Choices in the Aftermath of Society’s Commitments

I was struck by the following blog entry from an inorganic chemistry enthusiast:

I couldn’t help reading another article on Fritz Haber today.

Like every person, he had a personal life and he made choices. All I am interested in is his science, and I admire his science.

It’s a common attitude among students and professionals. Scientists’ biographies are perceived to contain irrelevant details that get in the way of learning science. Particularly, when the details are negative, an enthusiast will likely dismiss them because it conserves mental energy. But is it a responsible attitude?

The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. source imdb
The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. (source: imdb)

The biographical essay in question, Fritz Haber, the damned scientist, emphasizes not only Haber’s personal life and choices, but it examines his status, social context and the choices that his country and its opposing countries were making before, during and after World War I. We can neither ignore history and contemporary events nor pretend that science is a process independent of all other forces in society. It would be like trying to understand a forest without learning about the geochemistry and climate that partially determine its fate. It is very easy to quickly judge individuals, but their social context cannot go unexamined. In fact, in a previous blog, in comparing different attitudes of the Via Panispernia Boys towards the applications of nuclear science, I was guilty of overfocusing  on scientists’ decisions and not on the commitments of society and the contingencies that lead to new dilemmas for individuals.  Such an approach is counterproductive if we are to learn from the past.

For readers unfamiliar with Fritz Haber, he was a German-Jewish chemist born in 1868 and famous for a number of achievements. He sparked another stage in the “agricultural revolution” by laying the groundwork for the production of ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. He recirculated the reactants,  found the right catalysts and controlled temperature and pressure. With the help of others such as engineer Carl Bosch, a large scale process was then developed, and the NH3 was converted to nitrates, which supplied an essential element to crops. Prior to that, countries were relying heavily on imports of South American guano, which contains uric acid (has nitrogen) as well as phosphates and potassium. Today, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the nitrogen atoms in the average human body derive from the Haber-Bosch process.

Some writers have unfairly used the negative consequences of large scale fertilizer-production as more ammunition against Haber’s character. But his contemporaries also had no idea that eutrophication could arise. And few predicted that 40 years later,  the Haber process would combine with other inventions, medical advances and attitudes to produce a sharp growth-spike in population.

from Wikipedia:

The Haber process is yet another tool, which despite good intentions at the onset, becomes more likely to have serious complications in a society devoted far more to blind economic growth than to setting up adaptive cycles.

But why was Haber harshly judged even by his contemporaries? Although the value of his discovery was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1919, many scientists did not show up for the presentation of the award presumably because of the role that Haber played in developing poison gas in the first World War. The committee officially dubbed it the “1918” prize, but it was actually handed out in 1919, after the armistice. According to W.A.E. Mc Bryde of the University of Waterloo, Haber’s use of chlorine as a weapon was not their focus.

In America a swarm of editorials and letters challenged the suitability of the award to Haber; the point was not the gas warfare, but the extended duration of the war made possible by the manufacture of nitric acid from synthetic ammonia.


If both reasons provided grounds for protesting the award,  those who condemned Haber’s role as “Doctor Death” ignored Grignard’s subsequent use of phosgene (COCl2 ) in the war. Grignard, also a Nobel Prize recipient for chemical synthesis that was unrelated to wartime exploits, was of course working for France. Their soldiers had been the first victims of the chlorine attack. But France had used either xylyl bromide(methylbenzyl bromide) or ethyl bromoacetate as a tear gas before Haber had proposed chlorine as a death agent. Both sides believed that the shocks of chemical warfare would end the war quickly (a cynic would say, to win it promptly). Of course that did not happen. The perception of Haber as the callous scientist was reinforced by the fact that his wife was ardently opposed to his use of chemical weapons, and after Haber let his plan materialize on the battlefield, she fatally shot herself .

But as in many suicides, there were other factors at play. For instance, she was intellectually frustrated by being a PhD in chemistry but never being able to practice it. Her only contribution to the field involved translating Haber’s work into English. Contemporary women in Germany, regardless of their education-level, were still expected to serve exclusively as housewives. Yet Haber wasn’t callous to her depression. He had tried to get her a university teaching position, but she froze in front of her first class and gave up.

Let’s now examine the resentment towards Haber for making nitrates for ammunition. As Dunikowska and Turko point out, even before the alliances had brought Germany into the war, the government and most of industry had committed themselves to building a war machine, one that was opposed not only by humanists and social democrats but by some business people. Once engaged in militarization, inevitably, any country’s scientific research will be focused on the awful business of death, and scapegoating one individual is mostly an emotional response that won’t later serve as a preventative strategy. While so much hatred towards Haber and fellow Germans persisted after the end of World War I, the unfair Treaty of Versailles was signed. The exaggerated burden placed on the defeated country led to widespread instability, eventually facilitating the Nazis’ rise to power. Their new war machine soon led to an even more pernicious world war.

Haber’s response to the Treaty was to focus only on his country’s gargantuan debt. His simplistic approach was to mine the oceans for gold. Eventually after a costly 8-year project, he realized the concentration of gold was too low. For his unsuccessful hypothesis, he became vilified by his own country men. Professionally, however, he made important contributions in areas of pure science such as chemiluminescence and the formation of radicals in combustion. Unfortunately, some sloppy journalism has recently claimed that Haber when on to discover Zyklon B (an HCN-based gas used in concentration camps). In fact his institute developed it as a pesticide, and he was not its individual discoverer.


In April of 1933, three months after Hitler came to power, laws were passed, forbidding Jews to occupy government positions. Although still working for the government, Haber, was exempt from the law, despite being born Jewish. He and some of his colleagues were conscientious enough to oppose the law on principle, and later in the summer of that year, he left the country for London. There he continued to be scorned by scientists like Ernest Rutherford. Eventually he settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he soon died of a heart attack.

Indeed Haber made wrong ethical choices during the war. But he had plenty of company since the probability that anyone in such a position behaved likewise was highly increased when government and industry had already surrendered intellect, spirit, economy and technology to nationalism and militarism. It’s something to bear in mind when analyzing our current society. We have to deconstruct mechanisms that are committed to an illusive growth that ignores social and environmental expenses. At the same time, we have to reinforce policies and strategies that value modesty and stability. Such commitments will make it less likely for individuals to choose paths of consumption and greed and more likely to opt for paths that are, at all levels, productive and green.


One thought on “Choices in the Aftermath of Society’s Commitments

  1. Very interesting and informative post (as usual)! It is easy to forget that scientists are just people with an special interest. We sometimes get or construct idealized narratives about them, believing that a person who achieved something big in science must by default be a kind of guru or reference in all other aspects of life. That picture is extremely seldom right.
    Thanks also for linking to my post! 😉


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