Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The morally complex life of Fritz Haber

When discussing my rereading of the Omnivores Dilemma, I neglected to mention one of the most interesting pieces of food history that Michael Pollan discusses: the invention of synthetic nitrogen by Fritz Haber.

Fritz is the inventor of synthetic ammonia. This break through meant that food yields were no longer limited by the amount of natural nitrogen deposits. Our modern food production system, and all of its incredibly high yields, are due to this invention. Without the ability to synthesize our fertilizer, literally billions of people would not be alive today.

He is also the founder of modern chemical warfare. He lead German teams in WWI in the development of chlorine gas and, to make it worse, he actually would show up in the battlefield to supervise its use. His chemical work also eventually led to developing the chemicals used in the Nazi gas chambers.

Fritz is certainly, for better or worse, one of the major cornerstones of modern life.

2 comments:

Sid said...

You might be interested to checkout the festival-winning film about Haber that has been screening around the US.
http://www.haberfilm.org

Michael Westmark said...

The famous quote of Fritz Shimon Haber says: During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country. This quote is the starting point of his controversial legacy. The Haber movie tells the life of Fritz Shimon Haber - father of chemical warfare quite objective. It is short film, suitable to be shown during classes and be used to initiate a discussion of scientific ethics.
Even thou he sacrificed his family and friends for his country, in the early 1930s, Fritz Shimon Haber was forced to fire all the Jewish scientists who were working in his lab. Not long after he leaves Germany for Switzerland where Professor Shimon Haber died in exile in 1933.