7. Nitrogen: Taking The Good With The Bad

Today we meet one man who’s responsible for the death of millions — and the survival of billions.

Featured above: Fritz Haber, with bald head and pince-nez glasses, couldn’t look more like a supervillain. Unfortunately, it’s a little more nuanced than that.

Unfortunately, show notes are a little light this week, as I’ve been last-minute posting the episode this week. At some point in the distant future, I hope to come back and fill this in.

Episode Script

Before we begin the episode, a brief content warning. War, suicide, and chemical weapons all play an important role in today’s story. If those are subjects you’d like to avoid, I don’t blame you. Otherwise, today you’ll hear the fascinating story of one of history’s most influential and paradoxical men.

On with the show.


Have you ever had a case of “the Mondays?” You know, that thing where you were really enjoying the weekend, but now you have to go back to work, and you’re in kind of a bad mood. Maybe you have a bit of a headache, or you’re feeling a little light-headed… Possibly even accompanied by intense vomiting, tachycardia, and shortness of breath?

That’s what “Monday disease” could look like for the industrial workers in Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factories.1

Dynamite is a fairly simple invention. Its active component is nitroglycerin, a liquid compound of nitrogen that’s highly explosive. So explosive that it’s difficult to transport without accidentally triggering detonation.

Nobel discovered that pouring this liquid into a highly absorbent kind of sand helps keep things safe and stable. At least for long enough until the explosion is desired, at which point it can be triggered with a fuse. Making this powerful explosive safe to handle was a boon to the construction and mining industries. Unintentionally, but inevitably, it also became a frighteningly efficient instrument of war.2

There are obvious hazards to working with nitroglycerin. Nobel’s younger brother Emil had died in a factory explosion. But there are subtler effects, too: It’s not just an explosive, it’s also biologically active, causing a person’s blood vessels to widen, and correspondingly, their blood pressure to drop. It can also cause headaches, dizziness, abdominal pain, tachycardia, and shortness of breath.3

This was what was happening to dynamite packers every Monday. They would walk onto the factory floor, be suddenly exposed to high amounts of nitroglycerin, and suffer those side effects. But tolerance to nitroglycerin builds up quickly, so by Tuesday, everyone would be fine again. Over the weekend, that tolerance disappeared, causing the cycle to begin again on Monday.

Of course, this was not a problem for Nobel himself, who mostly handled the business side of things. But coincidentally, he did have heart problems, and those symptoms caused by nitroglycerin are actually medically beneficial for people with cardiac issues. At least, when when it’s administered in pill form, rather than as a workplace hazard.

The humor was not lost on Nobel: He wrote to a friend, “Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerin, to be taken internally. They call it ‘trinitrin,’ so as not to scare the chemist and the public.”4

Irony was exactly the right word. Nobel actually declined the treatment, and seven weeks later, he was dead. He simply couldn’t see nitroglycerin as medication when he knew how many people it had killed as an explosive — and made him a wealthy man in the process. But that refusal directly led to his early demise.

There’s a lot more to say about Alfred Nobel, but if you’ve read ahead on your periodic table, you know we’ll get to him in episode 102. But there’s a much more twisted tale in the history of nitrogen.


You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each week, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re fixin’ to look at nitrogen.

Like Groups 1 and 2, Group 15 has a nickname: The Pnictogens, coming from the Greek word for “choke.” You technically can suffocate by breathing pure nitrogen gas, but since you can suffocate by breathing any non-oxygenated gas, it seems a little unfair to single out this group. So it goes.

Nitrogen is an element that likes to double up. Carbon has a propensity to form long chains, but when two nitrogen atoms come together, they fill each other’s valence shells. So when two nitrogen atoms come together, that’s it. No long chains here — just N2.

This diatomic form of nitrogen is abundant on Earth — it makes up almost 80% of the air we breathe. That’s convenient, because nitrogen is about as important to life as carbon. What’s inconvenient is that those two nitrogen atoms do not want to let each other go — they form one of the strongest bonds in all of chemistry. So living things can’t really use all that abundant nitrogen in the air.

We animals get our allotment of nitrogen by eating plants, or by eating animals that eat plants.

But for plants, nitrogen needs to be “fixed” in the soil by way of some compound like ammonia. Historically, farmers have done this with compost and manure. But it takes time to cultivate those materials, and around the 19th and 20th centuries, fertilizer production was having trouble keeping up with agriculture.

