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Ask an informed layman what he or she thinks is the greatest science-based industrial discovery or invention of all time and the person will likely name the computer, the transistor, the telephone, the incandescent light or perhaps even the blast furnace. But key as all these inventions were to humanity’s progress, there is perhaps one industrial discovery that surpasses them in the sheer earth-shattering and fundamental change it brought about not only in the struggles of human survival but in the bedrock of our very existence on this planet. That discovery is the discovery of the means to artificially fix nitrogen to produce ammonia; the Haber-Bosch process that takes atmospheric nitrogen and turns it into ammonia by combining it with hydrogen, usually obtained from methane. The machine that would make this discovery possible was invented by two men who, akin to the fantastic prophets of biblical lore, literally succeeded in turning air into bread.

That discovery increased humanity’s capability to feed an ever-increasing number of mouths by an unprecedented scale. By some estimates it keeps 2 billion of the 6 billion people living in this world alive today. The discovery of course signified the classic Faustian bargain; the same ammonia that would breathe life into the weak and the hungry also gave them death by enabling better and increased production of explosives containing ammonium nitrate.

But perhaps also seeing further into our future than any other single discovery, into all our woes and the evils of our time, Haber-Bosch struck a Faustian bargain of a completely unforeseen nature; it equipped human beings to be the first living creatures who deliberately started deriving their energy from fossil fuels instead of from the sun. With the discovery of anthropomorphic climate change and global warming, it is clear is retrospect that this event will be a watershed event in mankind’s history, perhaps the single most important predicator of our future calamities. You can read a superb account of this discovery in all its fascinating details in Thomas Hager’s book “The Alchemy of Air”. Haber of course struck a different kind of Faustian bargain with chemistry itself by later directing poison gas research during World War 1, but that’s a different story.

Three of tomorrow’s Nobel Laureates are both strangely connected to this momentous event in their own disparate ways. Gerhard Ertl won a Nobel Prize for explaining among other things just what it is that actually happens in Haber-Bosch. His pioneering work on chemistry at surfaces unraveled the mechanisms and applications of key industrial processes like the one above, and provided a detailed picture of how to understand, control and predict the nature of such processes. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli once famously said that God created solids but only the Devil could have made surfaces. Ertl is one of the scientists whose work has shone light onto the Devil’s dark deeds to an unprecedented degree.

Chemists F. Sherwood Roland and Paul Crutzen won the Nobel Prize for explaining how man-made substances containing halogens react destructively with the ozone layer. The culmination of this research was the Montreal Treaty of 1988 banning the production of CFC-containing aerosols. While this research was not directly connected to the Haber-Bosch process, it made scientists and policy-makers acutely aware of the myriad ways in which man’s activities can affect the climate. With a more finely attuned sensitivity scientists began to focus more clearly on the greenhouse gas effect and the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change. As the world depends more and more on food grown using fertilizer on an exponentially growing scale, fossil fuel use coming from such production increases, in turn leading to a greater contribution to global warming. The initial use of fossil fuels in the manufacture of fertilizer in turn leads to the production of increased levels of CO2, as industrial-style production of food is ramped up based on readily available food for animals like cows. This in turn also contributes to fossil fuels used in transporting this higher quota of food and fertilizer. Clearly the metaphysical adage about everything being linked is not entirely false.

But the connection between Haber-Bosch and tomorrow’s laureates’ work also illustrates some key dilemmas and ironies of science. For starters the strange connections between Haber, Bosch, Ertl, Sherwood and Rowland could not have been guessed by either. Also quite obviously the same technology used to give life can be used to take it away, a convoluted contradiction that we have been struggling with since time immemorial. But Ertl’s work was not aimed at directly doing any of this; he was simply interested in the fascinating field of chemistry at surfaces and trying to unravel the mechanisms of an age-old and yet little-understood process. Still his discoveries could enable the development of better catalysts which could make it more efficient to produce ammonia and related substances, perhaps by using less fossil fuel energy. Similar for Crutzen, Sherwood and their co-recipient Marino Molina, what was initially an academic exercise turned out to have deep-seated consequences for humanity.

The verdict then seems to be that nobody escapes the consequences of their work. And yet science itself confesses no attachment to the fruits of its labor. Assuming we believe in some kind of objective reality, the mechanisms for metal-mediated catalysis of the hydrogen-nitrogen reaction were already there, waiting for those like Ertl to discover them. It is we human beings who bring science into the fold of moral philosophy by interfacing with it. However that is part of the burden of scientific discovery; by discovering something we are already delegating it to the world of positive and negative consequences. It is only our responsibility then that we try to minimize the negative ones. As Richard Feynman put it, to all of us is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates to hell. We are the ones who choose. Tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners prove that it is possible to use the key one way.

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 » Ashutosh Jokalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. Ashutosh_45.jpg