.
Greg S
I think it's the completely untargeted effect it has, combined with how it kills - with guns, bombs, etc. you can at least feel that you were targeting someone's military agents, and the bullet or explosion quickly and relatively painlessly eliminated them, while chemical weapons basically kill every human in the area of effect by slow torture in comparison :(
Xah Lee
i'd also be very interested on why we abhor chemical weapons. I'm hoping someone would know some professional source, such as from a philosopher or psychologists on this issue, or historical essay on this.

my own thinking is that it's a extension of cheating in fight between men, such as drugging opponent or using poison, or fight uncleanly...
+Greg S.
But what does that matter? In war you kill people. That's the whole point of it. There is nothing humane about war. It sounds crazy to me for people to moralize about the use of gas to kill while standing back and watching people get blown to bits or ripped and torn to pieces by conventional weapons. 

What if there was a gas that just killed people instantly without pain or suffering? Or it just made a person drift off to sleep and then their body shut down and they died? Is that what people want? Would that make it better? In a way the use of the right kind of gas to kill could be argued to be more 'humane' than shattering people's bodies with shrapnel, shock waves, bullets, and melee weapons.
+Tony Bonavera - We cling to the illusion of being able to detect and prevent - and many of the chemical and biological agents render us unable to do so.   It is also the concept of unleashing something that can't be controlled once it has been released.   Most other weapons (except mines) are directed.
On the bright side however, now that I know the molecule I can program my nanobots to couple with it and render it inert ;)
+Tony Bonavera wrote: "In war you kill people. That's the whole point of it."

It depends.  Often war is launched by people who are willing to kill to achieve their goals, but don't treat killing as their ultimate goal.  But sometimes there are wars where the whole goal is to exterminate a population.
Greg S
+Tony Bonavera The gas-that-killed-instantly thing would only help with the kills-by-torture bit, not with the uncontrollable-undirected-area-effect part.  But that might help quite a bit in total, indeed...

However, it does seem that a lot of the outrage around any particular weapon occurs when it appears to affect the innocent, especially children.  Just because the children die painlessly wouldn't help with that :/
I wonder - would we accept the use of gas that render us incapacitated, but which would wear off after a while?  
+Franz Sdoutz - thanks for catching my mistake, which came from an article in the English version Wikipedia.  I'll fix it there and in my post.  These bastards deserve to have their names spelled correctly.  (I don't know how bad Schrader was: he was looking for insectides when he discovered some of these nerve gases.)
+John Baez
Yeah I just meant when it comes to killing. It's hard to logically put aside feeling bad about killing with gas and not so bad about killing by other means like with ballistics or melee weapons.
+Tony Bonavera - Right, I was going on a bit of a tangent. 

Let's make sure we increase people's revulsion toward killing with other weapons, not lessen their revulsion toward killing with poison gas.
Greg S
+Lars Fosdal I think the cruel, inhumane behaviors that could result from that would be far, far worse :(
+Greg S. - You may unfortunately be right.
The days of chivalry and fair play are lone gone - assuming they actually existed :P
This "horrible substance" is a chemical which works more or less like modern insecticides. So we deploy "nerve gas" on a daily basis, just not against people. Luckily our chemical base differs a bit from the one in insects.  In general mankind has an impressive history in killing its members one way or the other. Don't forget smallpox infested blankets. Or the neutron bomb. Or drones nowadays.
I agree its awkward logically to talk about good vs bad weapons. 

There is a fact pattern to the idea that using the right chemical weapons is humane, it is internally stable, though not what we would think of as ethical in a larger context.

The argument is that once you enter into war, its all bad, why hold back, using a chemical weapon that kills fast and painless is the most humane thing to do in that context.

When we talk about rules of war we seek to deny that war is one thing, a total rat fuck, so either we should not do it, or we should end it quick. 

Claiming one way of killing people is worse than another is hypocrisy and the idea of a "war crime" a kind of convenient absurdity.
Or high fructose corn syrup...
+Lars Fosdal tear gas is pretty much what you ask for, and is acceptable enough that it's used against student protesters and demonstrators.
John Baez
+David Washington wrote: "Claiming one way of killing people is worse than another is hypocrisy and the idea of a "war crime" a kind of convenient absurdity."

Maybe, but I don't much mind people being hypocritical or absurd as long they're gradually improving their behavior.  For example, capital punishment is no longer practiced in civilized countries.  But this didn't happen all at once.  In Europe they used to draw and quarter people, cut out their tongues, etc.  Gradually they decided this was disgusting and started hanging people.  Then the guillotine was invented as a more humane method of execution.   And so on... until they no longer had the stomach for killing criminals at all.

