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Friday, December 20, 2013

To Doubt What is Undoubtedly Right

Radiolab: How do you solve a problem like Fritz Haber?
What happens: Haber wins the Nobel prize for converting Nitrogen into a nutritionally useful form and solves a food crises. Haber then uses the same process for gas warfare (Chlorine gas) and seems to delight in killing as many Allies as he can with it. His wife (also a gifted scientist) is horrified and argues for him to stop on moral grounds. He doesn't. She commits suicide. The next day, Haber goes to war to continue gas warfare leaving his son with a dead mother. The son then commits suicide. When the Germans are defeated, Haber spends years trying to develop a scientific process to collect gold from the sea to pay off Germany's war debt. He fails. Hitler comes to power, and Haber (a Jew) leaves the country. Nazi Germany uses a Haber-derived process to exterminate Jews (including Haber's extended family) in gas chambers.

It's a very gripping listen (hopefully that shocking summary is enough to get you to hear the whole story)...and I think one that will hopefully influence us as we move forward as people who want to impact the world. (By the way, Radiolab is my favorite radio show - always gets me thinking in different ways - on moral and social issues, in questioning conventional psychological thought/analysis, and with feel-good/thinking-good stories & sound-effects.)

Haber's story also reminds me of Richard Wagner - a horribly anti-Semitic man who made great music. I still don't know how to answer the question my music professor posed to me two years ago: should Wagner's music be played publicly?

I think the lessons boil down to not taking things to the extremes, to step back and doubt. In all those times we hate ourselves for doubting and falling in that uncertain limbo space, it's nice to know that doubt is good.  The "greater good" is a dangerous concept. As another Radiolab podcast quoted, what is "greater" and what is "good"? Perhaps there is no clear answer, and so we must always doubt what is undoubtedly right.

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