Fritz Haber was on the battlefield April 22, 1915 to watch the WW I Allied troops writhe in pain and die from the chlorine gas he engineered as a weapon, leading to him being called the “Father of Chemical Warfare.” Three years later, he won the Nobel Prize for his process that efficiently pulls nitrogen from thin air, likely the single greatest scientific contribution to feeding the modern world.
The Jewish chemist born in German in the 1860s has fascinated me for many years, mainly for his influence on modern agriculture, and for the dual aspect of human nature.
Haber pioneered the process that uses catalysts and high pressure to turn nitrogen and hydrogen gases into ammonia, or essentially a way to convert atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen that can be transported to and used by plants. The Haber process is used to make anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate and urea today. It is championed for being one of the main reasons modern crop yields can sustain a larger human population today, going from about two billion people in the early 1900s to seven billion people today – a noble and very humane scientific accomplishment.
But Haber’s science had a darker side.
I stumbled on the Haber story once again while listening to my favorite radio show, RadioLab. It comes on NPR stations across the country. Highly recommend the show. The show has an eccentric story-telling style, but a good one. On that day, the show was examining good vs. bad and the gray area between the two using Haber as an example.
The nitrogen process Haber spearheaded also was used by Germany during WWI to make highly explosive munitions – nitrogen being a major component of such things. From the accounts I’ve read, Haber was happy to have made this contribution to the Mother Land and glad he could aid in Germany’s war efforts. But he wanted to go one better for Germany and began experimenting with poisonous gases and delivery systems for such things in an effort to produce a chemical weapon that could more easily infiltrate the maze-like trench warfare that scarred Europe. The German patriot wanted to kill the enemy and kill’em bad.
Be careful what you're good at
He finally got some German generals to back his chemical weapons and let him be on hand to see their impact. That’s what he was doing April 22, 1915 on that battlefield in Belgium. Haber’s wife, Clara, didn’t like the direction her husband’s science was headed. They argued about the chemical weapons. On May 2, 1915, Clara committed suicide. Haber left the next day to return to the war’s front to oversee more use of his chemical weaponry. The dedicated, cold-hearted man had work to do for the Mother Land and no time or care to mourn his wife.
Germany ended up on the losing end of WWI anyway.
In 1919, Haber got the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his nitrogen process, but he got the award under protest from several nations that wanted him tried and jailed as a war criminal. As the Nazis took over Germany in the 1930s, Haber, being a Jew, found the country he loved less hospitable to him. Dejected, he was on his way to what is now Israel when he died at 65 of a heart attack.
Haber was a genius on par with Albert Einstein, who he was reportedly good friends with. But was Haber smart? I don’t know. With one hand, he contributed to a way to improve and sustain life through one of its basic needs: food. With the other hand, he created ways to snuff that life out and do the snuffing in some pretty gruesome ways. That doesn’t seem smart. Doesn’t make good sense. I know many folks who are intelligent but not too smart; know just enough to be dangerous if given the chance.
Haber was a problem solver, a solution seeker, a hardworking analytical man, or in other words, he was a scientist -- a person who can turn what we know into what we can do. He is an example of the extremes in human nature; the extremes we all have but just on different scales.
And as I sit here April 22, 2014, or what is being celebrated as Earth Day and 99 years to the day after Haber looked over that WWI battlefield, I think about us and what we are capable of. Be careful what you get good at, or what you want to get good at.