MySci Round-Up, September 27: Hail, Ammonia!

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On this day in 1910, German scientist Fritz Haber and his British colleague Robert Le Rossignol were issued a U.S. patent for an industrial process to synthesize ammonia from its chemical components nitrogen and hydrogen. It was Haber who gets most of the credit for actually inventing the process—Le Rossignol’s contribution was designing equipment to perform it—so we’ll focus on him. Besides, Haber is a lot more interesting of a historical figure, not just because of his prototypical mad scientist appearance—in photographs, he has a gleaming shaved head and stares unsmilingly through creepy little pince nez spectacles.

Haber was born in 1868 in Prussia, the son of a chemical merchant who went on to study organic chemistry at the University of Jena. He taught briefly, but soon tired of the stifling orthodoxy of academia and struck off on his own as a researcher. He branched out from his original field into other types of chemistry and thermodynamics as well, and authored several books.

But it was Haber’s invention of an efficient method to produce ammonia, a colorless but pungent gas that was first isolated by Joseph Priestley in the 18th century, that made him famous. Ammonia is used in the manufacturing of fertilizer, but at the turn of the 20th Century, the main way to produce it was to distill it from guano, which is a slightly less disgusting name for bird poop. The world’s major source of guano was an enormous, 220-mile-long deposit of the stuff left by generations of sea birds along the Chilean coast, and a lot of people at the time feared that it would run low. Haber figured out a way to solve the problem by making ammonia out of nitrogen and hydrogen from ordinary air. The two chemical components were not that reactive under normal conditions, but Haber subjected them to high heat (about 500 degrees Celsius) and pressure, and exposed them to the metal osmium, which served as a catalyst. (Later, iron compounds were substituted). Haber’s accomplishment not only won accolades, but led to his appointment as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in 1911. 

Haber was still in that post in 1914, when World War I broke out. Haber, an enthusiastic German patriot, quickly refocused upon finding ways for the German Empire to obtain substitutes for needed strategic raw materials, whose supply was cut off by blockades and embargoes. His ammonia-synthesizing process also made it possible for Germany to make its own nitric acid, a component of munitions and high explosives. Haber also figured out a new formula for antifreeze, using ingredients available within German borders.

But perhaps Haber’s most significant—and grisly—contribution to the German war effort was his role in creating the chlorine poison gas that the Kaiser’s army used against the French at Ypres in April 1915. Neither Haber nor the German Empire, it should be mentioned, actually invented chemical warfare; the French first fired grenades containing tear gas against the Germans in August 1914. Nevertheless, Haber became known as the father of chemical warfare. After the war, Haber felt shame and grief over Germany’s defeat, for which he in part assumed the blame. He tried to atone for his perceived failure and resurrect his country’s fortunes by developing a process to extract gold from seawater, but eventually abandoned the project when he concluded that the gold concentration in the oceans was too low to yield much wealth efficiently.

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the mid-1930s, Haber, who was Jewish, realized that he wouldn’t fit in, no matter how brilliant of a scientist he was, or how intensely he loved his homeland. In 1933, he left Germany for England, but didn’t like the climate, and was planning to resettle in Switzerland when he died in 1935. Other prominent German scientists who were Jews quickly left as well, forming a brain drain that hindered Germany’s war effort and immeasurably helped the Allies.

And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.

Iran admits that Stuxnet worm infected computers at nuclear research installation. The Iranians assured the world that the worm didn’t penetrate any crucial systems at the reactor that they’re building to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs. On the other hand, they’re also claiming that they aren’t trying to make bombs, either.

Feds want easier wiretapping access to Skype and encrypted BlackBerry messages. Before you get all outraged about this from a civil liberties standpoint, consider that decades ago, the U.S. government routinely intercepted and read thousands of Americans’ snail mail and tapped their phones. And officials didn’t even have to bother to get court authorization, as they must do now.

Antidepressants make people slightly less likely to harm others, Cambridge study finds. About 10 percent less, to be precise. So much for those sensational 1990s accusations that SSRIs make users go postal.

Scientists find technique for trapping and isolating fast-moving neutral atoms. If you don’t think this is a big deal, then you go try to catch one of the little biggers with a pair of tweezers. Can’t be done.

Scientists use plasmonic nanobubbles to attack prostate cancer cells. And sure, obviously WE know exactly what a plasmonic nanobubble is. It’s….it’s….aw, just go read the article, will you?

Study: Complexity is not that complicated, after all. Well, at least in terms of an organism’s ability to adapt to the environment via evolutionary adaptation. Moderately complex organisms, as it turns out, can evolve just as efficiently through random changes as simple ones.