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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 108 - The Sound of Something Trapped in the Ice-Cream Truck (Farming Week)

Tom's Notes:

Farming week

Audience feedback:


Hi guys ,

Your show is brilliant , not only hilarious but fantastically educational . I need to Thankyou sooooo much as I started listening over a year ago to help get through caring for my mum who has dementia and your podcast was the best mindful medicine I needed after a stressful day of dementia care .

You just need to know how much your funny banter can really make a difference in someone’s life . Thanks again ,all the way from Canberra Australia.


The cartoons suggestion came from my "list of random concepts." Thanks MARK! Ha. Always love the show.

Fritz Haber

I’ve got a great topic for this week. I’m going to be talking about a German chemist called Fritz Haber. He is a man who can be viewed as an evil bastard, or one of the greatest humanitarians of all time, or even the destroyer of Earth. I’ve started, quite deliberately, in a provocative and sensational way, much like the author of the web article entitled “The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed The World,” and the creator of the YouTube video “Fritz Haber: How an evil scientist saved the world.”

I’ve created a monster, but nobody wants to see Haber no more they want Einstein, he’s chopped liver.

The reason I’ve started in this sensationalist way is so that I can get that bit out of the way quickly and move onto something much harder, but very worthwhile: trying to explore and comprehend a nuanced and complex topic without impulsive surges of prejudice and offence. Fritz Haber’s story is full of contradictions and ironies, and 25 minutes of retelling interspersed with bad jokes is really not going to do it full justice. So listeners, this is a bitesize history of Fritz Haber, much like one of those tiny little malteser teasers in an enormous box of celebrations at your nans house at Christmas. It will titillate your tongue, but if you want to stuff your guts and wake up the next morning feeling like you’re about to re-enact that scene from Alien, but with a little chocolate monster, go and read some books about this guy.

So, Fritz Haber was born in 1868 in Breslau. Breslau is modern day Wroclaw (Vrotswaff) in Poland but way back then, it was part of Prussia, so Haber was a German. There is so much to say about this man that I’ll skip through his early life and focus on the juicy part of his life. It is worth noting that his step mother was called Hedwig Hamburger, which sounds like a very feathery delicacy that you can buy at a food market in Wuhan, or a limited edition flavour from Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans. To summarise, Haber was a talented scientist and pursued a career in academia.

In 1909, Haber and a colleague called Robert Le Rossignol (a British chemist) demonstrated that it was possible to produce ammonia from the nitrogen in the air (air is 78% nitrogen if you remember your chemistry classes Sam). I won’t explain how because this isn’t a chemistry podcast, but it was a really big deal. Let me explain why: at the turn of the 20th century, the world population was booming. It sat at 1.6 billion people. At the start of the 19th Century there were 1 billion people on the planet (thanks Scientific Revolution which emerged out of the Renaissance and heavily influenced the Enlightenment!). At the birth of Christ, there were a mere 200 million people on the planet. What this meant for society was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to feed everyone. Traditional farming methods involve fertilization using organic material, you know, cow shit, guano, compost etc. Although this stuff is great, it wasn’t good enough for a rapidly growing world population. By producing ammonia from the air (the key part of this compound being the nitrogen), Haber and Rossignol revolutionised world farming.

In 1910, Haber joined up with another chap called Carl Bosch, who I imagine said ‘Bosh’ much like a television chef whenever he demonstrated experiments to students. “Right, so, we take the Bunsen burner from over here, switch it on, bosh! Then we get the can of Lynz Africa, Axe if you’re not British, Irish, Australian or a New Zealander, and bosh! A flame thrower. Watch as I burn this dead frog we’re going to be pulling apart later in Biology. Bosh! Toasted toad.”

Haber and Bosch created the imaginatively named Haber-Bosch method and the rest is history. It’s a process that supports as much as half of all human lives on the planet today. So in the region of 4 billion people. I read somewhere that it has been estimated that 20% of humans on the planet today owe their lives to him. Wow, that’s quite a legacy. Retire now Haber and become the greatest scientist to have ever lived, a man whose work has saved billions of people from suffering, famine and starvation. Or alternatively, if you believe that population is pop-pollution, a man whose work started us on the inevitable journey towards destroying the planet, and ourselves.

