Sins of science

Week 10’s readings about the appropriate role of scientists in the public arena brought to mind the story of German chemist Fritz Haber.  Haber was a secular Jewish chemist who won a Nobel Prize for combining nitrogen and hydrogen to make nitrates for fertilizer.  His achievement was hailed as “a triumph in service of all humanity” (from Haber’s obituary in 1934).  On the other hand, he also contributed to the production of synthetic nitrates for explosives, thereby increasing and prolonging the mass slaughter of World War I.  Haber also invented a way to weaponize poison gas for use on the battlefield.  He developed a pesticide called Zyclon A which was later re-formulated by the Nazis as Zyclon B, which was used to murder people, including some of Haber’s own relatives, in the gas chamber.  Was Haber good or evil?  Was he a patriot trying to serve his country or was he a war criminal? Do the ends justify the means?  The point is that scientists often try and position themselves or science in general as being on the side of good or evil, when the fact is there are often elements of both sides present.

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