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History Science Society

The same scientist created fertilizer and TNT

Watched The Scientist Who Killed Millions and Saved Billions by Geoff Barrett from veritasium.com

Fritz Haber is the scientist who arguably most transformed the world.

And chlorine gas as a chemical weapon for use in the trenches.

And a poisonous gas used on the Jews in the Holocaust (after his death).

And from the concept of harvesting energy from broken or formed chemical bonds, used for TNT, only another twenty years till nukes (my connection so may be factually incorrect)…

But his discovery of a process to extract atmospheric nitrogen into usable form allows four billion more people to live on Earth than it could otherwise support.

So how should we think of him?

I both like and dislike Derek’s framing at the end to consider the inventor irrelevant, that someone else would have done it if he hadn’t. I appreciate the thought of not creating a hero or villain out of ordinary people who don’t know what their research may yield. I also like pulling back to the perspective that other scientists were working on the same problem, so even if he hadn’t found these, someone else would.

Yet, I’m wary of absolving responsibility for our creations. This goes straight back to Frankenstein, not wanting to deal with his monster. But in the real world, I hold Truman responsible for dropping the atomic bomb, even if it could have been FDR if his health endured. And I hold the scientists of the Manhattan Project responsible for their creation. Taking responsibility is the first step in repairing and recompensing harm, and excusing those who actually made or did something bad feels like denying any move towards restoration. It is possible to do harm without the intent; you are still responsible for the harm you cause, even as we can grant more grace for mistakes when they are admitted.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at tracy.durnell@gmail.com. She/her.

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