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"During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country."—Fritz Haber
While some scientists attempt to remain politically neutral, others choose to take controversial positions. A couple of months ago, a regular reader called my attention to a short biographical film science teachers should know about. Released in 2008, Haber tells the story of Fritz Haber, a German chemist active in the early 20th century, known both for his work on chemical fertilizers and as the "father of chemical warfare." This unusual biopic is short enough (just 35 minutes long) to be shown in a single class period, and is the project of writer-director Daniel Ragussis. While chemistry teachers have the clearest connection to this film’s content, all high school and college science teachers could use it to initiate a discussion of scientific ethics.
Haber was raised a strict Hasidic Jew, but converted to Christianity as an adult, perhaps in part to further his career in German society. He is best known for inventing the "Haber process" for making ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen gas. Prior to this work, all fertilizers for agriculture came from natural (animal) sources, and as a result, large-scale famines were relatively common. The Haber process made it possible to produce very large quantities of ammonia fertilizer relatively cheaply, so Haber is credited with saving millions of people from starvation through this innovation. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the ammonia work in 1918.
Fritz Haber being toasted by his colleagues: scene from the film Haber.
During the First World War, the German government approached Haber about the possibility of developing chemical weapons. Though he initially refused, he later put his research team on the task of making chlorine gas a useful weapon. As depicted in the film, Haber did not make the decision lightly; he believed chemical weapons would end the war quickly, thereby saving lives. Even so, at least one of the chemists working for him quit on moral grounds.
The first large-scale trial of chlorine in the war took place in April 1915 at Ypres in France. As it was a surprise to the Allied troops, it was effective, but countermeasures were quickly developed, and poison gases were mainly a psychological weapon through the remainder of the war. Chlorine gas is deadly because it causes the lungs to produce fluid, which prevents oxygen exchange in the blood, and in the end, causes asphyxiation. Chlorine was just one of the chemical weapons used in WWI. Others included tear gas, phosgene, and mustard gas, which caused the greatest toll of injuries, though relatively few deaths.
Trench warfare in World War I: scene from Haber.
Haber’s wife, Clara, earned a PhD in chemistry, and was the first woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Breslau, but she put her career on hold to raise their son. She worked with Haber without credit, translating his publications into English. The film shows Haber’s attempt to get her to return to the university classroom, which does not go well. Clara was opposed to Fritz working on the chemical weapons projects, and tried to convince him to stop. When Haber was briefly home between trials on the Western and Eastern fronts, she took his service revolver and committed suicide.
In the 1930s, Haber was forced by the Nazis to fire all the Jewish scientists working in his lab, and he left Germany for Switzerland. He died in exile in 1933. Nazi scientists found notes in his laboratory on a gas called Zyklon B, which Haber’s team had developed as a pesticide. This is the gas the Nazis used to kill millions in the Holocaust.
Science teachers who are interested in presenting the social and ethical consequences of scientific work could show the entire film in a single class period, then have a discussion about the decisions Haber made. American scientists faced similar choices during the Second World War, when the Manhattan Project was created to build the first atomic bombs. Albert Einstein famously wrote a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging him to initiate the project. What is less well known is how he felt about that later. In 1954, he said to Linus Pauling, "I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—that the Germans would make them…" Einstein also worked to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, and was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Crusade to End Lynching.
For more information about the film, go to www.haberfilm.com.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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