Art as Counterterrorism
The year 1706 found the German physician and alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel in his Berlin laboratory. Using potash -- a potassium-containing salt -- he was attempting to distill what he called "animal oil" from animal blood.
Sharing the laboratory was pigment-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach. One evening, he was attempting to produce a certain red pigment called Florentine lake. Its recipe also called for potash. Diesbach ran out of his own supply during that night's travails, but luckily, Dippel had plenty to share. However, when Diesbach added the borrowed potash to his mixture, the concoction didn't turn the ruby-red he expected. Instead, it precipitated an oily blue substance. As it turned out, the potash was contaminated with cyanoferrate, causing the chemical reaction to go completely awry.
But as fortune would have it, Diesbach's mistake was to the world's benefit. The substance he created became a brand new pigment: Prussian blue (chemical formula: C18Fe7N18). In the following centuries, artists found use for it in myriad works of sublime beauty. Katsushika Hokusai skillfully applied Prussian blue in The Great Wave off Kanagawa (pictured below).
While we've all been busy admiring Prussian blue's chalky, refined shimmer, elegantly utilized in the arching, tumultuous waves depicted above, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been stockpiling the pigment for its potential to quell the damage from a chemical attack.
For the past decade, the threat of a dirty bomb attack has concerned government entities across the nation. Using toxic elements such as thallium or the radioactive cesium-137, terrorists could create and detonate a bomb with the potential to spread chemical sickness over an expansive range. If such an act were carried out in a densely populated region, fallout could be catastrophic.
When ingested, thallium and cesium-137 are removed by
the liver and passed into the intestine. Here, they become re-absorbed into
the body, causing severe stomach problems, hair loss and even death.
But Prussian blue can stop all that.
If administered (usually orally) after exposure to large doses of thallium or cesium-137, the pigment chemically binds to the elements and traps them in the intestine. Now, instead of being re-absorbed into the bloodstream, they can be passed out of
the body naturally. Thus, any adverse symptoms brought on by thallium or cesium poisoning are greatly attenuated.
Who says art isn't practical?