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Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew

Hal Harris's picture
Wed, 03/01/2006 - 00:00 -- Hal Harris

Haber's name is found in the indices of a large fraction of all books about chemistry. Introductory students learn about the Haber process, by which we (still) synthesize ammonia from nitrogen in the air. Physical chemistry always includes the Haber cycle, a systematic approach to thermochemistry. Haber was doubtless a genius, and his pursuit of a method to "fix" nitrogen was both conceptually brilliant and dogged. Unlike most of his predecessors, Haber went after a method to reduce nitrogen, rather to oxidize it in combustion or an electrical discharge. Dozens upon dozens of catalysts were tried, in an attempt to speed the equilibrium between nitrogen/hydrogen and ammonia. I have always assumed that iron is used because it works and is cheaper than platinum or palladium. It turns out that humble iron is better than any alternative. Students of history will know that Haber was the initiator and organizer of German's gas warfare, and was behind the use of chlorine and later the synthesis of mustard gases used in World War I. Far from being a remote scientist, he involved himself as much as possible in the dispersion of these agents in the field. Haber was an extraordinary, complex man, well-described in this excellent biography. A longer review of this book appears in JCE 2006 83 1605. There is another recent book about Haber of which I am aware, but have not read. It is "Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare", by Daniel Charles.

Pick Attribution: 

Dietrich Stoltzenberg

Publication Date: 
Thursday, January 1, 2004
Price: 
$40.00