This caused people some concern, most notably, English economist Thomas Malthus. The main thrust of Malthusian philosophy was that overpopulation is inevitable, and the only solution is to place harsh limits on reproduction. He didn’t back this up with the strongest data, but Malthusianism did provide a convenient and so-called “rational” justification for laws and policies that harmed the poor.

It also fueled a lot of doom-and-gloom type panic that there would soon be worldwide starvation and a global population collapse. That was where Fritz Haber stepped in.5

Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1868 to a Jewish merchant. He was a bright young man, and quite ambitious. At an early age, he wrote, “We only want one limit: The limit of our own ability.”

His ability was considerable, particularly in chemistry. While a student, he worked under the famed Dr. Robert Bunsen — of Bunsen burner fame — then quickly rose through the academic ranks at a prominent technical school in Karlsruhe.6

By the end of the 19th century, Haber was doing impressive work. He refined important industrial processes to be highly efficient, and his career was really taking off. But antisemitism was also on the rise in Germany, and Haber saw the writing on the wall. Even if he didn’t feel physically threatened, he certainly saw his own Judaism as a potential impediment to his skyrocketing career. He proactively converted to Lutheranism to ensure his good standing in German society.

This must have been a difficult decision for a man who grew up in a conservative Jewish household, but it appeared to have the desired effect: He was seen as an exemplary German citizen, celebrated in scientific and political circles.

His good fortune continued when he crossed paths with Clara Immerwahr.

She was born in Breslau just a couple years after Haber, also to a well-off Jewish family. Her father was a gifted chemist, and Clara apparently inherited the same talent — and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Her sisters were in search of good husbands, but Clara wanted a good education. She wasn’t afraid to raise her voice whenever teachers tried to shepherd her toward “women’s occupations.” Luckily, Clara had the full support of her father, who was delighted to see her taking such an interest in chemistry.

She first met Fritz Haber in 1890 at a dance lesson, and sparks flew. The relationship moved pretty fast — apparently, a little too fast for Immerwahr. She rejected his marriage proposal in the name of maintaining financial independence. The two parted ways, but remained on good terms.

Immerwahr met even more remarkable success than Haber over the next decade. She became the first woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry at any German university — and did so magna cum laude. Like Haber, Immerwahr also converted to Christianity for pragmatic reasons, but she was still a woman in a patriarchal society. She wasn’t allowed to climb the same ladder as her male colleagues, but nonetheless attained a respectable position in academia, and was a popular speaker.7

So when the two met again in 1901, their situations had apparently changed enough that marriage seemed like a fine idea. Fritz and Clara wed in August of that year, and welcomed their son Hermann into the world the next year. Clara continued working the lecture circuit, and Fritz dedicated his 1905 textbook to his “beloved wife, Mrs. Clara Haber, Ph.D., with thanks for quiet collaboration.”

In 1909, Haber conducted one of the most important scientific experiments of all time. It required a very complex setup to achieve something that sounds simple: Under incredible heat and pressure, Haber combined hydrogen gas with atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia, NH3.

This was it. This was the “fixed” form of nitrogen that plants could soak up from the soil — the world’s first synthetic fertilizer. The discovery was heralded as “creating bread from air.”

The same process is used today, over a century later, to produce fertilizer that feeds the world. It took one hundred centuries for the world population to surpass a billion people. It didn’t even take two more for that number to reach seven billion. Haber deserves much of the credit here: Half the world today subsists on food that couldn’t be grown without his synthetic ammonia. Very few individuals have left such a substantial mark on the world, but Fritz Haber is among them.8 9 10

But there are reasons why Haber’s birthday isn’t a global holiday.

For one thing, Haber wasn’t trying to feed the world. As always, he was focused more narrowly on the welfare of his beloved Germany.11 See, ammonia doesn’t just help plants grow. It’s also critical in the creation of explosives.12 In Haber’s time, Germany imported nearly all of its ammonia — for agricultural and military use — in the form of bird droppings from South America. It seemed obvious that in the event of war, Germany could be blockaded by its enemies, crippling its ability to manufacture explosives. This was the future that Haber sought to prevent. And sure enough, it was his nitrogen-fixing process that directly enabled Germany to continue fighting World War I for years after the Allied blockade.13

But Haber invented his process in 1909, five years before the war. He had moved on to other projects by 1914.

In 1911, he was named the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, where academia, industry, and government came together to pursue cutting-edge scientific research.14 But when The Great War did break out, he was quick to drop all his projects for something more patriotic. His philosophy was succinct:

During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during wartime he belongs to his country.”

