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Fritz Haber : A Really Good Chemist, But a Really Bad Guy

Exploring the life behind the chemist that created two revolutionary items: one that would improve our lives, and one that would destroy many more. ​

Most of us recognize the name Haber from those god-awful processes that we had to memorize in Chemistry class. As a student that still takes chemistry now, I can say with certainty that the Haber process (nitrogen fixation to produce ammonia), and Organic Chemistry in general, is one of my least favorite topics to learn- so far, at least. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you from explaining the details of that topic for now (In Our Element podcast listeners watch out, maybe one day we’ll muster up the energy to tackle this topic!). I’ve always heard that Fritz Haber, the inventor of this process, had a less-than-perfect reputation, but it wasn’t until I started researching for this article that I realized how awful he actually was. Let’s take a short trip into the history books to examine his most impactful two inventions: Poison gas, and ammonia. Let me ask you a question: would you rather me give you the good news or the bad news first? I don’t know what you answered, but let’s start with the bad news first. This one’s going to hit you like a truck: Fritz Haber is often called the “Father of Chemical Warfare”. After World War I was underway, Haber was made the head of Chemistry for Germany’s war team. Being the extremely patriotic German that he was, he worked passionately with this team for many years and led the development of chlorine gas (a deadly gas) to be used in war. There’s even a warfare rule now called “Haber’s rule”, which relates to poisonous gas distribution and how much gas should be deployed to create the most toxic effect. This work even led to the suicide of his wife, who heavily criticized his actions. This next fact’s going to hit you hard again (harder than a truck I guess). After his death, his work was used extensively by the Nazis, and it’s due to his work that Zyklon B was created, the gas that concentration camps used to murder Jews. I’ll give you a few moments to absorb that. However, his other invention, the Haber process is starkly different. We’ve mentioned this process briefly in our podcast episode titled “The Chemistry Behind Fertilizers”, but the Haber process was the first process ever to allow ammonia to be mass produced. This was extremely beneficial for agricultural sectors, as they could now purchase fertilizers (which are made primarily of ammonia) at a much cheaper price, leading to high economic and population growth (but that’s for the economics department to talk about). It’s estimated that about 1/3 of the earth’s human population is fed due to this process, and it’s because of this process that our population has increased exponentially to almost 8 billion this year. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for this, with the Nobel prize committee stating that he had given “the greatest gift to mankind”. Although we now know that this process has some negative environmental impacts, without this invention, it can be argued that we wouldn’t have the technology to offer environmentally friendly fertilizer alternatives in the first place! Stepping back, Haber is still considered of the most controversial figures in Chemistry; even when you search up “Fritz Haber”, Google even suggests the phrase “Fritz Haber good or bad”. I’ve never seen a scientist that’s held the keys to both life and death in his hands so poignantly. Haber was a monster, yes, but he was also (unfortunately) a human being, which means we cannot sweep his actions under the rug so easily. He had likes and dislikes, was an actual person with habits and weird quirks, and so wasn’t just the brainwashed, patriotic robot that we may have initially judged him as. That doesn’t mean I’m asking for sympathy for him in any way, but it’s interesting to view him without dehumanizing him. In the end, we are all from the same species, a species that can commit great good but also great evil. Haber is the prime example of this, and his polarizing life makes it extremely difficult to weigh his actions on a moral scale to balance out spelling “good” or “bad”. However, at least we can all agree that his work’s impact on our modern world is undeniably large.

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