I would not have bothered interrupting this process just to emphasize that hanging was just as bad as drawing and quartering.

You see something similar as people move toward vegetarianism, or gradually learn to accept people of other races as equals.  They don't do it all at once in a leap of logic.   They gradually work their way there.  So, if certain forms of war get branded as too cruel, I think that's a step in the right direction.
+John Baez I agree with that, its been my personal experience that real, lasting, change happens gradually, so slowly it can be hard to see except in hindsight :)
Yes, shaking my own bad habits has always been a very slow process too.
It was developed as a pesticide. Only later, during the war, they tried to turn it into a weapon. Fortunately, it wasn't used.

I would prefer it if you would remove this post. I am all for academic interest but it is a recently used disgusting weapon and shouldn't be discussed without being clear about that.
+Marco Devillers -  I said it was horrible.  I told its horrible history, and I described its horrible effects. 
Greg S
Remove this post?  Why?
And yet western powers and China still have nukes. Surely 1000's of times more indiscriminate than even sarin. And yet still not banned. All I'm saying is, let's ban it all. 
+Marco Devillers - my post starts by saying "alas, the nerve agent sarin is in the news these days", and then it says "And on August 21 of this year, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people were killed with sarin in Syria."  Maybe you missed that second sentence.  Anyway, I'm not going to alter my post, because I think it expresses my revulsion quite clearly - I'm not one for florid rhetoric, but my description of what it's like to die from sarin, and my use of the word you in that description, were among other things intended to convey my horror at, and utter condemnation of, what happened to those people in Syria.
+John Baez Okay. I'll remove my objection. I still do believe that this stuff is better not discussed online, but please write that off as a dovish personal opinion.
I always thought Sarin was invented as a pesticide but then the lethal potential was noticed. This makes it out that these scientists designed it to be for lethal warfare. Or have i misunderstood?
acceptable enough, yeah.... like using phosgene to render oils
accepted by the masses, thus used on the masses
+William Dowell - Oh, now maybe finally I understand one of Marco's objections: my post makes it sound as if sarin was originally invented for use as a weapon, which is wrong.  Since Marco's other objections were 'moral' in nature, I didn't notice that here he might have been making a purely 'factual' objection.  I'll fix this.  I always want the stuff I write to be true.
The first time i saw the information about Sarin is when i surf Google+ science community after the event happened . Now my memory about the information is refreshed by your post.
Pretty horrible to read.  But I still do not understand why having your belly half open apart from a grenade is a much better way to be killed. 
I think the ethical objections are to do with intent.

It's supposedly easier to follow up the intent to shoot or bomb an enemy soldier than to let chemical weapons drift randomly near civilians. I suspect that the real reason the ban on poison gas was so readily accepted by the military in the 1920s is that they realised they could not control the wind, so such weapons had actually been proved useless in trench warfare. It was a cheap PR gimmick. "Look how humanitarian we are! We banned mustard gas!" (No mention that it is because it's too damn tricky to handle)

Of course, we can easily find records that conventional weapons also strike innocents, regularly and often, such as with the drone attacks in Pakistan. And some so-called conventional weapons feature radioactive warheads of depleted uranium. And there are other munitions which use white phosphorous, which has really rather gruesome effects on human tissue. 

All of these supposedly 'acceptable' technologies function as chemical weapons. These weapons have been used often by USA, Israel and their allies, so any holier-than-thou arguments from the self-styled 'free world constabulary' barely hold.

Still, we noble westerners might imagine that we can somehow find generals or politicians accountable for badly-aimed or badly-targeted missile strikes, whereas collateral damage of children or elderly from chemical weapons just isn't cricket, old boy. Who would we blame? Aeolus? Fūjin? And where's the sport? Give the fuzzy-wuzzies a chance to run and hide, at least. Something like that. Where's my sherry?

The western 'liberal' objection to chemical weapons is very selective and therefore mostly pure vanity. It has become just another way that westerners can feel more sophisticated than those dark, savage orientals.

Sarin? Ha! Eat depleted uranium you backward oafs! Don't bother sending pictures of the baby. We can hire the special effects departments of Hollywood if we need to look at that kind of stuff.
Chemical weapons are worse than regular ballistic and explosive weapons. That is not of course to say that any means of killing should be tolerated (for example killing via asphyxiation is no less heinous than by withholding water but at least for me one is preferable to the other). But In so far as war is itself inhumane, on an individual basis, chemical weapons are in their own special class of inhumanity. 

