Well-told life of a little-known but important scientist.
Fritz Haber “fits no convenient category,” writes science journalist Charles (Lords of the Harvest, 2002, etc.). “Haber was both hero and villain; a Jew who was also a German patriot; a victim of the Nazis who was accused of war crimes himself.” It is in the last connection that Haber figures in history. A highly skilled chemist working at the boundaries of physics and chemistry, Haber and industrial engineer Carl Bosch developed a system by which to extract nitrogen from the air, link it to hydrogen and fix it in the form of ammonia, a potentially limitless source of plant fertilizer. The process, Charles reckons, is responsible for feeding nearly half of the world’s population today. But the same method, with some tweaking, allowed Germany to manufacture munitions in the absence of imported nitrate, prevented from entering the country by a British naval blockade. Haber’s subsequent work in developing chemical weapons horrified his friend Albert Einstein; Charles rather charitably attributes at least some of Haber’s interest to the “intellectual challenge” of making possible a new kind of warfare, but Einstein foresaw what happens when science is put into the service of politics by other means. Charles observes that of a total count of 20 million dead and wounded, chemical weapons “account for a relatively small number of these casualties . . . about 650,000 people” on the Western Front. (The toll from the German use of gas in Russia and Poland is unknown.) This is not to excuse Haber, for Charles adds that though gas is an old technology, the industrial manufacture of death-dealing tools is ongoing, and Haber was a pioneer. Haber was well aware of this, remarking toward the end of his life, an exile in Switzerland at the dawn of a dangerous age, that his contributions were “like fire in the hands of small children.”
A welcome and accessible addition to the history of science, and an object lesson in the perils of scientific amorality.