Between Genius and Genocide: The Deadly Chemist

Scientists are often pleading innocence.

Name an atrocity which seems to be daubed with the sticky hoofmarks of science, and they’ll pipe up that its not science that’s to blame.

Take, for instance, my old mate the biologist Lewis Wolpert You know, the guy who attempted to mug me recently when I was on BBC Radio 4.

Well, old Wolpie has suggested in his ‘Is Science Dangerous?’ (Wolpert, 1999) that scientific knowledge has ‘no moral or ethical value’. ‘Science tells us how the world is’, apparently, and scientists ‘do not appropriate decision-making for themselves’.

Perhaps Wolpie should read the new biography Between Genius and Genocide: The Tradegy of Fritz Haber, Father of Chemical Warfare


Now during the First World War it didn’t take a Nobel laureate to think of using posion gas as a weapon. The idea had been in the air, so to speak, for many years. It took the audacity and energy of a single deadly chemist, Fritz Haber, however, to turn the idea into deadly reality.


Haber, like many career scientists, lived the life of a modern dash/faust.html”>Faust , willing to serve any master who could further his thirst for knowledge, power and ‘progress’. Unfortunately for the likes of Wolpie, it was Haber who approached chlorine gas to asphyxiate soldiers in enemy trenches.

In contrast to the Chemist’s enthusiasm for poisoning foreigners, many German commanders refused to accept the idea of the new deadly weapon, with one suggesting ‘War has nothing to do with JE Coates (another chemist, less deadly) wrote: ‘The war years were for Haber the greatest period of his life. In them he lived and worked on a scale and for a purpose that satisfied his strong urge towards great dramatic vital things’.

By the end of the war, his deadly weapon had killed or injured about 650 000 people on the Western Front

Unable to live with a man who worked to such priorities, Clara Haber found her husband’s army-issued pistol, and shot herself.



    September 21, 2005

    Well, unfortunately scientists are only human. I’m sure vastnumbers of scientists (perhaps even the majority) would gladly surrended their humanity if they could trade it for objectivity and progress, but, alas, that trade is not on offer.

    It is sad that some scientist caught the dual diseases of patriotism and megalomania. But does that discredit scientists as a profession? Or the values of science?

    Does a racist cop discredit the entire police, and everything it tries to stand for?

    Besides, Wikipedia completes Wolpert’s quote as “Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology” – which would still stand up to scrutiny. The use of chlorine gas in a battle environment is a technological application, not a scienctific one.

    (I feel reminded of “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett: ??”That’s why it’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There’s No one There to Hear It, and then just when you think they’re going to start dribbling one of ’em says, Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles.”?? – Wolpert is arguing a clear and distinct division between knowledge and its application. Knowledge, and the search for it, he says, is never immoral. He believes that only the application of that knowledge can be immoral.

    The problem with human nature is, we learn by trial and error. Any theoretical knowledge is bound to find practical application if it exists.

    Especially if it can be used to do nasty things to other human beings.

    It’s part of being human. Part of being one of the daftest creatures on the planet.


    September 21, 2005

    I agree, Robert.

    Scientists ARE human, and science does have values. These are the
    kind of things that Wolpert denies. He believes science to be
    acultural, objective and value-free. The division between science and its technical application is risibly artificial, and, I suspect, a device to absolve science of its misdemeanours.

    And perhaps the problem with human nature is we DON”T seem to
    learn from experience


    September 21, 2005

    I agree. The division is artificial.

    It was the scientists who actively developed the theory and
    application of chlorine production for this purpose, not the German
    High Command.

    Also Wolpert’s assertion that ‘Knowledge, and the search for it is
    never immoral’ is naive and fatally flawed, as this single instance of
    the use of chlorine in war adequately demonstrates.


    September 21, 2005

    There’s a difference between the knowledge that chlorine is harmful / lethal, and throwing it at a person. Just because fire can burn people, that does not make wanting to know how to start it immoral.

    The search for knowledge is only immoral in two cases (that I can think of) – if it’s a search for “how to do something nasty” – in which case, the “how to” indicates it’s technological / application, and not about theory / understanding. Or if it involves immoral methodology (eg experiments on children).

    Possessing knowledge can never be immoral in my book. Obtaining knowledge can only be immoral if the act of obtaining it involves immorality, or if the desire is not for knowledge for its own sake, but for a sinister purpose.


    September 21, 2005

    Blimey, what a convoluted web of logic!

    I’d like to know at what point Haber’s behaviour is immoral, or does
    he get off scot-free because of some technical defintion?

    Maybe if you were one of the 650 000 who suffered you’d have a
    far clearer idea of the rights and wrongs of all this?


    September 21, 2005

    Haber is guilty by any definition.

    Science is not.

    To misquote Michael Moore: “The war on terror. How do you declare a war on a noun?”

    Similarly: Science is an abstract noun. It’s a search for knowledge and understanding. It is not an entity, or a person, or anything culpable.

    It’s the people / scientists who are to blame when things go wrong, not the concept of science. And they are to blame only when they research for specific, immoral purposes, or when the research uses immoral means.

    In other words, the person who discovered the atom and the people who found out how much energy is stored in the little blighters are not to blame for the fact that someone else thinks a step further (“could we let that energy out in one big burst and blow shit up?”)

    Knowledge can be abused, but that doesn’t make the knowledge the culprit. There is nothing convoluted about this logic at all. It makes perfect sense.


    September 21, 2005

    This entire delusional edifice of a posture is predicated upon
    the reductionist ‘argument’ that science is (a) either a noun, or (b) a discrete epistemological construct that can somehow be distilled and separated from the social and cultural context in which it is practised.

    Only in the blinkered halls of university seminar rooms, mate; not in the real world.

    Science, in its true context, can be various described (i) as an
    institution, (ii) as a method, (iii) as a cumulative tradition of
    knowledge, (iv) as a major factor in the maintenance and
    development of production, and (v) as one of the most powerful
    influences moulding beliefs and attitudes to the universe and

    In reality, the operations of ‘science’ are a continuum from the
    contextual discovery of ‘knowledge’ through to their application
    in the development of production.

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