Saturday, June 4, 2016

Better Living/Dying Through Chemistry

There is a useful phrase in Texas: a rotating son of a bitch.  This is a bastard who no matter how you turn him—he’s still a son of a bitch.  He’s not shy and there is generally no confusion about who you are dealing with.

Every now and then, you run across someone in history who is a just a conundrum and Fritz Haber was just such a man.  His research might have won him a Nobel Peace Prize but he was also a deeply flawed individual whose research should also have won him a swift execution after a trial for international war criminals.

Just a few years ago, archaeologists discovered evidence of an early example of chemical warfare.  When the Persian Empire attacked a Roman garrison in modern-day Syria, the Romans began engineering a surprise attack.  So, they began digging tunnels under their own walls from which they planned to suddenly emerge and slaughter their attackers. 

When the Persians discovered this, they burned a mixture of coal and sulphur to make a toxic gas and pumped it into the tunnel.  The Romans died horribly, choking to death in what was—at least so far—the earliest successful attack with a poison gas.

There was an earlier gas attack on record (and I’m not talking about some caveman urging his son to pull his finger).  About 2400 years ago, the Spartans attacked Athens, whose inhabitants wisely and promptly took refuge behind their substantial city walls.  The Spartans responded by flinging bundles of burning wood infused with sulphur over the walls, confident that the noxious fumes would drive the Athenians out of the city.

Unfortunately, the concentration of gas was insufficient for the large area of the Greek city, so that instead of inventing the first lethal chemical weapon, the Spartans had developed nothing more deadly than the first stink bomb.

Every scientifically-advanced country signed the Hague Convention in 1899—save the US, which saw little use in banning weapons about as powerful as strong pepper.  In the dawning age of machine guns, dreadnoughts, submarines, and long range cannons, concentrating on stink bombs seemed hypocritical, at best.  By 1910, France had developed an effective tear gas.  It was not deadly, but was strong enough that the French police used the gas to force robbers to abandon a bank robbery attempt.  (Note that the Hague Convention only covered military use, not that of domestic law enforcement.)

In the early days of World War I, the French lobbed tear gas shells at the Germans, but on the wide open fields of France, the shells were hardly more effective than the sulphur the Spartans had used on the Athenians.   However, the failed attack touched off widespread hysteria on both sides of the conflict.  When carbon monoxide killed German soldiers in a barracks, secret—and nonexistent—French weapons were blamed.  The Germans vowed to catch up.

Fritz Haber was a bald Jewish chemist who changed all that.  His research saved millions, perhaps billions of lives because he figured out a way to cheaply combine nitrogen and hydrogen together to form NH3 or ammonia—the basic ingredient in chemical fertilizers.  For the first time, farmers could fertilize their fields without compost piles, rotting fish, or manure piles.  Without chemical fertilizers, it would be impossible to feed the world’s growing population.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t Haber’s goal:  Instead of fertilizer, Haber wanted to build bigger and better bombs.  (Remember the massive explosion at Oklahoma City?  Timothy McVeigh used as his basic ingredient the kind of ammonia based fertilizer that Haber had made possible.)

Though Haber would have made a vast fortune from his fertilizers during the war, when Germany offered him the chance to head its gas weapon division, the middle-aged Haber eagerly accepted and the Kaiser himself made the scientist a Captain of the German Army.  His wife, Clara, was less than pleased.  Holding a Ph.D. in chemistry herself, she refused to work on the weaponization of gases.  Haber didn’t listen to his wife's objections, simply replacing her in the lab with less principled chemists.

Haber personally supervised the first test of Germany’s new weapon against British troops.  Just as in ancient Athens, the wind dispersed the gas.  The only difference was that this time, the gas was so ineffective that the British soldiers didn’t even realize they had been attacked.  The German military high command remained undeterred and decided to devote even more resources to this weapon.  The next test, far larger, was staged against the Russians on the eastern front.  This attack, too, failed when the deadly liquid froze before it could vaporize into gas.

Haber personally observed the results and decided to reformulate the gas, switching from bromine as the base to chlorine, thus making the gas far more deadly.  Frankly, the effects of chlorine gas are truly gruesome:  The skin of its victims turns yellow, green, and black while their eyes glass over with cataracts.  The soldiers struggle to breathe as their lungs fill with fluids, so that these unfortunate victims eventually literally drown.

Haber not only perfected the chlorine gas weapons, but he personally supervised the first successful gas attacks in history near Ypres, in Belgium.  On April 22, 1915, Germany released 168 tons of chlorine gas along a 4-mile front.  One British officer later recorded his observations:

Just at dawn they opened a very heavy fire, especially machine-gun fire, and the idea of that was apparently to make you get down. And then the next thing we heard was this sizzling – you know, I mean you could hear this damn stuff coming on – and then saw this awful cloud coming over. A great yellow, greenish-yellow, cloud. It wasn’t very high; about I would say it wasn’t more than 20 feet up.  Nobody knew what to think. But immediately it got there we knew what to think, I mean we knew what it was. Well then of course you immediately began to choke, then word came: whatever you do don’t go down. You see if you got to the bottom of the trench you got the full blast of it because it was heavy stuff, it went down.

Haber was unconcerned about the horrors of what he had created, saying on more than one occasion, “A death is a death.”  By this, he meant that it was relatively unimportant how you died—in other words, that a slow death by asphyxiation was no worse than being shot.  That this—inhumane killing (if there can be any killing in war that can be called "humane")—was the whole point of The Hague Convention was evidently irrelevant to him.  Somehow, in his spare time, he also managed to work out what today is called Haber’s Rule—a mathematical table correlating the concentration of gas with the necessary exposure time to assure a fatality.  Only a true monster could quantify murder like a golf score.

If Haber was unconcerned about his activities, quite the opposite could be said of his wife, Clara, who had become increasingly horrified about the work her husband was conducting.  After the Ypres attack, Fritz returned home to host a dinner party to celebrate the effectiveness of the new weapon.  Worse yet, Clara learned that he was to journey to the eastern front the next day in order to conduct a similar test against the Russians.  After arguing heatedly with her husband, Clara took his military service pistol and shot herself in the heart.  Her body was discovered out in the garden by their thirteen-year-old son, Hermann.
If Dr. Haber was upset, he didn’t show it:  He left for the eastern front the next morning without even making any funeral arrangements for Clara and would remarry before the end of the war.

The postwar years were something of a mixed bag of successes and failures for the scientist.  He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918, and he was almost immediately charged with being an international war criminal.  Although he was able to avoid prosecution, he was deeply criticized by the international scientific community for his wartime actions.

Haber spent years unsuccessfully trying to extract gold from seawater and he was equally unsuccessful in his attempt to become head of the Soviet Union's chemical warfare research.  His only real success was in developing an effective insecticide that could be used on large amounts of grain before shipment.
Clara and Fritz’s son, Hermann escaped from Nazi Europe to the US, but shortly afterward committed suicide, as did Hermann’s daughter shortly after the Second World War.  Fritz’s second wife divorced him, but their son, Ludwig Fritz Haber became a prominent historian of chemical warfare, producing a book, The Poisonous Cloud, about the use of gas in the First World War.

When Hitler came to power, Fritz Haber found he could no longer stay employed at the university because he was a Jew—this despite his being a decorated war hero.  He died in 1934, on his way to refuge in England.  Unfortunately, his insecticide work was continued in Germany after his death:  That insecticide, known as Zyklon gas, would be used by Hitler to kill millions--including many of Dr. Haber’s relatives.

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