Monday, August 24, 2009

Argument about Haber

... on Language Hat blog
 But scientific/technological invention is precisely the area in which  the "great man" theory is shakiest.
Yes. And the reason, IMHO, is not that there are no great men, it's that the "great" in "great man" makes us to look for something glamorous, while it's oftentimes the blacksmith and his proverbial nail.

Every great advance seems to have been invented by two or more people almost simultaneously. I confess I now nothing about Haber or nitrate fixation, but I'm guessing if he hadn't developed it, someone else would have around the same time.

"Around" is crucial. Those who argue about Haber's contribution being important to the course of European history don't say he was the only one who could do it or that no one would have developed it "around the same time". Indeed, it took the intervention of others and many more years to develop his tabletop reactor into an industrial process. What is being claimed (and I don't have the knowledge to either support or reject the claim in question) is that the discovery, and the Haber-Bosh
industrial process dependent upon it, could have been easily delayed for several crucial years by, say, untimely death of Haber (he used to tinker with noxious agents under high pressure and had sustained some poisonings as a result). In which case the World War would have been seriously affected.
  (Besides, I think the premise is flawed; Russia fought on for a long time with ludicrously inadequate supplies of ammunition, artillery, rifles, boots, you name it.)
One thing I didn't write on Language Hat: the above seems to be a little exaggerated; Russian army had its problems, but so did others, including Germans. Everybody had to ration shells and munitions in the first year of the war; all governments responded with state regulation of production. The Russian "military-industrial committees" actually arrived at making the supply barely adequate by the time the Revolution struck. In any case, absent Haber's process, the Germans would not have had an inadequate supply (that's what they had in the beginning of the war, like everybody else); they would have had no supply at all.

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