Saturday, 7 November 2015

gold from the waves, manna from heaven

In one of the darkest ironies that are apt to occur when the sciences and politics collide, chemist Fritz Haber’s double-edged contributions to human understanding enabled the world’s population to increase four-fold in a little more than a generation, giving arguably mankind the means to eat itself out of house and home, and from the same discovery, engineered by his own hand, a more violent and immediate process for mass-slaughter. Under the tutelage of several prominent professors and with a background in the dye-business (albeit organic), Haber invented a method for creating artificial ammonia from from the nitrogen and hydrogen given up already to the atmosphere by plants to return to the fields as a synthetic fertilizer—immediately changing the nature of farming, its scale becoming industrial and less labour-intensive. Awarded the Nobel Prize for this accomp- lishment, which sustains today over half the global population, whom wouldn’t have been born without the food-security Haber helped put in place, the scientist turned to his real passion—which was his quest to harvest grains of gold from the ocean, and Haber proved it was feasible although ultimately economically untenable—before turning to his next commission. As gunpowder was originally a by-product of the ingredients that went into natural fertilizers, Haber’s process of fixing nitrogen was also quickly recognised as a conduit for new weapons that might prove advantageous in the awful trench warfare of World War I that was turning into a impasse, with no progress by either side. After having created untold futures, Haber oversaw the first volleys of poison gas attacks in an unending chain of destruction. Haber also developed the gas mask at this time, anticipating that his methods would be incorporated broadly. Aerosols would figure in both achievements, giving rise to pesticides for growing crops and the gas-chambers of World War II. With a career so haunted, no wonder such an important figure in the coursings of modernity is hardly remembered.