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How do you solve a problem like Fritz Haber?

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How do you square the idea of a bad person who does great good? Or a good person who does terrible harm? Sam Kean introduces us to the confusing life story of Fritz Haber. Around 1900, Haber was a young chemist in Germany, intent on solving the biggest problem facing his country: how to feed a growing population. At the time, everyone was starting to worry that  we'd maxed out how much food the Earth could produce. But as Latif Nasser, Daniel Charles, and Fred Kaufman explain, Haber was intent on finding a solution. So he started experimenting...and pretty soon, he made arguably the most significant scientific break through in human history--he figured out a way to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere, to make bread from the air, and feed the world. His discovery earned him a Nobel Prize. Around the same time, US officials were calling him a war criminal. Fritz Stern, a historian (and Fritz Haber's god son), tells us about the dark side of Haber's legacy, and helps us wrestle with how to take the measure of a man who both saved and destroyed an enormous number of lives.


Daniel Charles, Master Mind : The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare

Fritz Stern, Five Germanys I Have Known

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918


Dan Charles, Frederick Kaufman, Sam Kean, Latif Nasser and Fritz Stern

Comments [87]

tom stewart from Land O' Lakes, Florida

Excellent piece, but I disagree a lot with what you describe as the “good” part of his contribution - that of synthetic fertilizers that supposedly fed people. The opposite is true. Indeed, the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides also turned out to be evil. To this day, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cause economic dependence on Monsanto, causing desertification, climate change, poverty, war, you name it. He really was one powerful, purely evil son of a gun, and his legacy lives on.

The cause of starvation was not the lack of synthetic nitrogen, but poor farming practices. That’s another story unto itself. See, for example, Allan Savory, Elaine Ingham.

Jul. 23 2017 06:37 PM
Damien from Ireland

I thought this was an excellent presentation. Are there other productions like this on Radiolab, presented in this format and if there are how do I find them?

Feb. 11 2017 08:05 AM

(This may wind up a double-post. Apologies if it does.) Regarding which performance of Agnus Dei was used, it sounds to me a bit like it might be the Mass in B minor, BWV 232 Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale (Ghent), conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.

Mar. 04 2016 04:27 PM

I disagree with Jad on his question as to whether Haber was more good than bad. His development of the Haber process for chemical nitrogen fixation would have eventually been discovered by some other chemist. This contribution doesn't seem to me to compensate for his eventual moral failings.
I think the lesson from Haber's life is how important it is to carefully consider the consequences of one's action. It is the sign of a mature sense of ethics to try to think through those consequences beforehand.
Haber's life also raises the question of what is patriotism?

Oct. 28 2015 10:46 AM
m munn from Minnesota

I love the show & I love the comments it has "inspired," murderous and otherwise.

My take on the development of ammonia from N2 are the well known negatives: energy intensive, fossil fuel dependent, Agribusiness, overproduction, erosion, and all the associated repercussions.

The Big Deal to me, is how the development has kicked the can down the road regarding the carrying capacity of the planet to the point one can not even speak of population control.

Oct. 26 2015 06:55 PM
Davidchap from Montana

Well, I have YET to listen to this pod cast but did just finish reading the biography of Haber - "Master Mind" by Daniel Charles. From my readings, Haber is truly a Faustian-like character who made incremental choices seen as "good" for either his career or for his social standings - choices were usually those things German society respected. In the end though, he became crushed by recognition of the realities of his actions. Interesting contrast against his contemporary and friend A. Einstein.

Another person with similar "sold soul", an American, to whom a like book could be written is Thomas Midgley. THIS guy promoted/invented Tetraethyllead as a gasoline additive AND chlorofluorocarbon for refrigeration (yes better than contemporary alternatives but really bad for the planet).,_Jr. Together, with these two inventions, he probably, indirectly, killed more people that Haber contributed to through gas warfare.

Which may bring one to consider this:

Laws of Technodynamics - 1. Conservation of problems: Problems do not go away, they are merely substituted, one for another. The solution of one problem creates another problem, or: The chief cause of problems is solution. --Eric A Davidson, Economics as if Ecology Mattered

Thank you RadioLab for the PodCast I that am about to receive.

Oct. 26 2015 10:21 AM

I found it particularly aggravating, in the context of this discussion of "bad" impulses or people, that Jad makes a case for Haber being essentially good and even discounting the use of chlorine gas as being more than balanced by his development of nitrogen fertilizer. When a man can watch hundreds of others die an excruciating death from the gas he unleashes, and relish his "success" with this abominable weapon, he is nauseatingly sick and apparently amoral. Jad says "he didn't intend this to happen" regarding the use of a pesticide applied as an agent in WWII, but it's entirely consistent with his previous development of chlorine gas. And then, agreeing with a remark by Robert, Jad says lamely, "Yes, I guess it's all about doubt" regarding the approach of a scientist. I thought, Huh?!, what is this guy talking about?! No, it's about so much more than "doubt"! We can agree that some people who do mostly good or well-intentioned acts in their lives are also capable of doing some bad as well. We can even allow for various traumas or chemical imbalances in a person being a source of terrible behavior. But let's not excuse a man who is consumed more with his own ego gratification and ambitions while seeming to have no real moral compass.

