Other scientists / inventors
of the past two centuries
whose impact was great but not quite as great:
(1915: general relativity)
(1876-1886: gasoline engine and car, quintessential machines of the 20th century)
(mathematician of the millennium)
Fleming (1928: Penicillin saves
millions of lives)
(1935-41: first program- controlled computer)
(1830s: first designs of such computers);
(1928: transistor; also O. Heil, 1935, and
Shockley et al., 1948)
(1931: limits of math and computation),
(1936: Turing machine,
1943: Nazi code breaker)
(1853: genetic theory),
Darwin & Wallace
(1858: evolution theory) and
Crick, Watson, Wilkins, Franklin
(1873: theory of electricity),
(1866: practical dynamo drives electricity era; 1892: electric locomotion),
(1877: phonograph; his employees and J.W. Swan
improve light bulbs of Davy, Houdin, etc.)
Meucci, Reis, Bell
(wireless communication for radio and cell phone)
Hahn & Meitner (1938: uranium fission, for A-bomb and nuclear power)
(1900: quantum physics),
(1925: uncertainty principle)
Fritz Haber (left, 1.0 Nobel prizes in
and Carl Bosch (right, 0.5 Nobels in
have probably had a greater impact than anyone in the
past 100 years, including Hitler, Gandhi,
Their Haber-Bosch process has often been called
the most important invention of the 20th century
(e.g., V. Smil, Nature 29(415), 1999)
as it "detonated the population explosion," driving the world's
population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to almost 8 billion today.
The 70 million deaths of World War I and World War
II almost vanish next to these numbers.
But Haber, a patriotic German Jew,
shared some responsibility
for those as well: his
work helped Germany
to significantly prolong WW I, and also to
develop the Zyklon B poison gas
used in WW II's Holocaust.
Haber's almost paradoxical biography
affected more lives and deaths than anybody else's.
Bosch was a co-founder of IG-Farben,
the world's largest chemical company. After WW II
the allies broke it up into three smaller parts, each
still larger than any foreign chemical company.
In the past 200 years only
germ theory of disease by
had an impact on mankind that rivals the one of the Haber-Bosch process.
Compare the ongoing robot population explosion!
Under high temperature and very high pressure,
hydrogen and nitrogen (from thin air) are combined
to produce ammonia.
A century after its
invention, the process is still applied all
over the world to produce
500+ million tons of artificial fertilizer per year.
1% of the world's energy supply is used for it
(Science 297(1654), 2002). In 2004,
it sustained roughly 2 out of 5 people
(Fryzuk, Nature 427(498), 2004).
As of 2015, it already sustains nearly 1 out of 2; soon it will sustain 2
out of 3.
Billions of people would never have existed without it;
our dependence will only increase
as the global count moves to ten billion people or so.
Haber was a professor in Karlsruhe when he
demonstrated the feasibility of ammonia synthesis in 1909. Bosch, an engineer
at BASF in Ludwigshafen, then overcame some unprecedented engineering
problems associated with the enormous pressure required by the process.
Commercial production started in 1913.
Within a few decades, the super-exponential effect on the world's population
became obvious (right).
The process has "altered the global nitrogen cycle so fundamentally that the nearest
suggested geological comparison refers to events about 2.5 billion years ago" (Nature, 519(172), 2015).
Was the Haber-Bosch process good or bad?
Some say the world would be better off
without so many people.
In any case, no other invention of
the past 200 years has had such an impact on our planet,
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