Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Tragedy of Fritz Haber Nobel Laureate Transformed World Food Production, War

-- A quick quiz: What's the most important invention of the last few centuries? Electricity? Cars? Computers? Consider a far more obscure innovation: the process for turning air into nitrogen fertilizer. German chemist Fritz Haber won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1918. Without it, the Earth wouldn't be able to support its current population.

audio icon Listen to Dan Charles' report: Part 1 | Part 2

Fritz Haber's first wife Clara Immerwahr, was the first women to attain a Ph.D in Chemistry, (1900, University of Breslau). Clara quit her job as a chemist (reportedly she was a good one) to be a good housewife to Fritz Haber. Her maiden name Immerwahr literally translates to "always true". She believed that science should be used for constructive purposes, not to make weapons of mass destruction. Fritz Haber tried to keep Clara in the dark about his work on poison gas. In December 1914, however, there was an explosion in the lab, and one of the workers, a Professor Sachur, was hurt. Clara rushed to Sachur, who was an old friend that in fact she had introduced to her husband. The man died. Clara made her objections to her husband's work plain, but Fritz continued his work on chemical weapons. Their marriage degenerated into warfare. The startling thing about Haber's work on chemical weapons is that he did it on his own initiative. In fact, he approached the German military at the end of 1914 to sell them on poison gas, but the military had no great respect for scientists, and poison gases seemed unsporting anyway. Haber nonetheless convinced them to watch a demonstration, conducted at a military testing ground outside Cologne. Clara was present, and her loathing of her husband's activities increased.

After the first application of the chemical weapons, the German papers were enthusiastic over the effectiveness of poison gas, and some even claimed that gas weapons were more humane than bullets and shells. Haber was promoted to captain. He threw a dinner party to celebrate. Clara Haber was not in a congratulatory mood. They had a furious argument that evening, with Clara accusing Fritz of perverting science. He called her a traitor to Germany. Her verbal protests could not sway her husband. That night, she took his army pistol and shot herself through the heart in the garden of their house. Fritz Haber left for the Eastern Front the next day, leaving his wife's funeral arrangements to others. Later Haber found himself another, less squeamish wife.

Malthusian catastrophe? Zyklon B?

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