Oct. 26 2015 03:33 AM
baltasar from Jerusalem

Jewish puff-piece, everything we do is good, somehow.

Oct. 25 2015 02:12 PM
Zephyr from Midwest

Note of interest: A reference to this Radiolab episode was entered into Nancy Lanza's iPhone notes at 1:46 p.m., December 13, 2012 -- less than 24 hours before the Sandy Hook shootings. Oddly, no police or media seem interested that an accused mass murderer's mother was researching mass murder the day before her son committed mass murder.

Jul. 09 2015 06:31 PM

Note of interest: A reference to this Radiolab episode was entered into Nancy Lanza's iPhone notes at 1:46 p.m., December 13, 2012 -- less than 24 hours before the Sandy Hook shootings. Oddly, no police or media seem interested that an accused mass murderer's mother was researching mass murder the day before her son committed mass murder.

Jul. 09 2015 06:28 PM
Timasaurus007 from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Great podcast, stunning use of sound effects and editing.

Shame there is barely any material/sources on the nitrogen agricultural issue.

Jun. 25 2015 07:20 AM
casey44au from Brisbane, Australia

The “problem” of Fritz Haber is predicated on the assumption that he, uniquely, was capable of discovering and developing the means of fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Nothing could be further from the truth. The nature of Haber’s discovery and its application was such as to be inevitable: if not Haber, then other(s) would shortly have achieved the same outcomes. But the historical fact is that it was Haber who did so, and to quote Peter Medawar, “…it is generally admitted to be true that Germany would not have been able to embark upon the First World War unless Fritz Haber had worked out how to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into nitrates or compounds of ammonia, so making Germany independent of imported fertilizers.” Such a stark contrast with the goals and outcomes of the Green Revolution driven by Norman Borlaug half a century later. But the critical issue was that Haber, not content with being an enabler of war, then crossed a threshold that separates humanity from psychopathology. The answer to Jad’s hypothetical question is, emphatically, the world would be better without him!

May. 22 2015 07:05 AM

To kill indiscriminately the way he did, and to have no regard for his dying wife, careless with his kid, he's a really bad guy, horribly morally corrupted guy.

Sure he did find a way to create ammonia for fertilizer, but other chemists following him would sooner or later find the same thing. Scientific discoveries and inventions are meaningless if we don't know how to treat ourselves - the human race - right.

Apr. 28 2015 07:22 PM

Hi. I just attended a soils class for master gardeners the other day, and I want to thank you for your wonderfully simple explanation of the nitrogen process - it helps the soil components easier to understand, as well as helping with my history :)
Thanks for your podcasts - great side-studying for any criminal justice student as well :)

Apr. 24 2015 10:04 PM

I feel a very important point is missed if we dichotomize Haber's actions this way. When we consider the true consequences of the artificial production of nitrogen (the environmental impact and the dubious benefit of allowing the human population to balloon to unsustainable levels--as a number of listeners have commented), we actually have a man who wreaked havoc on the world in multiple ways. I propose that there is a common force at work in Haber's "accomplishments:" hubris--the roots of which are to be found in the terribly misguided belief that God "gave man dominion over all things."

Feb. 04 2015 04:39 PM
bdibuz from Chicago

Which is the dark side of Fritz Haber? Perhaps both.

Feb. 04 2015 04:04 PM
Marta Jenson

Perhaps even more ironic that even his "good" deed for the world could destroy civilisation:

Jan. 16 2015 10:43 AM
Shimon Haber from United States

Fritz Shimon Haber was a Nobel laureate in chemistry, a friend of many 20th century renewed scientists, a German Jew and World War I hero. But Shimon Haber could also be the most important scientist the world has ever seen. This comes thanks to the well-known Haber-Bosch process which was invented by Shimon Haber in the beginning of the twentieth century. This process revolutionized agriculture by providing enough fertilizers to feed every person on the Earth. Thank to this invention, one third of the current population in the world can feed itself and survive. But this process once had not so noble cause… During the World War I Haber process was used to create an entirely new weapon - poison gas. Shimon Haber's work has led to creating Zyklon B, a chemical gas that was used during the Holocaust and killed millions of people, including Haber's own relatives.
Shimon Haber is a scientist whose discoveries transformed the way we produce food and fight wars. His legacy is filled with contradictions and so was his life. On one side he was a benefactor of humanity and devoted friend, but on the other Shimon Haber was a war criminal, led by his ambition to become a noble part of the German society. His ambition went that far that Shimon Haber supported the Nazi cause. At the same time he was a Jew and a German patriot, an enabler of the Nazi regime and its victim.

Jan. 14 2015 08:45 AM
Shimon Haber from New York

Shimon Haber

Dec. 14 2014 01:57 PM

I'd like to resolve an issue regarding nitrogen that seems to have been forgotten in the discussion of Haber's morals. While this isn't the main point of the piece (and it might seem like a small issue to bring up), I do think that it should be addressed. RadioLab presents itself to listeners as a reliable science-themed podcast, so it's responsible for explaining scientific concepts accurately. A few other people have pointed the following problem out, but it seems like there was some confusion as to what is really being indicated.

