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“Fritz Haber: both sides of a Nobel Prize”

Fritz Haber. "Aus Leben und Beruf: Aufsätze, Redeb, Vorträge." Springer, 1927

Fritz Haber. "Aus Leben und Beruf: Aufsätze, Redeb, Vorträge." Springer, 1927

James Kendall. "Breathe Freely! The truth about poison gas". J. Chem. Educ, 1938

James Kendall. "Breathe Freely! The truth about poison gas". J. Chem. Educ, 1938

Some objects from the First World War

Some objects from the First World War

Articles, books, and objects, build the exhibition the Physics and Chemistry CRAI Library prepared on Fritz Haber

Articles, books, and objects, build the exhibition the Physics and Chemistry CRAI Library prepared on Fritz Haber

13/11/2018

Cultura

According to some studies, a 40 % of the world population would not exist if it were not for Fritz Haber’s research studies on the synthesis of ammonia based on its elements, a solution that has enabled land fertilization. However, Haber gave life but also death -with the creation of the gas that would kill thousands of people during the First World War and the Nazi Holocaust.

These two sides of the chemist are shown in the exhibition “Fritz Haber: Cara i creu d’un Premi Nobel”, which will be present from November 7 to June 30, 2019, brought by the Physics and Chemistry Library of the University of Barcelona, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize he received in 1918. The CRAI bibliography collection will exhibit several articles and original texts written by Fritz Haber between 1896 and 1922, a time when the scientist carried out his most important research.

Fritz Haber, originally from Breslau (current Poland), and born in a Jewish family, studied Chemistry at the University Friedrich Wilhelm of Berlin (now Humboldt University of Berlin). In 1892, he converted to Christianity, which helped him to continue his research studies in the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
 

From “Bread from the Air” to “powder from air”

Plants need large amounts of nitrogen, their main source of nutrition, but although this element is present in the air, plants cannot benefit directly from it: it can only be obtained from some plants that turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. The ammonia synthesis Fritz Haber conducted based on its elements –hydrogen and nitrogen- allowed the continuity of food production worldwide. For this reason, Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. However, Haber being awarded this prize was not seen as correct due his contributions during the First World War.

His strong patriotism led him to collaborate with the German army with scientific contributions to make explosives. Therefore “Bread from the Air”, which was the way to refer to the discovery of ammonia, turned into “powder from air”.

Haber started studying the large-scale production of chlorine to use it as a chemical arm and wanted to implant a method that would be destructive. He stored the lethal substance in containers to be placed in battle lines so that when wind blew towards the enemy, chlorine would spread. Between April 14 and 21 1915, this procedure was used in the Battle of Ypres with 167 tons of chlorine that caused more than 6,000 injured and 4,000 casualties.

Years later, Haber continued involved in the creation of chemical arms, together with Ferdinand Fury. They created Zyklon A, a pesticide that releases hydrogen cyanide, which, with a method of absorption, turned into Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill millions of people during the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite Haber’s strong patriotism, the rise of nationalism and socialism in 1933 made his Jewish roots to leave the country: first, he went to the University of Cambridge for two months, and then Switzerland, which became his adoption country where he would then die in 1934 due heart attack. Years later, in 1942, the Reich adopted the “final solution” for the Untermenschen (the Jews, gipsies, homosexuals, people with Down’s Syndrome, etc.), which meant using Zyklon B in gas chambers. Between 1942 and 1943, nineteen tons of these materials were sent to Auschwitz Birkenau, where the Jewish family of Fritz Haber would die.

The Nuremberg trials and the public use of Zyklon B in gas chambers affected Haber’s three children, one from his marriage to Clara Immerwarh, and two from his marriage to Charlotte Nathan. The two eldest sons committed suicide in late 1946. The exhibition in CRAI shows a book written by one of Haber’s sons, on the figure of his father.
 

Clara Immerwarh, the first doctoral student of Chemistry in Breslau

The first wife of Fritz Haber was Clar Immerwarh, who, far from just being “someone’s wife”, was an important person in the history of Germany.

In 1897, Immerwarh converted to Christianity to access higher education, which was difficult for women. However, despite the vicissitudes, Clara was the first women to get the doctorate in Chemistry in the University of Breslau. When she got married, Clara accepted becoming a housewife and leaving her professional career aside. Abandoning her career and taking care of the house chores made Clara become more feminist and pacifist, which would separate her from her husband.

Clara did not agree with her husband participating in the German open war, which led to many arguments, according to Gerit von Leitner, one of her biographers. In 1915 Clara shot herself with her husband’s gun.
 

“Fritz Haber: la cara i la creu d’un Premi Nobel”

Articles, books, and objects, make up the exhibition the Physics and Chemistry CRAI Library prepared on Fritz Haber. Both bibliographic works and graphic materials highlight both sides that portray the chemist: the one that gave life with agricultural fertility and the one that brought death with the use of chemical gases in war conflicts.

The commissioners of the exhibition are the lecturer Arnald Grabulosa, Professor Narcís Homs and Professor Pilar Ramírez de la Piscina, from the Department of Inorganic and Organic Chemistry. They have worked on an exhibition that is formed by a central space with original articles by Haber and a series of play scripts and poetry on the figure of the chemist, a part dedicated to BASF company (Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik), which patented the synthesis of ammonia, with a series of catalysers to show this process. To illustrate the duration of the Haber-Bosch project, the exhibition includes current products that are used daily to fertilize crops. Moreover, it also shows chemical arms from the First World War. A series of objects that, together with the articles, books and posters with information on the chemist, build an insight into the controverted figure of Fritz Haber.

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