Top 10 Best of 2018: One man’s incredible life of good and evil

Originally published on 11 July 2018.

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

This is a line from Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

It’s one of the most quoted lines from the film. In fact, from any film of the last couple of decades.

I used it when I was writing about Google ditching its “don’t be evil” motto a few weeks ago.

But recently I read about the life of a man that is perfectly summed up by this quote.

The story of his life is incredible. Literally incredible. As in, almost impossible to believe.

His name was Fritz Haber, and he likely had a bigger influence on our lives than anyone else who lived in the 20th century.

And by “our lives” I don’t just mean people reading this essay. I mean “our” as in the entire of humanity.

So just who was this man, what did he do that was so incredible, and why is it relevant to tech investors of today?

Read on and find out.

The greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century

Fritz Haber was born in 1868 and died in 1934.

His gift to the world was food. A chemical technique called the Haber-Bosch process, which he created with Carl Bosch in 1910.

It enabled people to produce nitrogen for farming on a scale never before seen. People called it creating “bread from air”.

Without it, the world could not have sustained its population growth and billions who now live would have died.

It’s estimated four out of every ten people alive today would not be so without his invention.

That’s why it has become known as the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century.

And it unsurprisingly won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919.

As a result of his discovery, Haber is credited with saving more lives than anyone in history, past or present.

But he certainly didn’t die a hero. And there are not many who would call him a “good man” today.

How Haber became “the father of chemical warfare”

Being a world-leading chemist, and a proud German, when the First World War broke out, Haber was eager to help.

By this point he had already renounced his Jewish heritage, converted to Christianity and taken a wife who had done the same.

Anti-Semitism was rife in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, and would continue to be so. If you wanted to get ahead, you had to convert.

Upon request of the state, he turned his genius towards the science of killing and developed the world’s first chemical weapons: poison gas.

He was there on the battlefield when the Germans released their first poison gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 in Belgium. It killed 67,000 people.

Haber was happy with his invention, believing it would bring a faster end to the war and ultimately save more lives.

But poison gas is a horrible way to die. Essentially, your lungs melt and you drown in your own blood.

And because this new weapon had never been seen before, people didn’t initially run from it, they stayed in the trenches as it floated in.

Haber’s wife was also a brilliant chemist. She was the first woman to ever be awarded a PhD at the University of Breslau, and she didn’t share his thoughts on weapons of mass mutilation.

She was also a women’s rights activist and became increasingly depressed at the loss of her livelihood after her marriage to Haber. At the time, wives were not expected to have careers.

So when Haber came back from that first poison gas attack, upon hearing about the deaths he had inflicted, she killed herself with his service revolver.

Haber seemed unphased and returned to duty almost immediately to oversee gas attacks against the Russians. He reportedly didn’t even attend her funeral.

But this wasn’t the end for Haber. Far from it.

The Jew who helped create the death camps

In 1933 the Nazis came to power. And although Haber had already converted to Christianity, this didn’t help him.

Even though he had been monumental in Germany’s war effort, and created “bread from air”, the Nazis didn’t care.

In the eyes of the state, he was still just a Jew.

Everything he had done in his life he had done with service to Germany in mind. And now Germany wanted him gone.

One day when he arrived to work, he was greeted by a sign, which read: “The Jew, Haber, is not allowed in here.”

Haber went into exile and died of a heart attack in a hotel in Basel one year later.

What he would never know was that his research on pesticide gasses was taken and adapted into Zyklon B.

Zyklon B was gas used to murder one million people in the Nazi death camps, including members of Haber’s extended family.

What message can we take from Haber’s life?

On the one hand, you have a brilliant, patriotic chemist responsible for saving more lives than any other person living or dead.

On the other, you had a war criminal who invented poison gas used in the First World War and was monumental in creating the gas used to murder one million people in the holocaust.

A man who served the state over anything else. Over himself, his family and his tribe. I’m sure in his view, this was the right thing to do.

And I’m sure in his position, many, if not most people would do the same thing. Evil people rarely set out to be evil. Most genuinely believe they are doing the right thing.

Haber genuinely thought his poison gas would bring a faster end to the war. And let’s not forget, this war was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It was almost indescribably horrific.

So anything which could bring an end to it sooner, Haber probably thought was a good thing.

As for his work on Zyklon B. Well, that brings up another question.

Just as with Amazon’s face detection tech, Google’s drone AI, and police searching genealogy sites to find criminals, it depends how the technology is used.

If you missed these stories when I wrote about them, you can find them here:

Is Google… evil?

How to achieve happiness

Precrime and the Golden State Killer

That’s why I thought Haber’s is particularly relevant story given what’s been going on in big tech over the past few months.

Technology in itself is neither good nor bad. It depends on the aims of the people using it. Or perhaps the aims of the government regime they serve.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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