Thursday, February 07, 2008

Book Review: Between Genius and Genocide


Dan Charles provides an intimate view into German culture in the first 30 years of the twentieth century from the perspective of a prominent Jewish German chemist and industrialist whose absolute patriotism in the decades prior to the holocaust left the moral meaning of his life and work especially difficult to categorize.

On the one hand, we can see Fritz Haber as a patriot, a civil servant, and the inventor of a chemical process for nitrogen fixation responsible for the enormous harvests of modern agriculture. On the other, we see a profiteering militaristic capitalist jockeying for higher social status, a man striving to separate himself from his Jewish heritage, and a ruthless founder of chemical warfare.

This book is meticulous in its research on a topic about which much has been lost, and reveals much about the relationships between scientific research, the environment (it turns out that environmental problems stemming from nitrogen fertilizers might be no less a threat to humanity than global warming), war, politics, and capitalism in the German context in its effort to drum up details on the life of Haber.

Random note of interest: Dan Charles takes a somewhat non-mainstream approach to explaining China's green revolution in the 70's when crop yields suddenly skyrocketed. Whereas most economists point to a political change around that time -- the privatization of agriculture, resulting in farmers having greater motive to work harder for their own gain -- Charles points only to the grand entrance of nitrogen fertilizers into China around the same time. These were the fertilizers do to Fritz Haber, the same chemist who invented (as an insecticide) the gas used to kill his fellow Jews in concentration camps just ten years after his death.

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