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Dynamite and the Ethics of its Many Uses

By Fran Kravitz and the ACS Committee on Ethics

When discovering new ideas, scientists are guided by ethics. You can think of ethics as being able to decide whether an idea or action is right or wrong. Does an invention help people or hurt people? Can an invention do both? Let us look at an example: the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish scientist. While Nobel was in school, he met an Italian chemist named Ascanio Sobrero who discovered nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin is very unsafe because it could blow up without warning. Nobel wanted to make nitroglycerin safer and more useful. He found that adding clay to nitroglycerin made a safer product, which he called dynamite. Later, he created blasting caps to explode the dynamite from a distance with a fuse. These inventions allowed the product to be used more safely for activities like building tunnels and canals or removing large rocks. During his life, Nobel developed more than 355 inventions.

How does the dynamite help in removing large rocks? The nitroglycerin in dynamite gives off energy to break apart rocks and other hard objects when it is exploded. There are two kinds of energy: potential energy is stored energy and kinetic energy is the energy that an object has because of its motion. The nitroglycerin in dynamite has stored energy that is given up quickly when it is exploded. The very quick formation of gases produced when the molecules break apart produces the kinetic energy. The force of this energy can break apart rocks. 

Many inventions find uses other than those for which they were designed. Nobel created dynamite to help people in building and mining, but he and others also used dynamite to make bombs, canons, and rockets used in wars. Nobel wanted his inventions to help people. Instead, dynamite earned money by hurting people and damaging buildings during war. Before he died, Nobel decided to leave all the money that he earned from his inventions to make special awards for important inventions and actions. These awards are known as the five Nobel Prizes. The one most heard of is the Nobel Peace Prize, which is given to people who help the world through their good deeds.  There is also a Nobel Prize in Chemistry!

As we think about Nobel and his invention today, we wonder if Nobel thought about ethics as he worked hard to solve a problem. Could he have guessed all the different ways that others would use his work? Did he think that selling of his invention for war was wrong? Nobel invented tools for good reasons, but the use of inventions can take surprising turns. The story of Nobel and dynamite is an example of what future scientists should think about when inventing new tools. What do you think?

This article was written in collaboration with the ACS Committee on Ethics.