Bread from air: Fritz Haber, and the unpredictable outcomes of visionary thinking

We pick the narratives that we prefer. And if we find a guru, thought-leader or intellectual who speaks to our values and dreams, confirmation bias means we celebrate their successes, and forgive them their failures. In reality, though, they’re going to be the same mixed-bag as the rest of us, albeit often operating at a higher level of complexity and consequence than we are.

You’ve probably heard of Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist. His development of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat is credited with saving a billion people from starvation. The resulting increased food security in Pakistan and India led to Borlaug receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and other honours.

But what of Fritz Haber, at least as significant a figure in terms of food security? Haber was a German chemist who invented the Haber–Bosch process, for which he also won a Nobel Prize (in 1918). This process is used to synthesise ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and in turn the ammonia helps us to make fertilisers.

The scale of fertiliser production made possible was such that people spoke of “bread from air”, and increased crop yield led to famine becoming a distant threat for much of Europe. However, the process in question turned out to also be very useful in the production of explosives, with Haber himself becoming a pioneer of the development and deployment of chlorine gas.

Haber thought that chlorine gas would shorten the war. And, he clearly thought it was important to feed people. So, was he a utilitarian, concerned only about ends rather than means? Saving lives on aggregate might have justified ending some lives as “collateral damage”, in his reckoning. Or, was he an amoral (or even immoral) scientist, simply concerned with innovation, regardless of how those innovations might be used?

Regardless of how we assess Haber’s morality, he does provide an example of how innovation can come at a cost to personal relationships and your place in a community. On the night he was promoted to captain in the German army, Haber’s wife committed suicide, having become despondent at his routine absences and military involvement.

His patriotism didn’t provide protection from the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany either. In 1933, he was refused permission to enter his own research institute, with a porter informing him that “the Jew Haber is not allowed in here”. Haber resigned, and died of a heart attack a year later.

Some visionaries appear more decisive, or even impetuous, than others. Elon Musk’s public persona is sufficiently theatrical that Robert Downey Jnr. reportedly used him as inspiration for his portrayal of Tony Stark in the 2008 film Iron Man. By contrast, some visionaries do their work more quietly, but to equal effect.

Oliver Tambo demonstrates how taking an indirect path to a goal can achieve success that might instead have been compromised, if pursued with the bullishness of a Musk. In the late 1980s, he anticipated the need for a framework for political negotiations in South Africa and set about drafting one, namely the Harare Declaration.

The success of a negotiated settlement depended in large part on the international community endorsing the process. Yet, there was a possibility that the United Nations (UN) would not ratify the Harare Declaration without unified support from all African states.

So, instead of aiming for international approval immediately, Tambo took a slower but more secure path. He first took the Declaration to a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union), where his diplomatic skills saw it given unanimous approval, significantly strengthening his position at the UN.

What creates a visionary? One model is that of lightly-supervised chaos, as described by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, in her latest book The Gardener and the Carpenter.

Gopnik suggests that we should abandon parenting, and instead just be a parent. The book title suggests the difference: a carpenter would attempt to “make” a certain sort of table, or chair, or indeed, child. But, if you’re a gardener, “what you do is try to create an ecosystem where many, many different plants can thrive and create a system that’s resilient enough that when things change, the garden can adjust in very unpredictable ways.”

Jaron Lanier is a Silicon Valley visionary who coined – and largely invented – virtual reality. His sad and implausibly extreme childhood offers a different model, but one we’d hope to never experience for ourselves.

His mother died when he was 10, in a car accident Lanier spent years blaming himself for. He and his father’s house then burnt down, leaving them penniless. After that, he grew up in a New Mexico desert – first in an army surplus tent, then in the house that a 12 year-old Lanier himself designed.

Visionaries can also emerge from hyper-disciplined parenting. John Stuart Mill was one of the most influential 19th Century thinkers in a wide range of fields, and was home-schooled by a father whose explicit aim was that of creating a “genius”. Mill was taught Greek at the age of three, and had read all of Herodotus by the age of eight.

So if asked what creates a visionary – whether it’s nature or nurture, or what combination of the two – our safest answer might simply be “yes”.

One last thing about Haber: In the 1920s, while his work on extracting gold from seawater (to assist with reparations payments after the First World War) proved fruitless, his line of research into developing pesticide gasses proved successful, especially in protecting those same grain stores he could rightly take much of the credit for.

The gas in question was Zyklon A, predecessor to Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide made infamous in World War Two, when it emerged as the Nazis preferred method of exterminating roughly one million people in gas chambers at places like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

We can’t reliably know what it takes to become a visionary. Nor, sadly, can we rely on visionaries to better the world.

This column was written for a new magazine which was meant to launch early this year. Unfortunately, the publication in question now seems unlikely to see the light of day, so I thought I’d post it here.


Also published on Medium.