Haber certainly practiced what he preached. He gave all of himself to his country — his intellect, his time, and his soul. The position he had so eagerly accepted was the head of Germany’s brand-new gas warfare division.

Gas warfare was not a new idea. The politicians of Europe had anticipated their use fifty years earlier. In 1899, twenty-six countries, including Germany, signed The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases, which specifically banned,

the use of projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”

But Germany had an impeccable legal defense for their new weapon of war: Soldiers would load canisters upwind and let the breeze take care of delivery. This meant, in the most technical sense, that they weren’t projectiles, so everything was above board.

This was a dicey tack to take. Haber insisted that “Death is death, however it is inflicted,” but even his fellow warriors were a little queasy about the whole idea. One official called it “unchivalrous,” and German General Berthold von Deimling, wrote,

I must confess that the commission for poisoning the enemy, just as one poisons rats, struck me as it must any straightforward soldier: It was repulsive to me.”

But if it meant victory, these moral compunctions could be brushed aside. The new tool would be put to the test soon enough.

April 22, 1915 started out as a quiet day in Ypres, a small but strategically located town in Belgium. British, French, and Belgian troops had dug their trenches nearby, and a few reservists took up a game of football in the warm sun.

Around 5pm, the scene changed. German soldiers atop a nearby hill quietly prepared to attack. The command came from above: “God punish England.” With that, the Germans pulled the corks on thousands of canisters of compressed chlorine gas — approximately one can per meter along a six-kilometer wide front.

The only sound was a slow hiss, and then, a growing yellow cloud lurched toward Ypres. Allied forces weren’t sure what to make of this, and they didn’t have much time to react. The grass was bleached white by the encroaching fog Soon, the Allies were overwhelmed by a smell like pineapple and pepper, causing their eyes to tear up and a metallic taste to tickle their throats. That was when the lucky ones ran. Many more did not.

Soldiers’ skin turned sickly shades of green and black as the cloud engulfed them. They cried out for water before spitting up blood. It would have been impossible to see even if chlorine gas didn’t attack the eyes. These effects were responsible for the injuries thousands of men suffered, but the gas killed by filling the lungs with hydrochloric acid, tearing them apart and rendering it impossible to breathe. That day, five thousand men drowned to death on dry land.15

From a safe position nearby, Fritz Haber personally observed the massacre with satisfaction.

He was granted the rank of Captain in the German Army — an honorific that delighted the fervent patriot to no end — and returned to Berlin to attend a dinner party celebrating his accomplishments.

But not everyone back home was so pleased with Fritz.

Immerwahr and Haber had not been enjoying an ongoing state of marital bliss, despite their bright beginnings. After they wed, Immerwahr continued giving chemistry lectures — but audiences naturally assumed that they had been written by her renowned husband.

The duties of domesticity and childcare fell squarely on her shoulders, leaving her no time to pursue independent scientific study. She once complained to a friend about “Fritz’s way of putting himself first in our home and marriage, so that a less ruthlessly assertive personality was merely destroyed.”

But their relationship became much more strained once Haber started working on chemical weapons. Immerwahr did not share his nationalist zeal, and true to herself, she wasn’t quiet about her opposition.

She pled for her husband to cease his work, and even publicly declared that his work was,

a perversion of the ideals of science” and “a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.”

Haber responded in kind, publicly accusing his own wife of treason.

It was at Haber’s celebration in Berlin that this protracted argument came to a head. The two fought loudly, almost violently, and it was probably about that time the party broke up.

That night, Clara Immerwahr took Haber’s service revolver, slipped into the garden, and shot herself in the heart. She died in the arms of their twelve-year-old son, Hermann.

Fritz could not be distracted. Early the next morning, he departed, as planned, to oversee a gas attack on the Eastern Front.

When Clara Immerwahr received her historical doctorate in chemistry, she swore,

never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.”

Immerwahr took this oath seriously. She lived her life by these words, and ultimately, died for them. It was a tragic end, but not out of line for the idealistic woman whose last name means, “Always true.”


Both sides eventually employed chemical weapons over the course of the war. As German Commander Rudolf Binding noted, “The entire world will rage about it first and then imitate us.”16 Not only did they imitate, but both sides escalated. Chlorine gave way to colorless phosgene gas. Both sides eventually issued gas masks to their soldiers, motivating the use of mustard gas, which blistered and burned the skin as badly as it scarred the eyes and lungs.17 18

The Great War finally ended on November 11, 1918, with Germany and the Central Powers admitting defeat. The Treaty of Versailles notoriously left the broken nation responsible for paying billions in war reparations to the Allied powers. It was an amount designed to maximize punishment.