In the podcast, nitrogen is introduced as trivalent. The guest scientist explains that this means "the nitrogen has really strong attachments to itself". A little cryptically worded for people who don’t know much about chem, but no one is disputing the truth of this statement. Nitrogen has a triple bond, which is difficult to break. All of this is accurately presented and important for understanding the significance of the Haber cycle.

Unfortunately Jad proceeds to misinterpret (or maybe he simply mis-speaks and no one on staff even catches it) the meaning of trivalent. He follows up the guest scientist’s explanation with: “What he means is that when nitrogen atoms are just free floating in the air, they will cling to each other. [So far so good.] These three little nitrogen atoms [and this is where any high school chem student worth their salt immediately flinches] will fiercely hold together.”

The issue, in case you aren't that interested in the details of chem, is that nitrogen is diatomic. Therefore it is two (not three) nitrogen atoms that are bound together in the air. Trivalence refers to the number of bonds the two nitrogen atoms form between each other, not the number of atoms in the molecule itself.

Is this mistake going to ruin the entire story? No. The point they were trying to make (that it’s really difficult to separate nitrogen atoms from each other) is thoroughly conveyed and accurate. On the other hand, the fact that they haven’t acknowledged this problem is striking. I love RadioLab. It adds an entirely new dimension to the way I see the world. As a listener, I am trusting the show to provide me with accurate information. RadioLab markets itself to an intellectual audience. If I can pick up this sort of basic error—especially when that error has gone unacknowledged—it calls into question the quality of the information in subject areas where I might not be able to pick up on the mistakes myself. When I hear something on RadioLab, I shouldn’t have to take it with a grain of salt or wonder if it was a common layperson misperception (like I’m watching BuzzFeed or something).

I don’t mean to nitpick (and I'll still be listening), but I do think errors like this should be acknowledged, small though they may be. RadioLab owes it to their audience, and by ignoring it, hurts its own reputation.
Also, if anyone has found this acknowledged somewhere else, feel free to shout me down.

Oct. 24 2014 11:05 PM
chad Snelson

Aug. 12 2014 10:57 AM
Annie from Canada

Thank you very much for this episode-- it was fascinating! I decided to do my final project for history class about Fritz Haber because I think he was such an interesting person. I think it would be very interesting if you could do a show comparing him with Robespierre. My project was about how Haber and Robespierre were actually very similar because they both tried to help their country by using questionable means and if those means can be justified. I think this would be a very interesting topic for a show since you often delve into questions about morality and both Haber and Robespierre definitely had questionable morals that can be looked at in many different ways. And I know you tend to present many sides of a story!

Jun. 02 2014 10:33 PM
retard from your mom


May. 12 2014 09:59 AM
GSchenck from NJ

I thought the commentary was interesting and I thought it was interesting to learn about the origin of the infamous biological warfare of WW1

Apr. 10 2014 09:01 PM
Frederick from Cartersville, GA

What exactly does the following mean?

"Half of each of our bodies contains Nitrogen from the Haber process."

Is it:
1) half of the element Nitrogen in our bodies by mass was produced by this process
2)half of the world's population has consumed Nitrogen produced by this process
3)half of the cells in the human body get Nitrogen by consuming Haber Nitrogen and the other half of the human body gets it through some other means (directly from breathing perhaps)
4)Dude, you've missed it entirely.


Dec. 16 2013 08:58 PM

Haber, a German Jewish chemist who won a Nobel Prize, served Germany in WW I, resigned his position after the Nazis took power, and left Germany.

One of the commentators on your show about Fritz Haber said something about scientists who act with certainty, without doubt.

We need doctors and surgeons with doubt.

Cancer patients, heart patients, every patient going into surgery needs a surgeon who will operate with absolute certainty who will not hesitate. Doubt and hesitation on the part of a surgeon can be fatal for the patient.

Haber developed a pesticide called "Zyklon." The Nazis modified it to "Zyklon B," the deadly gas that was used in Dachau and other Nazi death camps.

It's clear from the fact that Haber put a warning smell in the pesticide that he did not intend it to be used against people. It is also clear from the fact that he resigned his post in protest of Nazi policies that he wasn't a Nazi, despite the fact that he was German.

You are missing an understanding of the fact that German Jews before WW II considered themselves to be German, just as the Polish Jews before 1939 considered themselves to be Polish, just as American Jews today consider themselves to be American.