Chemical weapons typically refer to nerve agents which have two horribly powerful effects of concern: psychological (before, during and after contamination) and physical. Compared to how the vast majority die from guns, explosions or mines; nerve agents are a slow and very torturous, very horrible way to die (lasting anywhere from minutes to hours). And if you survive, there is not just the chance of regular PTSD (in particular if a group setting) but also severe physical (partial paralysis, weak muscles, fatigue) and mental deficits weeks to months after, often requiring aggressive treatment. Yes weapons can do this but compared to high toxic exposure, not as reliably, not near the same rate. For some there is even long term subtle mental (in particular slight impaired reasoning ability), liver or heart effects. 

But there is also the psychological trauma, before and during. As well explained by Lars, the threat and possibility that a chemical agent can be used on you at any moment is it's own very effective kind of psychological torture, in particular by reducing the sense of agency (which is really important to one's sense of well being and identity and not easily repairable once undermined). 

And during, the mental effects of the lack of control are even more horrible. Even minor twitching can cause psychological discomfort far out of proportion to the physicality of it. Now imagine that, then imagine thousands of insects you cannot see crawling over you while a powerful sense of foreboding creeps into you, just as you begin to seize; all the while your respiratory and gastrointestinal organs are failing. Multiply your imaginings by a suitable large negative number and I daresay the product of physical and mental suffering is a multiple beyond either in isolation (each of which: cascading organ failure | seizing is bad enough).

But chemical weapons are not just nerve agents. The other well known one is mustard gas and it is just horrible. Observers of various on field war injuries rank them as unmatched in terms of suffering of the affected. Other than the effect of pouring acid inside and on someone,  there is the increased chance of many types of cancer, it really deserves special consideration in the pantheon of evil. In short, with chemical weapons the duration of and pain from suffering tends to be much worse. The potential magnitude of consequences for survivors tends to be higher.
What I find interesting is that a particularly acetylcholinesterase inhibitor is studied for possible neuroprotective effects and possible ability to enhance memory and cognition in (particular at least for) older or impaired folks (no clear evidence for however).

Huperzine A has also been shown to be safer and longer lasting than other typically used predosing nerve gas protective agents.
outstanding explanation. I wish I would have had you teaching me chemistry.
Thanks everyone for the responses but I still don't see how one is morally or physically worse than the other when people are killed and suffering either way which to me is the problem.

If it's wrong to do with gas then it should be just as wrong to do with anything else and why people treat gas so differently and not conventional weapons I think is a big disconnect. It just sounds like rationalization to me.

It just doesn't make sense to me how it's being treated like it's 'ok' for a person to be torn apart or ravaged by ballistic weapons and either die horribly that way or suffer the long term consequences of it but then with the use of gas suddenly death and suffering are treated with a more important moral and philosophical significance.
To explain simply, there are two perspectives. As the doer you are correct all such actions are wrong and absolutely unacceptable.

As the receiver, out of those horrible unchoices, I would rather die quickly via bullet. Even lying with an open wound is preferable, evolution has developed lots of chemical and psychological tools to make it manageable. Working backwards from myself to others, since there is a worse way to die, there is a worse way to kill. It is worse (at least in my book) to make someone's death slow, tortorous, lingering and painful even though I consider both actions completely unacceptable and evil. I don't know how to say it than one is infinitely evil and the other is an uncountable infinity of evil.

This is not to say that drawing a line at chemical weapons is not arbitrary. But there are no clean answers; no correct way to enforce nonuse of violence on citizens, no obvious way to halt powerfully damaging psychological warfare on civilians or their torturing to death with an invisible force. Intervention or not, then or now, all answers were already wrong.

So to sit back and think oneself clever for spotting moral inconsistency is absolutely missing the point of an intractable tangled mess of heinous unchoices. 
Deen, I understand (and share) your soul searching, but I am afraid that "die quickly via bullet" is nonsense. Of course we all prefer to die quickly, but conventional weapons do not deliver on this. At all.  In fact, I am afraid it is the opposite: we have seen many images on TV of people dying for chemical weapons because these images are acceptable.  They are impressive, but still acceptable. Not so horrible after all.  A person in agony after being near a bomb explosion is not acceptable on TV.  It would shock too much. That's truly horrible to see at dinner time. Too many people would change channel immediately and the commercials would not be watched and the TV would loose money.  I think we better face it: none of us can stand the current Syrian regime of course, but this "morality" game about chemical weapons is disgustingly hypocritical.  At least, this is how it seems to me.  I still much hope and wish the "step by step" argument was good.  But I see more hypocrisy than good will. In Syria, and elsewhere,  people keep dying like flies in the most horrible manners, often killed by our soldiers, and we cavil on which form of dead is morally better than another ...  It is not that I have a solution. In fact, I don't.  But I think I see lies where they are lies. 
+John Baez Very interesting post. I tend to "play" more on G+ more than I ever intentionally look for new information. When I stumble on something educational that grabs me, It's got to be good. Thanks for sharing! 
Hi +carlo rovelli, but I think you are less correct. The probability of dying in a lingering and painful way is higher for chemical weapons than any other weapon (even radiotoxicity, the painful effects are often less from radiation than chemical properties) since that is the only way to die via chemical weapon while it is optional for others. I do not care if both have high absolute probabilities of imposing an agonizing death, that one is substantially higher provides a natural ordering. Now, as I mentioned, the body has evolved psychological, physiological and chemical tools to handle conventional physical injuries that end in death. Not so well for the cascades caused by chemical weapons. Here is a quote from a war nurse on a particular class of chem weapon:

Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out

And many often underaccount or fail to account for human psychology in suffering. I can speak confidently that the threat of a means of death one can envision is much less frightful than an invisible unpredictable means. Irrational but human. Psychological scarring can be worse for one's well being over the long term than many physical wounds. People underestimate this.

As for the news, I do not watch it so I do not see what they are saying or showing. All I know is there is no right answer. And there can be no contradictions or 'hypocrisy' in the face of constant flux. Whatever defense one makes for why they are acting or not, then or now, will to some view be arbitrary since no view can be correct. I am not wise enough to give an opinion on when the right time to intervene is or if there is a right time (but my simple view is: not act many die, act many die with possibility of worsening things and adjusting towards a worse future for all; regardless of choice one can only watch much multitudes suffer and die as statistics drown out the ability to empathize with each individual life). Most casualties will be innocent bystanders of a chain of events and path dependencies started long before their birth and will be caught, as factions act as winds, carrying innocent lives like leaves in a wake.

I can form no opinion. But I do think there is a certain lack of empathy* to cast people as hypocrites or media led sheep; people who feel they must think something - anything - but might not have taken the time to even become aware of the immense difficulty of such (such is a human trait even if unfortunate). I see some people that find it hard to care about things so far away but feel they must care to be proper. I see some people genuinely struggling with what to believe and latching to whatever most matches their possibly not elucidated beliefs. I do not see any of that as right or wrong although I do have beliefs on ways of thinking that would be most ideal if widely held. But what I can't see is how one can call others hypocrite without judging them as somehow deficient apriori, hence I do believe one can only rarely ever properly use that word. And even then there are likely more productive viewpoints to hold.

*[myself I do not see just opinions but also try to work backwards to why such may be held, thus for a (topic unrelated) example I rarely hold encounters with implicit racism against perpetrators]
Dear +Abiola Dean, I apologise if I said something offensive.  I did not mean to call hypocritical the people who are arguing in this blog. Not at all.  If my post gave this impression, it is because it was badly written.  On the other hand, I see strong hypocrisy in public words of politics on this subject.  (In the country where I live, France, as well as in the USA).  Just not to be misunderstood, I was one of the millions of strong supporters of Obama and sent him half of my salary at the first election, to contribute.  Now it is painful seeing him playing the same game as Bush for Irak and Johnson for Vietnam: presenting "high moral reasons" as justifications for a conflict.  I wish at the very least he mentioned real reasons, maybe there are even good ones.  I was a bit disappointed that +John Baez, who I consider one of the most intelligent persons I ever met, would follow up on this, which looks to me as childish propaganda nonsense...   Maybe I am just a disenchanted European talking to hopeful  Americans... 
I wrote my post mainly because I became curious about sarin gas and wanted to talk about what I learned.  I guess it's hard to do this without either seeming callously indifferent to its victims (as +Marco Devillers feared) or seeming to be part of a propaganda campaign leading up to the bombing of Syria (as +carlo rovelli fears).  But I think the conversation it triggered has been worthwhile.  I'm not eager to put forth my own views on Syria, since I don't feel I have any special wisdom on the subject: I'm mainly just watching to see what happens next.  Since it's the Middle East, I'm not optimistic.
Hi +carlo rovelli, I see where you are coming from. My main point not aimed at you, is that the people who are so keen to show how clever they are in spotting arbitrariness that they forget how intractable the whole thing is, are IMNHO lacking in empathy and perspective. I don't think Obama could say anything other than nonsense because I do not believe one can give a coherent argument either way. No matter what he does lots of people will die and suffer. No matter what choice he makes he will be haunted. I personally hold that standing back is marginally preferable but see how one might argue the opposite. Like untangling a decision to be made from a non convex set of preferences amongst least most worse choices.

I do not think John Baez said anything like propaganda, one can talk about the horrible nature of chemical weapons and condemn their use apart from opining on why we should enter war and why now is less arbitrary than then.
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