Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel
Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare. Daniel
Charles. xx + 313 pp. HarperCollins, 2005. $24.95.
Master Mind, Daniel Charles's new biography of chemist
Fritz Haber, can be read with profit by knowledgeable scientists and
informed laypeople alike. Comprehensive and even coverage of Haber's
eventful, tragic life and informed description of his scientific
achievements and their economic and military implications are the
book's greatest strengths. Charles does a good job of setting
Haber's family background, career, marriages, acquaintances, and
scientific and managerial achievements in wider historical,
political and economic contexts. Charles, a former correspondent for
National Public Radio and the author of a book on biotechnology in
agriculture, has done his homework well. He draws primarily on a
wealth of documents (now at the Max Planck Society in Berlin) that
were gathered for Johannes Jaenicke's intended, but never finished,
biography of Haber.
In his preface Charles makes much of the notion that Haber, despite
the enormous impact of his work, is a "forgotten
scientist" who has disappeared from view. But engineers and
scientists in many disciplines (chemistry, physics, agriculture)
never forgot Haber's accomplishments; how could they? And the public
has no memory of scientists anyway, except of course those few who
reach celebrity status. Consequently, an average American or German
recognizes the name of Einstein but knows nothing about Otto Hahn
(to use two of Haber's Nobel Prize-winning colleagues as examples).
Yet Hahn was a codiscoverer (with Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann)
of nuclear fission, thus initiating the nuclear age, with its dual
legacy of fears of mass destruction and promises of carbon-free energy.
Haber's scientific work similarly had a destructive as well as a
constructive side: His discovery of how to synthesize ammonia from
its elements led to nitrate-based explosives and gas warfare as well
as to nitrogen fertilizer, and he supervised Germany's use of
chemical warfare in World War I. Charles's presentation of both the
positive and negative aspects of Haber's achievements is accurate,
informative and balanced.
Charles (relying heavily on the writings of historian Fritz Stern)
gives particularly extensive attention to Haber's complex
relationship with Einstein, whom he brought from Zurich to Berlin's
Dahlem research institute. The book contrasts the attitudes that the
two men assumed vis-à-vis the place of German Jews in
Germany. Haber, who converted to Protestantism in 1892, was a
convinced German patriot. Einstein never felt that sort of affinity
to Germany, and his letter to Haber, after the Nazis forced him out
of his position at Dahlem in 1933, sounds more like I-told-you-so
than an expression of sympathy: "It is somewhat like having to
abandon a theory on which you have worked for your whole life. It's
not the same for me because I never believed it in the least."
In contrast to this expansive treatment of Haber-Einstein
interactions, short shrift (a mere two pages) is made of one of the
most curious periods of Haber's life, his failed quest for the
extraction of gold from seawater. That pursuit occupied more than
five years of his life and was intended to solve the burden of
Germany's onerous reparation payments after World War I.
Another minor complaint is that Charles is fond of journalistic
labels. Let me give just four examples, two from the preface and two
from the book's penultimate page: "Haber was the patron saint
of guns and butter"; "Haber lived the life of a modern
Faust"; "Haber's blond beast of progress still roams the
globe"; and "Haber, a prophet of progress." A more
serious concern is that Charles tends to extend some of the causal
lines indefensibly far. Standing at the cemetery at Ypres (the site
of the first German chlorine attack in April 1915), Charles hears a
military jet and concludes that "This high-tech aircraft . . .
represents the true legacy of Fritz Haber the gas warrior"
because "the marriage of science and military power has
endured. And its spiritual lineage leads back to Dahlem." And
to a myriad of other beginnings and preconditions!
Charles's speculations about the historical impact of Haber's work
are even more questionable. Undoubtedly, large-scale nitrogen
fixation severed Germany's dependence on imports of Chilean nitrates
and helped to prolong World War I by providing a secure feedstock
for munitions, but this fact in no way means that "in the
absence of Fritz Haber, in other words, we might never have heard
the names Hitler and Stalin." This claim is about as valid as
saying that we might never have heard about them if Hitler had
succeeded in becoming a second-rate architect in Vienna before World
War I and if Stalin had completed his training in the orthodox
seminary in Tiflis and had spent his life as a Georgian priest.
Haber's fate attracts us because of its contradictions and its
tragic ending. We have his scientific writings, his patents, his
lectures on science and research management, many of his letters,
numerous recollections of his colleagues and students, and the
memoirs of his second wife. But we will never know the actual mix of
motives that animated his life and the deepest feelings that marked
both his ascents and falls. Only in a few of his letters did he
offer unguarded self-appraisal. Everything else, including his
feelings about the suicide of his first wife, he kept to himself. We
will never truly know him.