In the shadows of greatness (via There & [Hopefully] Back Again)

Fritz Haber is one of the real scientists whose life inspired the “mad scientist” of movies and books. He single mindly aided in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. His response was disappointment and a renewed vigor to create new and better methods of killing. Haber had been a curiosity to me for some years. This article discusses him more in depth.

If you want to talk ethics violations and ethically tone deaf, this scientist should be near the top of your list. If you are a student contemplating writing a paper on ethics, you would have trouble finding a better topic. This is a good article.

James Pilant

In the shadows of greatness How do we define greatness in science? I started pondering this question after responses started coming in to Nature Chemistry’s “unscientific & arbitrary Twitter poll”, asking “Who is the greatest chemist of all time?” The results are now posted on The Skeptical Chymist, the Nature Chemistry blog. My opening question was sparked by a particular name on the list: Fritz Haber.

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4 thoughts on “In the shadows of greatness (via There & [Hopefully] Back Again)

  1. Andrew

    What if Germany had developed the atom bomb? Would we then have the same negative connotation of nuclear arms as we do of weaponized chemicals?

    I just think its interesting that we describe this man as evil for developing a weapon that he thought could be used to secure a war victory for his country. Its interesting because we typically applaud those men who worked on the Manhattan Project for bringing us the atom bomb.

    I guess history is fickle. Its heroic when we do it to our enemy. Its evil, however, when our enemy does it to us or to our allies.


  2. Haber is a little different. He developed this “war winning” weapon and when it didn’t win the war. He told the German Command essentially, “It just wasn’t big enough.” And then he made some more and some more. Right up until the end of the war, he was in his laboratory making better poison gases that he was sure would win the war.


  3. Thanks for the link, southwerk. In the comments of the original post, we have been debating some of the very points Andrew raises.

    It’s a disturbing yet interesting story. Haber, in fact, pushed for the founding of a chemical weapons institute, even as he had already lost hope that Germany would win the war. He also continued to work on chemical warfare after the war, and he advised the government on their secret chemical weapons program essentially up until the time he was dismissed from service in 1933 because he was of Jewish descent. By all accounts I’ve read, Haber never expressed regret over his role in introducing chemical warfare.

    With regard to the Manhattan Project, murkiness and controversy remains. Some involved later campaigned exhaustively to rein in the beast. The question remains, do we more readily forgive them because their side emerged victorious or because they expressed remorse at the horror they helped unleash?


  4. As a business ethics teacher, I know I am supposed to be drawn to the ethical nature of the story but I am more intrigued by the maniacal focus of our main character. It’s reminiscent of one of John Carradine’s portrayal of a monster creating scientist. Tell me, have you looked at the life of Barnes Wallis? He wasn’t a chemist but he was a scientist. Or how about a dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams and the discovery of napalm? (or the bat bomb?) Best wishes! jp


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