The 1918 Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were awarded to Fritz Haber and Max Planck, respectively, both German scientists, at a time when German science was at its zenith. These prizes were announced on this day, November 13 in 1919.
Fritz Haber was honored for his method of synthesizing ammonia from its elements, nitrogen and hydrogen, and Max Planck was recognized for the “services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta.”
The lives and work of both these scientists intertwine with that of Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish physicist, whose role in discovering nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, has been underplayed for a few reasons, mainly for being woman and a Jew during Nazi Germany.
Let’s start with Fritz Haber’s contribution. The importance of Fritz Haber’s work, a German Jewish chemist, cannot be underestimated.
As early as 1898 it had been predicted that the world’s population was growing at a faster rate than farms could support. The problem was that, in order to increase produce yields, farms needed more nitrogen than the soil provided naturally. It’s not that there wasn’t enough nitrogen in the world. That was hardly the case. The air is 78% nitrogen. It’s just that the nitrogen in the air is not in a form that is absorbable by plants.
Plants need nitrogen for a number of things, most importantly, as a component of both chlorophyll, which turns sun energy into sugar, and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Nitrogen gas, when reacted with hydrogen gas, produces ammonia, NH3, which is water soluble. Being water soluble, ammonia can be absorbed into the soil, whereby it changes to saltpeter nitrogen, a form useful to plants.
Haber developed his method for “nitrogen fixation,” the process whereby nitrogen from the atmosphere can be changed to a form that can be absorbed by crops by combining together nitrogen and hydrogen with a catalyst under high pressure conditions.
When World War I came about, Fritz Haber devoted the resources of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, for which he served as director, to the war effort. He combined his work in ammonia synthesis with Wilhelm Ostwald’s process for oxidizing ammonia to nitric acid to turn Germany into a self-reliant source of wartime explosives.
Further, Haber was one of the first to develop chemical weapons for Germany. Responding to military requests for tear gas and other irritants, Haber devoted his chemical expertise to experiment with chlorine gas.
On April 22, 1915, he was instrumental to and present when the Germans first deployed poison gas against their adversaries. During the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, French and Algerian soldiers noticed a yellow-gray-colored cloud floating in their direction. As the gas descended over them, they found it hard to breathe, gasping for air and frothing at the mouth. They ran away, leaving behind their rifles. Afraid of the effects of these gases on themselves, the German troops failed to take advantage of the retreat. 400 tons of chlorine gas were used, resulting in the deaths of 6000 Allied soldiers.
When the Nazis came to power, they demanded that Haber fire the Jewish scientists under his directorship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Lise Meitner was one of those scientists. Rather than do the Nazi’s bidding, he resigned from his post. He died of a heart attack on his way to Israel to meet with Chaim Weizmann.
Max Planck, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, who introduced to the world the idea of the quanta which transformed twentieth century physics, was Lise’s mentor in Berlin, and was the first to hire her. This was no small feat, as woman at that time were considered unemployable. Because of Planck , she was able to be promoted alongside her male colleagues and assume almost full equality in the German physics community.
Max Planck, though not Jewish, would also suffer under Nazi rule, becoming somewhat of a pariah for not joining the Nazi party. He secretly helped Jewish scientists escape Germany, and was personally instrumental in orchestrating Lise’s escape. Particularly heartbreaking, Planck’s son Erwin was hanged by the Nazis for his role in the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. Max Planck died two years later.