Between genius and genocide
London, UK: Jonathan Cape 2005 313pp £20 (HB) ISBN 0224064444
Nitrogen from the air can enter the chemical cycles of the living world via two processes that globally turn over similar amounts. One is bacterial nitrogen fixation; the other is the synthesis of ammonia from the elements under high pressure, invented by Fritz Haber.
Apart from the process that literally feeds today's world, Haber is also known for his enthusiastic services to the Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm during the first world war, particularly in the development of chemical warfare. With the arrival of the Third Reich, however, Haber found that his Jewish origins outweighed his achievements and services. Soon he found himself exiled, and he died before he could find a new home.
The moral complexity and tragic conclusion of his life make Haber a tricky subject. His former assistant Johannes Jaenicke spent decades collecting materials for a biography, but never got it written. His collection is the archive from which biographers feed, including Dietrich Stoltzenberg (whose epic effort recently appeared in a shortened translation, reviewed in Chemistry World, February 2005, p55) and now Daniel Charles.
Charles' advantage is that he sees Haber with the fresh eyes of an outsider, who admits that he once visited the Haber institute without knowing who it was named after. Since then, he has certainly done his homework at the Jaenicke archive, and manages to tell the story in a compelling and fascinating, yet compact and accessible form. His strength is the witty summary that often introduces a new section of his story (eg 'Haber didn't immediately volunteer for this epic quest. He had to be goaded into it with offers of money and insults to his pride.'). The only blemish is the title of the book, which demonises the creator of one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.