The Borderline of Science and Ethics
Suebin Lee, Yui Araki

Should scientists with great inventions be unconditionally praised? History proves no. 

Do you know why the Nobel Prize, one of the most reputable prizes in the world, was created? Given how respected it is, do you still think every scientist that has received the Nobel Prize deserves unconditional praise? Science can be a double-edged sword; it could be used to save millions of lives but simultaneously used to instantly kill millions. With cutting-edge technology being invented every day, ethicality is one of the primary things scientists must consider. The following are two scientists that gave very contrasting ethical attitudes towards science and technology. 

Arguably, one of the most controversial scientists of history is Fritz Haber (1868-1934), a German chemist. If you study chemistry, his name will probably be familiar to you; he is famous for his work on the synthesis of ammonia, a process known as the Haber-Bosch process. Before the development of the process in the early 20th century, ammonia was only able to be obtained from natural sources, such as animal waste and guano. However, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process allowed large-scale production of ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, creating synthetic fertilizers leading to a better crop yield and improved food security. This increased availability of food saved countless lives and helped support the rapidly expanding global population. In fact, he was rewarded with a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1918 for this revolutionary innovation, which is widely considered to be one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century. 

You will be wondering then why Fritz Haber is considered to be controversial. He, on the other side, is also referred to as the father of chemical warfare. He was involved in the development of chemical weapons during World War I and played a key role in the use of chlorine and other poisonous gases as weapons. Despite being fully aware of the application of these chemical weapons he developed, he was a strong advocate for their use, believing that chemical warfare could be more humane than traditional methods. Due to this contribution to World War I and its 20 million deaths, Haber’s Nobel Prize and the praise for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process continue to be a large debate, especially considering that it was awarded after the war. 

Another controversial scientist would be Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833~1896). Famously known as the founder of the Nobel Prize, he also had some inventions that triggered arguments. From his adolescent years, Nobel had a strong interest in explosives, leading to the invention of the blasting cap and the dynamite in his 30s, later becoming his biggest hits. Both products were introduced as safer options for the use of explosives in construction, and they played major roles in drilling tunnels, building bridges, and more, pushing industrial advancement. However, dynamite soon became one of Nobel’s biggest regrets. In contrast to Harber, Nobel was struck by shock due to the deaths caused by dynamite. Not only were there many who died from accidents at construction sites, but dynamite was also being purposely misused to foolishly commit murder. Due to these effects and the multiple deathly accidents that happened at his factories, he was called the ‘Trader of Death,’ or ‘Angel of Death’ in newspapers, putting Nobel into deep regret about how his invention shaped his portrayal in the media. Many critics hypothesize that these papers were what made him wonder if the negative image was the legacy that he wanted to leave, bringing the idea of the Nobel Prize. Nobel wanted to make up for his doings, and use his large amounts of money for the ‘promotion of peace.’ Though Nobel’s unaffectedness after his little brother Emil’s death in an accident at his first dynamite factory is seen as his brutal character flaw, he had a drastically different reaction to the effects of his inventions in comparison to Haber. Nobel’s later actions to redesign his legacy also emphasize the difference in reflection, though ironic that a character such as Haber later receives the Nobel Prize. 

As shown by the two scientists, there are evident differences between approaches even if the invention itself is hard to compare for the better. Many would argue that it comes down to their attitude, or the number of victims created. However, are scientists directly responsible for their inventions? Should they have thought through their groundbreaking discoveries before releasing them into society? Even when we disagree with the personas of these scientists, is it possible to completely avoid their inventions in the modern world? Scientific discoveries are always accompanied by unexpected consequences, and they raise questions going much deeper than science itself. Especially in the age of drastic development, the consideration of borderline ethics come important for our daily lives for us to control where our technology might take us. 

 

Bibliography

Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Alfred Nobel." Britannica. Last modified December 6, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel

Kanwal, Raana. "Famous Inventors Who Regretted Their Inventions." Global Village Space. Last modified July 30, 2019. https://www.globalvillagespace.com/famous-inventors-who-regretted-their-inventions/

King, Gilbert. "Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death." Smithsonian Magazine. Last modified June 6, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fritz-habers-experiments-in-life-and-death-114161301/

Livni, Ephrat. "The Nobel Prize Was Created to Make People Forget Its Inventor's Past." Quartz. Last modified October 2, 2017. https://qz.com/1092033/nobel-prize-2017-the-inventor-of-the-awards-alfred-nobel-didnt-want-to-be-remembered-for-his-work

Mougel, Nadege. "World War I Casualties." Maison De L'Europe à Scy-Chazelles - CERS. Last modified 2011. https://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf

The Nobel Prize Organization. "Alfred Nobel’s Life and Work." NobelPrize.org. Last modified September 12, 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-life-and-work/

Pattabathula, Venkat. "Fritz Haber – Creator of Good and Evil." AmmoniaKnowHow.com. Accessed February 21, 2023. https://ammoniaknowhow.com/fritz-haber-creator-of-good-and-evil/

Science History Institute. "Fritz Haber." Science History Institute. Last modified November 19, 2020. https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/fritz-haber

Veritasium. "The Man Who Killed Millions and Saved Billions." YouTube. Last modified August 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvknN89JoWo

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