Bad Chemistry on Radiolab

Radiolab has been a source of fascinating information about all sort of topics over the years, and many people have noticed that the workers at Radiolab understand and appreciate the medium of radio in their presentations. In the spirit of Orson Welles, they experiment with sound, even if sometimes in decibel ranges that hurt my ears. Pathei mathos.  The show has received praise from numerous quarters, and one of its hosts, Jad Abumrad, won a MacArthur award recently.

Clara Immerwahr

During a broadcast about the chemist Fritz Haber, a scientist devoted to his Fatherland and enthralled by his own ambition, one of the hosts decided to pass moral judgment on Mr. Haber.  That judgment calls for questioning. To begin to appreciate the radical nature of the judgment, you might need what Hollywood types call the backstory, at least a bit of it, without mentioning Zyklon gas, another part of the Haber mess. According to Radiolab’s own tale, Haber himself put together a group of soldiers during World War I, and traveled with them to Belgium to experiment with chlorine gas against French, British, and Canadian troops.  With forethought, Haber and his men waited for the right conditions to release the gas on troops confronting the German forces, though using the gas was opposed by several commanders in the German military who believed that Haber’s experiment was a violation of basic human decency in time of war.  You can listen to the Radiolab podcast for a vivid description of the effects of the gas on human beings and on nature.

Upon Haber’s return to Germany after this incident, Haber found himself in an argument with Clara Immerwahr, his wife. She had heard about what he had done and was deeply disturbed. Her last name means roughly “always true (“Wahrheit” in German is truth). In short, the Cassandra story was staring Haber in the face, but he could not see it, nor could the Radiolab hosts in their retelling.  As a scientist herself, Immerwahr knew that her husband had transgressed.  She ended up shooting herself, though Haber, according to the accounts at the time, considered Clara’s interpretation of his actions to be utterly mistaken. Like the deluded Haber, one of the hosts of Radiolab decided to intervene at this point in the broadcast to provide a sterile, chilling, utilitarian arithmetic to Haber’s actions (the judgment mentioned above). In abstracted form, the ethical “thinking” inserted into the broadcast goes like this: If person X murders 2 people, but escorts 3 elderly women across the street and prevents the women from being hit by a bus, those actions combined (murdering and escorting) result in a positive integer.  One extra person lived as a result of X’s actions in those two situations, and that is what makes X a good human being.

I could not believe my ears. Two intelligent people, the hosts of Radiolab, contrary to Clara Immerwahr’s model behavior that ought to have made an impression on them, discussed blithely a formula for ethics as simplistic as the one described above, and one of the hosts concluded that Haber was a good person, because prior to World War I Haber had invented a process involving nitrogen that allowed the world to provide food to its expanding population.  The projected millions of human lives saved by nitrogen fertilizer were set against the hundreds (the exact figure was not given on the Radiolab broadcast, if my memory is correct) of soldiers and other creatures killed by Haber’s chlorine gas, and since millions happen to be larger than hundreds, you can figure out without resorting to a calculator what your ethical position on Mr. Haber ought to be.

I stopped listening to the broadcast after that, and began wishing that I had known Clara Immerwahr.


2 responses to “Bad Chemistry on Radiolab

  1. I don’t remember all the details of the episode, but I don’t think their assessment ended there. I think at the end of the episode pretty much felt equal parts disdain and pity (note: not sympathy, but pity) for Haber. I think they started with that calculated formula for ethics as a way to begin the conversation. I could be wrong, though.

  2. Radiolab, huh. I guess I’ve gotten old. I grew up on NPR when this kind of manipulative, self-aggrandizing piffle would have gotten a radio producer fired. Mores the shame that the subject matter is usually interesting, but you can’t stand to listen due to the “talent” drowning out facts with their cutesy-pie puns and witticisms. I shut this junk off anytime it comes on the radio. Now it wins a Genius Grant? American is surely doomed. Until then I’ll stick to Ira Glass when I want to be entertained. God knows there’s no journalism to be found on public radio anywhere.

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