Dec. 15 2013 08:40 AM
Colleen from Pennsylvania

Towards the end of this segment, one of the hosts asks the question "Would the world be better with or without Fritz Haber?" I think he's asking the wrong (very reductive) question. Instead, I think the question is "How can someone who developed scientific means for good be the same person who developed scientific means for bad?" Part of the answer, in my opinion, is that Haber was a scientist: he was a problem solver. Solving the question of how to defeat the enemy and win World War I for Germany was just as much a problem to Haber as how to solve the question of feeding 20 million hungry Germans. And the means of solving the problem was, perhaps, not so much a moral question for Haber. The other thing is that I think the hosts didn't give the proper historical context for Haber's actions in World War I. Nationalism was rampant all across Europe; it was commonplace to believe that any human being who lived in a country other than one's own was actually less-than-human. Was what Haber did on the fields of Ypres appalling and difficult to understand, especially in today's social context? Yes. But for Haber to believe he was helping to solve Germany's problem of how to win the war (and not consider, so much, how moral or 'evil' his actions were) is not surprising, given the historical context. ...I'm not saying Haber was a good guy. I simply think his case (or anyone's case) is more nuanced than how the hosts presented it.

Aug. 15 2013 10:01 AM
Barry from St. Paul, MN

I was disappointed with this show because of its one-dimensional and childish (adultish? because so many adults are enthralled with dogmatic answers for complex problems) and naive treatment of "good" and "evil", "good" person or "bad" person.

So the guy who wanted to kill his wife was incredibly emotional about something and out of control. What's new? The full explication of Milgram's famous experiment was great! Thank you for the detail and completeness of the analysis. Thanks to Haslam for his input and explication.

Regarding Haber, why pick on him, other than the fact that his banality of murder is seemingly contradicted by his contribution to feeding 7 billion people? The guy did things in a big way, both good and evil, and it does not sound like he gave much thought to "good" and "evil" but wanted to do good work wherever it led. Who is really good or evil - most people are just small time. At least Haber did not try to cover-up what he was doing.

Then there is the Green River killer. He is just some screwed up guy who has a one track object of interest and death. He is a sick murderer but not nearly as calculated as many others:
Take Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld and the Enron and Citibank and JP Morgan and the Koch brothers . . . and . . . people who initiate some of the worst suffering to millions of people and perpetuate their visions and errors with no remorse. The Green River killer had the sense that he was sick. He didn't want to talk about his twisted behavior. These gifted people actually rationalize their actions as Good. No humility or even a sense of duty. You might say they are sick, too, but they excuse themselves from atrocities using all their Divinely given abilities.

That cop who was so shook up by the Green River killer should have been interviewing Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld and their supporters. These people are scary and make the human race look evil.

Aug. 10 2013 10:02 PM

A little chemistry. Nitrogen has three unpaired valence electrons, making it most stable when these electrons each take partners, forming three covalent bonds. As atmospheric nitrogen gas (N2), the two N atoms form a triple bond with each other--very hard to break. A few kinds of bacteria (one of which forms partnerships with plants in the bean/clover family) can do it, and lightning, but these are the only significant natural sources of nitrogen available to plants: ammonia (NH3) and nitrate (NO3-). Ammonia, by the way, is a gas under normal pressure and temperature; but it dissolves readily in water to make the solution we used to wash floors with.

The nitrogen fertilizer that resulted from Haber's discovery is on of the the biggest technological cause of the mess we now find ourselves in: population rising towards ten billion and already soaking up more of earth's land and resources than all other species combined, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico & elsewhere, etc.

Aug. 10 2013 04:32 PM

What's the music piece 6:30 into this part playing in the background when they talk about the fertiliser?

Jun. 04 2013 05:26 PM

This episode isn't all about the evilness of Haber. I think it primarily addresses the relevancy of ambition in science. Abumrad, in my opinion sums up the episode's thema in the end by suggesting that science should be used for good, and should be pursued in discernment and caution.

May. 09 2013 12:02 AM
Franz Müller

I'm a fellow countryman of Fritz Haber's, and I'm deeply disappointed of the biased podcast about him. He was soooo evil that the radio hosts have to take a shower and don't want to have anything to do with him... When a German patriot supports his country in a war, this is bad. When American patriots support their country by making an a-bomb and by dropping it on two Japanese cities, this is good, of course.

Fritz Haber was a patriot who wanted his country to win a horrible war. He was patriotic enough to forget his own desires and his personal problems -- this is noble, not bad. I really cannot understand this unfair comments on him.

May. 01 2013 04:50 AM
Raina from New York

It seems to me that Habers intentions were good to create nationalism for his country. But his attempt just caused damage and were willing to harm and violate people just for his own country. He killed and risked the lives of so many people just for his own country to benefit the German people and it's sad to see innocent people suffer from his choices.

Apr. 18 2013 11:35 AM
Begona from New York

This situation must make Harber question is ethics. Did the question of what is more important defending my nation or remaining an innocent, harmless man? ever cross his mind? Is violently acting upon your overwhelming amount of pride for the nation you belong to worth the aftermath of this nationalism?

Apr. 17 2013 10:27 PM
Begona from New York

Its hard to hear about how someone like Haber, who was incredibly nationalistic and positive towards his country, cause such negativity, distress and immense tragedy. He used something that benefitted his people by providing food to kill more than he saved originally with this feeding process. This is a great example of how new weapons and technology contributed to even more deaths than any other war. By creating these explosives, Harber was content because he knew he was doing something good for his own nation, but in reality he was doing really bad with awful consequences.