Anyway, overpopulation problems aside, Haber could have retired a hero. He was later awarded a noble prize for his work. Interestingly this was in 1918, after a more controversial period in his life. Let’s discuss this bit: Along comes World War One. The British had access to saltpetre, or sodium nitrate, from mines in Chile. This was a vital ingredient in the production of explosives and I think it was also used as a fertilizer. The Germans did not have access to this stuff. However, the ammonia produced by the Haber-Bosch method could be used to produce nitric acid and then the nitrates required to make explosives. Ah, so that stuff that has given billions of people the opportunity to live without suffering? Oh yeah, it also allows us to kill each other.

Haber was well up for the First World War. He became head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin in 1911 and at the outbreak of war, was full of patriotic fervour. He immediately began supporting the war effort and quickly became head of the Chemistry Section in the Ministry of War. Oh dear, we can see where this is going. Yes, he was integral to the German Army’s development of chemical warfare and he personally over saw the gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres (Ee-pruh). On April 22nd, 168 tons of chlorine gas from around 6000 canisters was released when the wind was favourable. 70,000 Allied troops died during the Battle of Ypres, somewhere in the regions of thousands died from chemical asphyxiation.

Chemical warfare was prohibited in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the declarations of which Germany was a signatory. It’s actually fascinating how many Noble laureates were involved in chemical warfare during the First World War on both sides.

Here’s a contemporary description of the effects of chlorine gas:

“It produces a flooding of the lungs – it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these – a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the tongue protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.”

Not too dissimilar I feel Sam to sharing a bedroom with you after you’ve eaten too much chorizo.

The Second Battle of Ypres was a success for the Germans and Haber returned home to Berlin where a party was held in his honour. Hours after this party ended his wife Clara wandered into the garden and shot herself dead with Haber’s army pistol. She was a very talented chemist too who had sacrificed were career for family. She had very publically criticised her husband’s involvement in developing chemical for warfare. Haber’s involvement in chemical warfare was controversial even at the time and his wife was not his only critic. There were actually many in the armed forces. Haber argued that, quote, “The disapproval that the knight had for the man with the firearm is repeated in the soldier who shoots with steel bullets towards the man who confronts him with chemical weapons... The gas weapons are not at all more cruel than the flying iron pieces; on the contrary, the fraction of fatal gas diseases is comparatively smaller, the mutilations are missing."

Interestingly, Haber also oversaw the development of gas masks which made chemical warfare ineffective. What the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away.

Between wars, Haber devoted much time to researching whether gold could be filtered out of sea water, hopeful that this would help Germany with its colossal war reparations. He worked hard to rebuild relations between German scientific establishments and those in the rest of the world and he served on the League of Nations Committee on Chemical Warfare. He also lived in fear of being tried as a war criminal.

In the 1930s, Haber found himself back on the right side of history. He didn’t like the Nazis very much and the Nazis didn’t like him because he was Jew. He’d actually converted to Christianity much earlier in his life because he felt it was a burden due to the prejudice he received. Even when he had been a Jew, he wasn’t particularly strict about it. Nonetheless, the Nazis didn’t like him and he eventually resigned from his position, fled Germany and travelled around Europe eventually dying in 1934 in Switzerland. Shortly before his death, he had been invited to live and study in Britain

Around this time, Ernest Rutherford, the famous Kiwi scientist, refused to shake Haber’s hand. Incidentally, Rutherford studied in Christchurch New Zealand, where I lived for 9 years. Rutherford’s Den is a tourist attraction that we stupidly never visited. It’s in some bushes at the back of a rec, just beside a railway. He showed prestigious talent at a very young age, first he started by splitting the squirrel, then the snail, then the ladybird, by the time he was an adult, he’d progressed to the atom.

In a final twist, in the 1920s, Haber’s laboratories developed a gas called Zyklon B as part of research into pesticides. You may recognise the name of this. It’s the gas that the Nazis ended up using in gas chambers during the holocaust. Some of Haber’s relatives were actually gassed by the Nazis. Of course this says nothing about the character of Haber, in the same way that Rutherford’s splitting of the atom does not make him responsible for the atomic bomb. Unfortunately for cutting edge scientists, humans will always find a way to use new technologies and discoveries to kill people.

Encyclopaedia Britannica “Haber was strongly imbued with the conviction that the basic purpose of science was the betterment of mankind.”

Einstein, who knew Haber personally, concluded: "Haber's life was the tragedy of the German Jew - the tragedy of unrequited love." I don’t really know what that means, but I thought I’d put it in at the end because Einstein was well clever wasn’t he?

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