Monday, July 15, 2019

Fritz Haber: The Amoral Scientist

Lack of Morality

I remember hearing about Fritz Haber [1868–1934] when watching a documentary a few years ago about him and his wife. A chemist of great promise and prominence, Haber was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. He is credited with two important scientific discoveries: one good for humanity; the other bad for humanity. For Haber, it seems, that he considered both in the same way—as some sort of scientific puzzle to solve.

This thinking, combined with a blind arrogance, led to his downfall. If history judges Haber in this way, it is justified by his actions. It is easy to say that science is amoral, but it is another thing to say that a scientist is amoral. Fritz Haber was such a man.

An article (“The Amoral Scientist;” July 8, 2019), by Matthew Wills, in JStor Daily says the following:
Fritz Haber was the chemist who figured out how to synthesize ammonia out of atmospheric nitrogen. Once chemist/engineer Carl Bosch applied this to an industrial process, it allowed for the virtually limitless production of fertilizer. This was an unparalleled boon to agriculture, which had previously depended on guano and other substances to replenish soil. For this, undoubtedly one of the most important discoveries in chemistry, Haber was awarded the Nobel in 1918.
Then, there is the other side of Haber:
Fritz Haber was the driving force behind the German use of chemical weapons during WWI. His wife, Clara Immerwahr, a noted chemist in her own right, “pleaded with Haber repeatedly not to work on techniques of chemical warfare,” writes S. Ramaseshan in his short biography of the “amoral scientist.” But under Haber’s enthusiastic leadership, Germany initiated the modern era of chemical warfare by deploying chlorine gas in Belgium in April 1915. By some reports, 5,000 people died.
Clara Immerwahr was the first woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Breslau, in 1900. In 1901 she had married Fritz Haber; it was not a happy marriage. Soon after hearing this, and perhaps noting her husband’s amorality and his lack of concern for human life, Immerwahr shot herself with his pistol; she died in the arms of her 12-year-old son, Hermann, in the garden of their mansion in Dahlem, a borough in southwestern Berlin; she was 45. Thirty years later, in 1946, Hermann killed himself.

The next day after her death, Haber, ever the German patriot, left for the Eastern front to continue his war efforts on behalf of Germany, as a 2012 Smithsonian article on Haber puts it, “to initiate another gas attack, against the Russians." But Germany’s defeat, the need to pay reparations and the resulting financial crisis took the tarnish off his fame. This, and the rise of racial nationalism and fascism, forced Haber, the German-Jew, to leave Germany shortly after Hitler and the Nazis came to power, leaving in August 1933.

He worked briefly in Cambridge, England, and while there, Wikipedia writes, “Chaim Weizmann offered him the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandatory Palestine.” On his way there, Haber died of a heart attack, at a hotel in Basel, Switzerland, on January 29, 1934; he was 65.

For more on Fritz Haber, go to [JSTOR Daily].

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