Apr. 17 2013 10:22 PM
Leyla from New York

This also clearly demonstrates the effects of industrialism and nationalism at that time in world history. Great advances were made in technology and science, but at what cost? New technology in factories, as well as on the battlefield, caused numerous deaths, and often because long-term effects were not known at that time. Life was dangerous and many people had to be accepting of death.
Of course, Fritz Haber knew exactly what destruction he could cause, and didn't seem to feel any remorse, but one has to wonder whether he would have been the same without the environment in which he lived and was most likely raised.

Apr. 17 2013 09:33 PM
Leyla from New York

This brings up an interesting point about conflicting goals: how can people prevent their good inventions from being used for bad? And what does it mean if they endorse those uses? Despite the terrible consequences of this man's actions, you also have to consider the extremely good consequences. Do the bad outweigh the good, or vice versa?
It's a difficult judgment to make, especially considering the circumstances.

Apr. 17 2013 09:29 PM
Katherine from New York

It was not Haber's intentions to have his hazardous chemicals used in concentration camps. He obviously loved Germany and wanted to help the people. However, his idea of taking nitrogen to grow wheat, was also used to kill many people.

Apr. 17 2013 08:53 PM
Cat from New York

This whole situation shows the powerful impact of nationalism. A man who cares about the people of his country enough to figure out a way to feed the growing population is also willing to use the same process to make explosives to kill people, just as long as it gave him a feeling of pride. Haber isn't too bad of a person, but he got too carried away with trying to win the war.

Apr. 17 2013 05:15 PM
Cat from New York

It's hard for me to see someone as a good person when they could watch so many people suffer a painful death and feel good about it. Although he did it for his country in attempt to win the war, that does not justify the intention of such agony. The fact that he joyfully celebrates the tragic deaths of so many people shows how strongly he cares about trying to win this war.

Apr. 17 2013 05:13 PM
Chloe from New York

I find it interesting that someone who could do something so incredible can do something that would cause so much damage. The gas gun was an incredible invention but caused a horrible way to die.

Apr. 16 2013 08:23 PM
Allison from New York

I think that the use of Haber's discovery in killing his fellow Jews during the holocaust is extremely tragic. Obviously he never predicted or wished for this, but he still indirectly contributed to his family members and friends being killed. Maybe this goes to show that before we create something for our own benefit, we have to stop and think about the repercussions in the future, not only to ourselves but to others and society as a whole.

Apr. 16 2013 04:34 PM
Allison D. from New York

Although Haber did rejoice at how these people were killed by his invention, I don't think he can be viewed as a bad person. This was simply a product of nationalism, as he rejoiced at the idea of his country's success and how he could be a part of it. His positive contributions to the world are irrefutable, and his reactions to the killing by the gas simply goes to show how World War I is considered a "total war."

Apr. 16 2013 04:32 PM
Roger from NJ

I find some of the comments made here to be simple minded and self righteous. Almost every invention can have dual purposes, and these commenters obviously have not given much thought to their statements. For instance, many more lives have been made possible, including the development of civilization, by the invention of the plow. If they want to blame something for the explosion of mankind, blame the plow. The very people making statements here would probably not exist without such inventions as fertilizer. I'd like to know how many of these people who are fixated on population control will reject antibiotics the next time they have a deadly infection. It is one thing to deplore the misuse of science when it destroys. It is another to demonize technology just because it facilitates human life. I believe the diagnosis for this malady is cognitive dissonance.

Mar. 29 2013 02:19 PM
Josh from Los Angeles

Excellent show. Very interesting and thought provoking. Some of the comments below critical of this episode are absolutely ridiculous.

Oct. 09 2012 03:47 PM

I can not help but see Haber as "bad". His greatest discovery led to the gross over population of the world and the horrors of modern food productions and farming practices. The zeal expressed during his use of mustard gas says to me that in regards to zyclon a, although his racist mind would have hated the use of it against the jewish people of europe, he arrogantly would have participated in it's use against the military enemies during WWII. I believe he would himself would have helped them remove the warning smell for this purpose. A lesser evil; selfish, unsympathetic, arrogant and moral corrupt. He worked not for the benefit of the world, which i believe scientist should do, but for the benefit of his reputation and status.

Oct. 03 2012 10:48 AM
ST Campagna

I"m sorry my comment showed up on the wrong story.

Aug. 01 2012 01:45 PM
ST Campagna from St Petersburg, FL

It would be really interesting to try this experiment (the fourth prod in particular) with people who were recently part of an authoritarian society.

Aug. 01 2012 01:39 PM

I'm most fascinated by the son, Hermann. I understand why the show glossed over his story in the interest of Fritz's narrative and time, but does anyone have any additional info on Hermann? All I can find is that he was married, had two children, divorced, and died in 1946.

Jun. 17 2012 09:59 PM
Roxana Hart from Oakland, CA

I intended to express the very same thoughts as Mary Olson of Asheville, NC. She did it so well, I will just applaud her and say 'Yes!' Thank you, Mary.

