[Marxism] Big Science

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 21 18:23:37 MST 2006

LRB | Vol. 28 No. 2 dated 26 January 2006 | Steven Shapin
Steven Shapin

Between Genius and Genocide: The Tragedy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical 
Warfare by Daniel Charles [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Cape, 
313 pp, £20.00

Hydrogen and nitrogen combine only with difficulty. Since the reaction N2 + 
3H2 <–> 2NH3 is reversible, you need just the right conditions to drive it 
forward to produce significant quantities of ammonia (NH3). If the 
temperature is too low, the formation of ammonia is favoured but the 
reaction goes slowly. If the temperature is too high, the reaction goes 
faster, but any ammonia produced tends to dissociate into its elements. 
Pressure is another relevant variable: higher than atmospheric pressures 
favour ammonia formation. So, if ammonia is what you want, you need very 
cleverly to manipulate temperature, pressure, a catalyst and the design of 
the reaction vessel. In 1909, the academic physical chemist Fritz Haber and 
the industrial metallurgical engineer Carl Bosch succeeded in doing this, 
and they patented the process the following year. Within four years, the 
process had become commercial, the foundation of a huge German-dominated 
industry centred on ammonia works in Oppau and, from 1917, in Leuna. Haber 
became famous and wealthy. The giant chemical firm Badische Anilin und 
Soda-Fabrik (BASF) – later folded into I.G. Farben – had been funding 
Haber’s research, doubling or tripling his already generous professorial 
salary at Karlsruhe, on the condition that he obtain company permission 
before publishing any details, and the terms of the BASF patent gave him 
1.5 pfennigs for every kilo of ammonia produced using his process. In the 
last year of the war, the factories in Oppau and Leuna produced 115,000 
tons, and Haber’s royalty payments were worth the present-day equivalent of 
about $4 million. Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918; Bosch 
became chairman of BASF, which made huge amounts of money from the process, 
and he too eventually won the Nobel Prize (in 1931). All this represented 
an early milestone in the formation of what came to be called the 
military-academic-industrial complex.

Along with DNA, ammonia is a candidate for ‘molecule of the 20th century’. 
DNA is a very large molecule, and ammonia a very small one, but ammonia has 
greater bearing on the way in which the century’s history unfolded. 
Synthetic ammonia is both a foundation stock for the manufacture of such 
nitrogenous fertilisers as ammonium nitrate or sulphate, and a substance 
which, in its liquid state, can be directly injected into the soil. Plants 
need nitrogen to grow but they cannot get it directly from the atmosphere, 
which is 78 per cent nitrogen by volume. Legumes – plants like peas, beans 
and clover – harbour nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, 
converting free atmospheric nitrogen into compounds usable in plant 
metabolism, and you can plant legumes to give the soil a dose of fixed 
nitrogen. But prior to the Haber-Bosch process, sources of 
nitrogen-containing fertilisers were limited. You could use animal manure, 
but that was bulky, hard to distribute and low in nitrogenous oomph. You 
could use the bird fecal deposits called guano, usually obtained through a 
vast global trade from islands off the coast of Peru, or the naturally 
occurring nitrates from saltpetre deposits in the deserts of Chile. But by 
the end of the 19th century, it was looking as if both of these sources 
would soon be exhausted.

In 1898, the English chemist William Crookes sounded a Malthusian alarm: 
the world’s population, he said, would very soon outstrip its food supply. 
This was a global crisis in the making, but, Crookes warned, it was 
especially acute for white people: ‘The fixation of nitrogen,’ he 
announced, ‘is a question of the not-far-distant future. Unless we can 
class it as among certainties to come, the great Caucasian race will cease 
to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races 
to whom wheaten bread is not the staff of life.’ Crookes’s apocalyptic 
vision was widely credited and may indirectly have inspired Haber’s work. 
The production of cheap synthetic fertilisers permitted by the Haber-Bosch 
process was a vital ingredient in the sevenfold increase in the world’s 
food supply during the course of the 20th century and the almost fourfold 
increase in its human population. Brot aus Luft was the slogan: bread out 
of the air. A hundred million tons of nitrogen a year are now removed from 
the atmosphere and turned into fertiliser. That’s the bit of Haber’s career 
which gets him called a genius and a saviour of humankind.

The same synthetic ammonia that could be transformed into fertiliser could 
also, by way of nitric acid, become a feedstock for military explosives. 
After the outbreak of the Great War, the British blockade cut Germany off 
from its Chilean nitrate supplies, and the rate at which the Haber-Bosch 
process could make ammonia became crucial to Germany’s ability to wage war, 
and, especially, to its strategic planning. If enough of the stuff could 
not be made, a protracted war was bound to be a disaster. In the autumn of 
1914 it became clear that Germany would run out of munitions in six months 
if further nitrate supplies could not be secured. Haber was already on the 
job, becoming head of the chemistry department of Walter Rathenau’s 
Kriegsrohstoffabteilung (War Raw Materials Section). For this, and other 
reasons, he became a hero of the war effort.

The most notorious of his contributions to the war – and probably the one 
which most engaged his enthusiasm – was poison gas. That’s the bit of 
Haber’s work which attracts Daniel Charles’s description of him in the 
subtitle of his new biography as the ‘father of chemical warfare’. As early 
as December 1914, Haber attended a test-firing of munitions containing a 
tear gas called xylyl bromide, and was immediately gripped by the 
opportunities gas offered to the patriotic chemist. He had a better idea 
than using gas to burn soldiers’ eyes and put them temporarily out of 
commission: he wanted, as a co-worker related, ‘something that puts people 
permanently out of action’. Some colleagues drew back from the idea, but 
Haber suggested to the High Command using the asphyxiating gas chlorine in 
the stalled trench warfare of the Western Front. The generals had 
misgivings – if the Germans could use gas, so could the British and French 
and, anyway, it seemed unsporting – but they agreed, and on 22 and 23 April 
1915 several hundred tons of chlorine gas were released into trenches 
around Ypres occupied by Canadian, French and Algerian soldiers: Tod aus 
Luft this time. The Germans gained about a mile of territory, and fewer of 
the enemy than Haber would have liked were ‘put permanently out of action’ 
– perhaps 350 were killed and 7000 disabled. Haber was miffed that the 
advantage of being the first to use poison gas was not pressed home: if the 
German generals had been more serious about gas, he reckoned, the Allies 
could have been driven into the sea in quick order.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n02/print/shap01_.html

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