❖ Fritz Haber
In the most recent episode of Radiolab, The Bad Show, they spent a bit of time talking about Fritz Haber, and it was fascinating. Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his work, but is infamous for some other reasons. In short:
- In 1909, Haber developed, along with Carl Bosch, the “Haber Process” of creating ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, the basis for nitrogen-based fertilizers that are responsible for sustaining about a third of the world’s population today. Rather: “Without it, the Earth wouldn’t be able to support its current population.”
- During World War I, Haber was a leading proponent and developer of poison gas warfare and led “gas troops” to deploy them. During the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, he personally oversaw the first ever deadly gas attack in military history, releasing over 150 tons of chlorine gas (his own creation) on Allied troops, wounding or killing “between 5,000 and 15,000 people.”
- Following his successes with poison gas at Ypres, Haber threw a party, but his wife, also a prominent chemist, was so horrified by his involvement and subsequent boasting that she killed herself with a bullet to the chest.
- Haber was seemingly unaffected by his wife’s suicide, as he returned to the front lines as scheduled later the same day as her death, leaving his young son to mourn alone.
- Following the War, Haber returned to his post directing the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem, where he stayed until 1933. He resigned in protest under Hitler when laws were passed that would have had Haber, a Jew himself, fire all Jewish researchers and employees under him.
- While directing the Institute in the 1920s, he oversaw the development of Zyklon A, a cyanide-based pesticide with a strong warning odor, and Zyklon B, a similar pesticide without the odor. Zyklon B was fairly widely used as a sanitizing agent by Germany, and even by the U.S., but is infamous for its use in Nazi extermination camps. It is possible that Haber’s own family were killed in gas chambers with Zyklon B.
- As a bit of a coda, in 2002, the Pew Oceans Commission found nitrogen fertilizer from farm runoff to be the largest source of pollution in the oceans.
The show was about good and evil, but my main take-away is that the story perfectly illustrates the role and power of science. Science can be used to make the world better, or worse, and sometimes scientists are more intent on the methods than the meaning.
Moreover, it makes me thankful to be an ordinary non-genius doing semi-purposeful work with a fairly clear and limited objective, rather than a super-genius intent on creating the knowledge to both save and destroy humanity. To each his own, I guess.