One man in particular felt the weight of Germany’s defeat upon his shoulders — and he was going to pay those reparations in full, by himself. Once again, Fritz Haber volunteered to come to the rescue of the country he loved so much.

How could he possibly accomplish this? Well, it turns out there’s a lot of gold in seawater, just floating around. He believed he could come up with a new way to process seawater that would extract that gold, providing Germany with piles of free money.

It’s almost understandable how Haber could overestimate his ability like this. He had used his brilliant mind to come to Germany’s aid twice before. Why not now? And he was almost certainly riding high off winning the Nobel Prize.

You heard that correctly: Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. This was after he had innovated, developed, and personally directed the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, and yes, it was a highly controversial award. He had been publicly accused of war crimes by this point, and at the prize ceremony, legendary scientist Ernest Rutherford refused to shake his hand. Then again, these were the prizes funded by the same Nobel who had made his fortune with dynamite, so maybe it was an appropriate award.

So, funded by the German government, Haber spent several years in the 1920s in search of aquatic gold. But it simply would have required too much electrical energy, and an absurd amount of seawater. In the end, even the man who pulled bread from the air couldn’t sift gold from the sea.19

Rather humiliated by the whole affair, Haber made no more grand and patriotic gestures. He returned to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and looked toward the agricultural sector that had brought him so much uncontroversial success, quietly inventing new pesticides. One of these pesticides met mild success under the brand name Zyklon,20 and was based on a hydrogen cyanide formula — the same chemical that killed Gilbert Lewis, whom we met in episode 6, carbon.

As Haber continued his work, even he couldn’t deny that his country was changing. Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, and antisemitism was more prevalent and vitriolic than he had ever seen. Though he had spent four decades as a practicing Lutheran, in the Nazis’ eyes he was “Haber the Jew.” When ordered to fire all of his Jewish scientists, who accounted for three quarters of his staff, Haber refused and resigned instead.21

He became a shell of his former self. He had sacrificed his life and his mind for his nation, which he held closer than his family, his conscience, and his God. Germany gladly accepted all he had to offer, and when Haber could give no more, he was thoughtlessly cast aside. He wandered Europe for about a year, widely hated wherever he went, before dying of heart failure in a Swiss hotel in 1934.

Chemical weapons have never been used as widely as they were during World War I, partly due to anti-proliferation treaties, and partly due to the changing nature of war. Even during World War II, no chemical weapons were used on any battlefield — but behind the scenes, incredible resources were poured into researching newer, deadlier chemicals. Among other inventions, Nazi Germany created nerve gas, which was much more lethal than the weapons of World War I. They even produced it on an industrial scale, only deciding not to unleash the gas out of fear of retaliation.

But some of those chemicals saw use off the battlefield. A German chemical corporation happened to dust off one of Haber’s own creations, the insecticide Zyklon, and found it possessed many of the qualities they were looking for. It just needed some slight modifications. Namely, removal of the pungent smell that warned people they were breathing poisoned air. After tinkering with the formula a bit, the Germans named it Zyklon-B. It was delivered by the ton to concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz, where it was used to murder millions of innocent people. Among the victims were Fritz Haber’s own nieces and nephews.22

Wilfred Owen was a British soldier in the first World War who was also a talented poet. Unlike most popular songs and poems of the time — much of it propaganda — Owen’s poetry took an unflinching look at the unique horrors of this new kind of war. He was influenced by Byron and Keats, as well as the ancient Roman poet Horace, who had once written, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” “It is sweet and proper to die for the Fatherland.”23

Closing out one of his most famous poems, handwritten in the trenches late in the war, Owen calls back to his ancient counterpart:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Fritz Haber had unwittingly imparted this lesson upon millions of soldiers and the world at large in the early twentieth century. He unintentionally inspired this poem while being completely blind to its message — in the same way that he accidentally solved a food crisis by filling artillery shells.

We’re left to accept an uncomfortable truth: In one way or another, we all owe our lives to Fritz Haber, the monster who fed the world.24

After hearing all this, you might feel like the air has been sucked out of your lungs. If so, just take a deep breath, and you’ll have collected about three liters of nitrogen — making up four-fifths of the air, as it does. Of course, you’ll lose most of that on your next exhale, but hopefully you remember to take another breath after that.