Jun. 07 2012 10:16 PM
Viki Day

I won't soon forget this episode. But I think the bit about feeding billions was wildly exaggerated. However a look at the site explains his genius.

Jun. 04 2012 11:31 PM
Mary Olson from Asheville, NC

Much of the climate challenge we face today is rooted in the exponential human population increase of the 20th century. Rising birthrate is directly tied to declining death rate (particularly juvenile). I believe in saving children...but this world is losing its balance because of all those additional children who survive to have their own babies... The statement in the show that 1/2 our bodies are composed of material issuing from Haber's invention of synthetic fertilizer suggests that 1/2 of our current population depends on this "synthetic" nutrition. Resolving world hunger through thoughtful choice to reproduce, or not (as in self-determination of females) would have been a much better path than mass "synthetic" nutrition. I think the world would be better today WITHOUT what is presented as Haber's good side.

Jun. 03 2012 07:45 PM
Bobby Shafto from Westwood, CA

For Science Girl: The narration does indeed talk about the difficulty of prying apart the "three little Nitrogen atoms" in the atmosphere.

Jun. 03 2012 04:16 PM
Bobby Shafto from Westwood, CA

1. There is a lot of faux info on Radiolab. I give you the melodramatic discussion of Nitrogen being tri-valent, and the fact that these three little Nitrogen atoms cling together, and it is almost impossible to tear them apart ... but when I went to school Nitrogen in the air was a duplex molecule (N2). How could it be a triplex molecule (N3), Dr Phil?
2. On a show about serial killers there was this dreadful, loud, atonal music which drowned out the narration, whose bad idea was that?
3. On a show about a serial killer, it was that questioning the existence of evil in the world was challenging the Jewish God, but what if you are not Jewish and think the elaborate Jewish food rituals are a device to keep one under the control of the priesthood, not unlike the Catholic prohibition of contraception, which drive families into powerless poverty? Suppose that there is no God, what then?
4. Why can't Radiolab be accurate, pleasant and rewarding to listen to? When someone is reading script, we don't need music!

Jun. 03 2012 04:09 PM
alex from whittier,ca.

what was the name of of the track played? it was a lady singing opera?i need to know!

Jun. 03 2012 01:18 AM
Bill Gilliss from Louisville

On the Haber story:

Freeman Dyson notes in "Disturbing the Universe" that many in the scientific community were offended by Robert Oppenheimer's comment after the war that now scientists knew sin. Dyson's take on this is not that Oppenheimer thought that making the Bomb itself was the sin -- there was a war to be won that we had not started -- but that *enjoying* making it was the sin. For many, the time at Los Alamos was the most professionally satisfying, indeed thrilling, part of their careers. They loved what they were doing.

Jun. 02 2012 01:55 PM
nesaboz from Boston

@sciencegirl and @JRuh
Am I missing something here? Nitrogen IS trivalent, and of course creates N_2, NH_3 etc. etc.

Mar. 21 2012 03:05 PM
Matt from San Francisco

Haber's nitrogen fixing, novel as it was, did not enable a more prolific agricultural system; it made a sick, industrial one (net influence: bad).

Environmentally, excessive N pollutes the water table, creates "dead zones" in places like the Mississippi River Delta, and contributes to acid rain.

In the plant, physiologically, it creates imbalance, suppressing important minerals like sulfur, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. The plant, water-logged with N, is big and green and....eaten, by lots of pests, because it has no immunological response, because it is sick. Enter pesticide industry.

More natural alternatives to the often over-applied N in a bag are animal manures, leguminous cover crops with N-fixing bacteria called rhizobia, green manure crops, blood meal, feathermeal and compost, all of which can help the world feed itself just fine.

Boo, Haber.

Mar. 20 2012 03:11 AM
ChristineU from Berkeley, CA

The show doesn't mention that Germany had signed the Hague Convention of 1907, which forbade the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in war. So Haber should have been considered a war criminal not just by the standards of "US officials," but by his own government, as well as the governments of the other signatories. But as we know, governments often find it convenient to forget the treaties they have signed.

Mar. 13 2012 03:35 PM

In defense of my favorite radio show and to clear up an earlier comment, I believe the show said that nitrogen is trivalent. They make no mention of N2 gas being N3 in the show. The scientific reporting is still accurate, accessible, and fabulous.

Feb. 28 2012 02:20 AM

This is the frustration with Radiolab. Ostensibly, this is a 'science' podcast produced by geniuses, right? Yet these geniuses fail miserably at high school or lower science, as in the case of atmospheric nitrogen. It is N2, not N3. And I see no mention of this on the web page...

Feb. 27 2012 08:20 PM
Allan Van Cleave from Ohio

Amazing segment, fritz haber is the most interesting person i've never heard of.

Feb. 22 2012 01:10 AM
Olivia from Texas

Ok, I have to say this because no one else has. But firstly, I am a big fan of the show. Now on to the correction! It's not a "prince nez" it's a pince-nez (in French "pince" means "pinch" and "nez" means "nose") and it's pronounced pretty much like "pance nay." There. Phew! Had to get that out of my system! That was bugging me.

