The Man Who Didn't Need Any Bullshit


Fritz Haber was a Jewish man who was born in the mid-nineteenth century.  If you have no idea what any of this is about, you should probably go back and read the preceding article.  Anyways, Fritz's father, Seigfried, was a merchant who sold dyes and paints, and also pharmaceuticals for some god unknown reason, because who the hell wouldn't buy medicine from the guy also selling you the paint to slap on your house?  Fritz's mother was a woman named Paula, who was also Siegfried's first cousin.  This was heavily frowned upon by the Haber family.  At that time in Germany, fucking your first cousin was considered an absolute necessary for the aristocracy, and a common regrettable reality for the poor, but it was just not something those in the middle class were supposed to be doing.  Either way, Fritz had a fairy normal childhood for the time, including the premature death of his mother.  As far as being Jewish in Germany went, it was about one of the best of times to be alive, with the country generally just accepting that Jews were people like everybody else.  Crazy, I know.  Wanting his son to be as educated as possible, Siegfried sent his son to top colleges in Berlin to study chemistry, though perhaps it was just part of a scheme to get the boy to develop new paints/medicines for him to sell.  Whatever the reason, Fritz excelled in school, eventually graduating with his doctorate.  While he did work with his father for a time, the two did not get along, and eventually Fritz took a job with a university.        

Now at the time, as those who read the preceding article would now, the scientific community was trumpeting warnings that the world was soon to end.  Growing populations were soon expected to outpace the world's ability to produce food, and nothing but dire consequences were expected.  One of the biggest things holding farmers back from growing more food was the availability of nitrogen in their soils, a problems farmers mostly met by spreading bird and bat shit, called guano, on their fields.  However, by the start of the twentieth century, the demand for guano was far outstripping the ability of birds and bats to shit it out.

Now of course the world had no shortage of nitrogen.  After all, 74% of the frickin atmosphere was made up of it.  The problem was how the hell does one get nitrogen gas into the soil?  Nitrogen was a tricky element, its molecules tended to like to stick together, making converting from a gas to anything else tricky as shit.  Frtiz, being an especially stubborn fellow, spent seventeen years working on the problem, eventually developing the Haber Process in 1913, which used high pressure and temperature to convert nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, a liquid that could be put on fields.  The invention of the Haber process effectively made nitrogen fertilizer an unlimited resource, depending upon the price of energy, which in turn allowed the human race to avoid mass starvation and create the world we know today.  

Unfortunately this is where Fritz's story kind of goes off the rails.  The next year World War I broke out with all of Europe descending into chaos.  Aside from being a great scientist, Fritz also considered himself a German patriot.  Putting aside his efforts to better the world, he switched over to helping Germany win the war.  His first great contribution was to show how the Ammonia created by his Haber Process, while good for making fertilizer, also could be used to make explosives, thus allowing Germany to build munitions even though its ports were blockaded.  His second great contribution was the development of poison gas for the war.  Despite military leaders disapproval, Fritz convinced Germany's leaders to use poison gas in the trenches.  He personally attended the first use of poison gas in a battle, and reportedly got such a patriotic boner over the whole thing that he soon after held a party at his home to celebrate.  His wife, also a well known chemist, less than pleased with the nightmare her husband had unleashed, shot herself that very night.  Unbothered, Fritz left a few days later to oversee further poison gas attacks.  

After the war, in 1919, Fritz received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the invention of the Haber Process, a controversial choice given the fact that he had created one of the most horrifying weapons in history.  Unfazed, Fritz was put in charge of a scientific institute and began trying to figure out a way to make gold out of sea water in order to pay off the reparations Germany was forced to make after the war.  While there are trace amounts of gold in ocean water, they are quite small and almost impossible to separate from other elements.  His work failed, and ultimately, being a Jew, he was forced to resign from as head of his institute and flee from Germany when the Nazis took control of the country in 1933.  Not being the favorite of anybody, what with the whole poison gas thing, Fritz spent the next year traveling from one country to the next across Europe.  This couch surfing ruined his health and he died in 1934.

However, even dead, Fritz still had one last terrible thing to add to his legacy.  One of the last projects that Fritz oversaw as the head of his institute was the creation of a pesticide for killing insects in granaries called Zyklon A.  The Nazi's later took this pesticide, removed the harsh smell meant to warn people that it was a poisonous gas, renamed it Zyklon B, and used it in the gas chambers in their death camps.  So yeah......shit.