If you’d like a less transient way to add nitrogen to your collection, you have a few options. The discerning collector will probably want to check out their favorite beverage supply store: Small nitrogen cartridges are commonly sold as an accessory that helps keep wine fresh.

Of course, you could skip the wine and purchase your nitrogen directly in liquid form. Nitrogen needs to be kept very cold if it’s to stay in liquid form. This coldness is what makes it valuable, particularly in some trendy gourmet kitchens, where it’s used to flash-freeze foods or give them a surprising texture. It’s usually not too difficult to find, if you’re willing to go to a food services or industrial supplies company. The problem is holding on to it: Liquid nitrogen has an annoying tendency to evaporate pretty easily.

So nitrogen takes its place alongside helium and carbon as something that’s fairly easy to add to our collections in elemental form. If you’d like to add some variety, nitrogen combines with several other elements to form rock-solid compounds. One of the most interesting is boron nitride. When boron, element 5, and nitrogen, element 7, combine at a one-to-one ratio, the resulting compound actually acts a little bit like carbon — the element right in between them. In particular, it’s extremely hard — harder than elemental boron, and just about up there with diamond. Its strength and cheap price make it useful as a tool, such as milling bits.

You could go the pharmaceutical route: nitroglycerin is another convenient way to display nitrogen — but I hope you’re not planning on collecting all the elements in pill form.

And finally, of course, there’s always ammonia. It’s still present in pretty much every fertilizer you can buy. It’s usually present as a white pellet. Just try not to think too much about the man who made it so accessible.

Thanks for listening to the Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. We’re taking next week off, but when we return on Monday, March 5, we’ll take a crack at the second half of water: Oxygen.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but also a lot of bad ones.

Sources

  1. Assembly Of Life Sciences (U.S.) Advisory Center On Toxicology, Toxicological Reports. 1968.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, Alfred Nobel. Last updated November 18, 2016.
  3. NIH, A Short History Of Nitroglycerin And Nitric Oxide In Pharmacology And Physiology. Marsh A., Marsh N. April 27, 2000.
  4. Descriptive Inorganic, Coordination, And Solid State Chemistry, p. 473. Glen E. Rodgers, 2011.
  5. Slate, A Dangerous Fixation. Jonathan Mingle, March 12, 2013.
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica, Fritz Haber. William B. Jensen, last updated October 23, 2017.
  7. Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, Clara Immerwahr. Jutta Dick, March 1, 2009.
  8. The Disappearing Spoon, p. XX. Same Kean 20xx.
  9. Nature, How A Century Of Ammonia Synthesis Changed The World.
  10. The Globalist, Seven Billion Humans: The World Fritz Haber Made. Martin Sieff, November 2, 2011.
  11. University of Bristol School of Chemistry, The Haber Process. Paul May.
  12. Famous Scientists, Fritz Haber.
  13. io9, Was Britain’s WWI Blockade The First Atrocity Of The 20th Century? George Dvorsky, December 1, 2014.
  14. Science History Institute, Fritz Haber. Last updated December 7, 2017.
  15. Independent, 100 Years On: The Day The First Poison Gas Attack Changed The Face Of Warfare Forever. David Hughes, April 22, 2015.
  16. The Globe And Mail, A Century Of WMDs: How Ypres Changed The World Forever. Doug Saunders, last updated June 5, 2017.
  17. History In An Hour, Fritz Haber And WWI Gas Warfare. April 22, 2014.
  18. Timeline, For The Jewish Chemist Who Invented Chemical Weapons, The Consequences Were Dire. Josh O’Connor, March 2, 2017.
  19. io9, Germany’s Post-World War I Scheme To Extract Gold From Seawater. Keith Veronese, May 10, 2013.
  20. BBC Radio 4, Fritz Haber: Jewish Chemist Whose Work Led To Zyklon-B. Chris Bowlby, April 12, 2011.
  21. Smithsonian.com, Fritz Haber’s Experiments In Life And Death. Gilbert King, June 6, 2012.
  22. Berlin: Portrait Of A City Through The Centuries, p. 149. Rory MacLean, 2014.
  23. The War Poetry Website, Wilfred Owen, Dulce Et Decorum Est.
  24. This moniker borrowed from The Mission, The Tragedy Of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed The World. Paul Barach, August 2, 2016.

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