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Promethean Tragedy

Fritz Haber

A Promethean Tragedy



Near the end of the nineteenth century, the world was caught in a devastating famine. The most abundant element in our atmosphere, nitrogen, was also seemingly impossible to obtain. Nitrogen is essential to photosynthesis and growing crops, so the availability of nitrogen is proportional to the amount of life Earth can sustain. As a primary source of nitrogen, manure was said to be worth its weight in gold. Spain went to war with several South American countries over access to bat guano. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Fritz Haber developed a process for pulling nitrogen out of the air and converting it into ammonia—liquid fertilizer. His ammonia synthesis process ended wars and allowed the global population to flourish. It ushered in the modern age and is among the most important scientific discoveries in history.

Upon the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the German government approached prominent intellectuals with a proclamation to endorse the actions of the German Military. The document was known as the “Manifesto of the Ninety–Three.” While Haber chose to support his country with his signature, his friend and colleague Albert Einstein refused to sign the manifesto. The two scientists represent a vast divergence of ethics for the scientific community.