Jan. 30 2012 06:07 PM
AndrewD from Perth, Australia

Rats! John Reeves from Portland beat me to it! Here's my 5cents....
Haber pursued the production and use of chlorine gas as a new weapon of war - does this make him bad? If so, what does it say about anybody else who develops a new weapon - stealth bombers, drones etc, or about Barnes Wallis who developed tha "Dam Buster" bouncing bomb, and also the first 10 ton bomb for use in WW2? Wallis was a British hero, but to me, these guys are morally equivalent - helping their country in time of war. I'm not sure that if I was part of a war effort (and as a chemical engineer), I'd be saying no to working on enhanced explosives or similar.
Unfortunately, I think the add-on about Zyklon-B was a distraction, the odourless "B" only came about after Haber's death.
Still, I thank Radiolab for another stimulating program!

Jan. 29 2012 08:41 PM
HUgo Gasca from Maryland

It all depends on who is telling the story. I can see a one to one comparison between Fritz and Einstein (within its own measure of comparison), however I do not know anyone judging Einstein as war criminal (including myself).

Jan. 22 2012 11:51 AM

What perhaps is even sadder and stranger is that
Hitler allegedly had a “vision” to save Germany while recuperating from a Gas attack in 1918.
Add that with the fact that the Nazi use the Gas Fritz indirectly helped developed the gas used in the camps and its quite vexing.

Jan. 18 2012 03:32 AM
HunterJE from Washington State

I think the proposed moral quandary here is that, given that this same man invented horrible things and great things, was his existence a net positive or a net negative? For this to be a quandary requires two rather questionable assumptions: First, that his procedure for fixing atmospheric nitrogen would not have been invented by someone else had he not, and second, that his innovations in chemical warfare would not have been invented by someone else had he not. Given the nature of innovation through the ages (namely, when an idea's time comes, people tend to converge on it -- think Leibniz–Newton, Marconi-Bose-Tesla, Edison-Swan, or numerous others), I find both unlikely.

Jan. 17 2012 09:27 PM
Neal Matthews

It seems to me that this episode created something of a manufactured quandary with regard to Haber's good/bad characterization by examining only the results of his work, without considering his intentions. The description of his behavior, right down to the cold-hearted indifference to his wife's death and son's abandonment, demonstrates there is no quandary at all; this man clearly cared only for that which gave him a sense of pride, accomplishment and personal fulfillment, regardless of the consequences. By my way of thinking, this makes him quite simply bad. The fact that he accomplished something that benefited mankind was simply an accidental side-effect of his selfish pursuits. The show unfortunately equates the question "would the world have been better or worse off without him?" with the question "was he good or bad?". Those are two very different questions, and most worldviews value intention quite highly. It makes for very thought-provoking radio, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but equating those questions isn't really justified.

Of course, if your intentions were honest, I'll give you more credit than if you knowingly confused the issues to create the quandary for the sake of drama :) In any case, thanks for making me think!

Jan. 16 2012 11:36 PM
Mariana Buchman from Chicago, Illinois

Who's version of "Two Guitars" is used in the end of this segment? Wonderful use of the song to reverberate the chilly ending. Although, this song isn't overtly Jewish, it is a folk staple in my Russian-Jewish family.

Jan. 16 2012 11:48 AM
Amy Zitzelberger from Hazel Park, MI

At minute 32 of The Bad Show, the narrator says that three nitrogen atoms cling to each other with a very strong bond in the nitrogen found in the atmosphere. This is incorrect. Two nitrogen atoms cling to each other with a triple bond -- which is very strong. Nitrogen is N2 not N3. I backed up and listened to it three times to make sure I was hearing correctly. I am shocked to find a basic error like this! Love the show so much I can forgive the error.

Jan. 14 2012 02:40 PM

It's a traditional Russian Gypsy folk song, usually called simply "Two Guitars."

Jan. 14 2012 12:46 AM
Lilian from Melbourne, Australia

what's the piece of music you use at the end of this episode, team Radiolab? really like it.. in a sad, melancholy way..

Jan. 13 2012 10:23 PM
Griffin Shumway from North Carolina

I have no moral quams about Haber inventing zykon-B. It is certainly ironic, that a Jewish man invented the Gas that was used during the holocaust. But he was the scientist who invented and started using the deadly gases during the First World War. It is in no way ironic or strange, that a man who invented a gas used to kill people, would later have his invention used to kill people.

Jan. 13 2012 12:05 PM

It's like you're trying to make history majors out of the lot of us! Hot damn this a great show.

Jan. 12 2012 09:49 PM

Great show but I take issue with your placing of Haber's process for the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia so quickly in the category of good. Synthetic nitrogen certainly revolutionized agriculture and has allowed for billions of humans to live along with all our pigs, cows, chickens, dogs and cats. And of course kittens are adorable and synthetic nitrogen isn't inherently evil. But we can't so quickly ignore the consequences of its abuse in soil degradation and pollution even if we pass over the myriad of other problems caused by a all those billions of people of lived off food it helped produce.

