Fritz Haber (1868-1934) ranks among the most significant and, at the same time, most controversial 20th century scientists. Haber's scientific merits are beyond dispute -- alone the pathway to catalytic synthesis of ammonia from its elements ("bread from air") that he paved embodies an exemplary service to humankind, recognised by the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. During the First World War, Haber applied himself in extraordinary ways to aid the German war effort. The chlorine cloud attack at Ypres that Haber orchestrated amounts to the first use of a weapon of mass destruction and as such marks a tragic turning point in world history; it elicited both immediate and enduring moral criticism. After the first world war, Haber developed his institute into a center for pace-setting research at the intersection of chemistry and physics. In the process, he created an ideal scientific environment, whose qualities are also reflected by the fact that the institute’s scientists have been awarded seven Nobel prizes – so far. Equally exemplary was Haber’s leadership in establishing what is today the German Research Association (DFG), as well as his embrace of the Weimar Republic and his open support for its democratic institutions. Haber’s Jewish origins along with his democratic attitudes were a thorn in the flesh of the Nazis, who treated him as a persona non grata. Forced by Nazi legislation to dismiss his Jewish coworkers, Haber resigned in protest instead. He died in exile shortly thereafter, possibly en route to Palestine. On the initiative of Max von Laue, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry was renamed in 1952 after its founding director in recognition of his scientific achievements and in memory of his tragic fate as a German patriot. The naming of the Institute after Fritz Haber -- and the present symposium -- are not intended to be solely a tribute to Haber the scientist, but also a critical acknowledgment of an extraordinary life -- one that inspires reflection on the Janus-face nature of modern science and raises our historical awareness.
The symposium will cover aspects of Fritz Haber’s life and work ranging from his scientific and organisational activities to the discovery of the catalytic synthesis of ammonia in collaboration with Robert Le Rossignol to the environmental impact of artificial fertilizers to Haber’s cultural and political attitudes, including his Jewish identity.
The symposium will conclude with a concert of Baroque music at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, across the street from Haber’s former residence.