A Study in Scientific Ethics: Fritz Haber

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In philosophy there’s an old thought experiment called the Trolley Problem. It goes like this: you are driving a trolley, and the brakes stop working. There are five workers on the track in front of you, poised to be run over and killed. At the last moment you see another track leading off to the right. You could flip a lever switch to this track. There is one worker on this track. The question is: do you do nothing and kill the five people, or do you flip the lever and only kill one?

     If you think the only moral thing to do is pull the lever, congrats! You might be a utilitarian, which basically means that you believe the most ethical action is the one that benefits the most people. Or, you might be a virtue ethicist. If, on the other hand, you don’t think it’s right to pull the lever, you could be a believer in deontology, because you think being complicit in any person’s death is wrong. Or you could be a moral relativist, and think that there is no such thing as inherent right and wrong and everything depends on the circumstances.

     There are many versions of this experiment. What if the one person was your best friend? What if there were four people on each track? Then we can make it even more complicated: what if the person driving the trolley was a convicted murderer? Does saving the people on one track negate the one person they have already killed? This is where ethics gets sticky. Here’s the kicker: what if someone caused the death of millions, but saved the life of billions?

     This sounds like an exaggeration. Surely this has never actually occurred (save, maybe, Doctor Who. He destroyed his entire planet, but we still love him because he’s never killed a human. Probably? I didn’t realize the Doctor was so morally ambiguous until I started writing this digression.) But there is one such person; and he’s a Prussian man from a century ago.

     Fritz Haber was born in 1860, only two years before Prussia turned into Germany. His father was a dye manufacturer, which led little Fritz to be interested in chemistry. (Side Note — he had a horrible relationship with his father but a good one with his stepmom, who was named Hedwig Hamburger. This isn’t important, I just like the name Hedwig Hamburger. I might name my daughter that.) He got his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1891 and started his work as a chemist. This is where things start to get interesting.

     Do you remember learning about the nitrogen cycle? You probably learned about it in high school chemistry, where you were taught it exists, and probably not much more. It’s a lot like the water cycle, in that it’s a substance necessary for life which is never created or destroyed on Earth, it just changes properties. Water falls from the sky as rain, is used by plants and my decaf soy pumpkin spice latte, goes into the ocean, evaporates, and the whole cycle starts over again. The nitrogen cycle is much more complicated. Our atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen, which is used by plants to grow and photosynthesize. But the plants themselves can’t grab nitrogen out of the air to use, so they rely on microorganisms in their roots to “fix” it for them. Once the plants die, the nitrogen goes back into the dirt to be used by their successors.


     This works, but it is rather slow. In order to grow crops on the scale necessary to feed the population explosion caused by the industrial revolution, something else was needed. People were already using saltpeter (shout out to my salty roommate Peter) and various kinds of manure as ways to inject more nitrogen into the soil, but it was still not enough. Scientists were in a nace to find a better way to nitrogenize their plants, similar to the current race for clean energy.

     Our boy Fritz came up with the solution. One of the reasons nitrogen from the air is so hard to change chemically due to its trivalent nature, aka two nitrogen atoms (N2) that are attached to themselves three times. Haber figured out a way to split these bonds and all it took was a lot of pressure. Just like Scully and Mulder. They’ll always be a couple to me, OK?!

     By putting N2 gas into a pressurized chamber and adding hydrogen, he managed to split apart the three nitrogen bonds holding the two nitrogen atoms together, which left three empty spaces for three hydrogens to cosy up together. This creates the liquid ammonia (NH3), which we call a form of “fixed nitrogen”, because it allows us people to access it when we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Specifically, we can add this wondrous liquid into fertilizer. It’s estimated that half the food we eat is grown using the Haber process. In 1918 he won the most coveted of scientific prizes: the Nobel.

     So he seems like a pretty cool dude, right? He’s the entire reason that the Earth’s population has almost quadrupled since then. He should be made a saint. Our money– all of it around the world– should have his face on it. Why don’t more people know about him? Because he’s also partially responsible for two of humanity’s worst atrocities.

What, what?  

     Let’s rewind. Remember when I said he was born in Prussia, which then became Germany? This was an important historical event. The lead up to WWI was obviously very complicated, but one of the biggies is that the new-kid-on-the-block-who-used-to-be-many-smaller-older-kids-on-the-block Germany was eager to pick a fight. One of the reasons baby Germany was such a warmongering brat was because, like most adolescents, they thought that they were the best country to ever exist. This was the first, but not the last, rise of German nationalism. Haber was a good German nationalist. During WWI he realized that he could use the same eponymous process to create chlorine gas, the predecessor to mustard gas. Despite the protestations of army officials who said it was inhumane AND that it was forbidden by The Hague Convention, he managed to get it to the front lines.

     Haber was present at the Second Battle of Ypres the first time chlorine gas was used, and the first hand accounts are pretty gruesome. The king Kaiser Wilhelm II made him an honorary captain for it. To celebrate his great success, he threw a dinner party with his men. This is when the story gets sad. Haber’s wife Clara Immerwahr was also a chemist, and she was horrified by what her husband was using her beloved scientific field for. The night of the party Clara shot herself in the chest. Their 13 year old son found her. The next morning, Haber went back to work.

So far we have:

     -created a war to feed billions of people

     -invented chemical warfare

     -was a jerk to his family


     But the story continues. By 1933 he had become the head of his lab and was working on a lot of interesting projects, including trying to distill gold from seawater to help pay reparations. (It didn’t work.) He also continued his work on poisonous gasses, this time as pesticides. Haber was raised Jewish, but he converted to Lutheranism early in his career. When Hitler came to power and started to oust all Jewish employees, his conversion and WWI record kept him from being on that list. But he saw what was beginning to happen and did not like it one bit. He resigned, and traveled around Europe for about a year, before dying of a heart attack while on his way to Israel in 1934.

     His lab carried on without him, and took one of his assistant’s pesticides and reformulated it into Zyklon B. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was used in the Nazi gas chambers. Was this his fault? That depends on how you look at it. He personally had nothing to do with the formulation, but it would not have existed without his work.

In summary, Fritz Haber:

     -created a way to feed billions of people

     -invented modern chemical warfare

     -was a jerk to his family

     -was instrumental in one of the most horrendous war crimes of all time


     Where does this leave him on the good/evil scale? Personally, I don’t know, but I think he is certainly one of the most interesting figures of his time. This article is a lot more existential and depressing than I thought it was going to be, so here’s a picture of a two baby goats who are best friends.


About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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