Soil and clean water are required for the sustenance of humanity. The current practices of industrial agriculture which abuse and are entirely dependent on synthetic nitrogen feed the world now, but also guarantee their starvation later; when the loss of top soil and desertification of land erases the gains in production allowed by synthetic nitrogen.

And where was the shout out for the diazotrophs? They can make atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia too! And I am sure they have at least a dark history devouring other bacteria or releasing some sort microbial death gas.

Jan. 11 2012 09:32 PM

@anise I do not agree - I think that Radiolab's treatment of the Haber story was perfect - the emphasis was on human fallibility not the inventions themselves. One might ask: should we give up scientific progress in fear that it might misused or lead to some bad unintended consequences? Using Haber as an example: would it be better not to have invented nitrogen fertilizers and let the nature keep our population in check by constantly killing us off with famine, malnutrition and sickness?

Jan. 11 2012 05:09 PM
John Reeves from Portland, Oregon

Also, about weather Haber was bad or not. I think his intentions were to help the side of the war he thought was right, and he did so in a pretty direct way. If you think you are right in a war, then your goal is to end the war as soon as possible with you as the winner. I don't think he was wrong here.

And while I agree that 7 billion people is not inherently a good thing, the Haber-Bosch process allows us to produce more food with less land, which definitely is a good thing. I.e., if our population stayed the same we could disrupt less ecologies. What we choose to do with that ability is a different matter, as currently people are reluctant to control population - something we definitely have to do at some point.

In short, we can fit a farm in a smaller space ship than we otherwise could :)

Jan. 11 2012 04:05 PM
John Reeves from Portland, Oregon

I second that. Awesome show, I just wish I could find out what all the music was. I liked what was at the end of the Haber section. Are there show credits somewhere that I don't know about?

Jan. 11 2012 03:55 PM

Haber strikes me as a "because I can" person. I don't think he pursued those scientific processes to save the world. He did it to feed his vanity. Total sociopath.

Jan. 11 2012 03:53 PM
joe from usa

Ahhhhh! What is the bumper music at the end of the Haber piece. It's driving me nuts not to remember.

Jan. 11 2012 10:34 AM
bee from SF

@anise I agree, with ecological hindsight being 20/20 Haber was all bad. Of course this does away the Manichean narrative but so be it. Now I'm curious about Bosch's (as in the Haber-Bosch process) story.

Jan. 11 2012 10:14 AM

Loved this show, especially this segment on Fritz Haber. I had never heard his story before and it's a really fascinating and morally complex one.

A small quibble on your chemistry that I thought you might want to be aware of, though: nitrogen being trivalent doesn't mean that 3 nitrogen atoms bond together, as Jad seems to imply. Nitrogen gas is actually diatomic (meaning the compound is N2), but there is a triple bond (three pairs of shared electrons) between those 2 nitrogen atoms, so that they are very difficult to split apart.

Jan. 10 2012 08:03 PM
anise from Seattle

I love radiolab, and this was the very first time that I was disapointed with it's reporting. It is a very narrow view to deem Haber's extraction of nitrogen as an overall good thing for humankind. The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are profoundly damaging to all different elements in the ecosystem: soil, water, animals, fish, microbacteria etc. Certainly it has benefited humankind in a very limited sense, but in the long run, we will suffer from the consequences. This further demonstrates the tragic habit in our culture of seeing human benefit exclusive of environmental benefits. Haber would have contributed much greater things had he considered the whole biosphere in his invention rather than just the human need.

Jan. 10 2012 03:24 PM

I feel like this boils down to "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Ultimately, I don't know that you can say one person is good or bad; people and their actions have so many ramifications, and when they do huge, revolutionary things like this guy did, those consequences are multiplied exponentially. Haber's discoveries fed billions of people. They also killed millions of people. Whenever we create something on such a grand scale, it seems to slip out of our control almost immediately. There's no way to tell how things will turn out, and even if you could, how could you decide between all the possible options? People and events are too complicated to bestow a single judgement on them.

Jan. 10 2012 02:15 PM

@samhatchett - interesting point! A sort of "Stetson hat" argument, a la the Patient Zero show. BUT, maybe the next brilliant scientist wouldn't have solved the problem for...another six months? A year? And how many people could be fed in that interval? (Thousands, millions? I have no idea.)

Jan. 10 2012 12:31 PM

what's so great about 7 billion people in the world? more spouses for the haber's of the world to walk away from? one could argue that much of the horror in the world we now live in is a direct result of haber's unleashing of nitrogen. and to jad, he imagined killing with chlorine gas, sure he imagined THAT, he just never expected it to be turned against him in the way that it is. this makes me ponder the dilemma of science for the sake of science.

Jan. 10 2012 11:36 AM

is the world better with him? no. the way i reconcile this is to imagine that if Fritz didn't invent the nitrogen-to-ammonia process, someone else would have. great ideas have a way of unfolding into the world. Fritz didn't invent all of the equipment to perform this feat, nor did he invent the mathematics to model molecular processes... he just put the pieces together. many other great conversations will evolve from this segment - so thanks.

Jan. 10 2012 10:43 AM

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