Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population growth – New Yorker, Oct. 21, 2013

An Oct. 21, 2013 New Yorker article has prompted me to think of how happenstance, chance events, split-second decisions made in extreme circumstances decades and centuries ago, serendipity, and unintended consequences come together to create the present moment.

The article is entitled: “Books – Head Count – Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population growth.”

The opening paragraph reads:


  • On May 12, 1907, toward the end of the annual meeting of the German Bunsen Society, which was held that year in Hamburg, a distinguished chemist named Walther Nernst insulted a not so distinguished junior colleague named Fritz Haber. The topic of the put-down—the synthesis of ammonia at very high temperatures—was, even by Bunsen Society standards, abstruse, but the gibe was strongly worded, so everyone at the meeting understood Nernst’s intent. Haber, who suffered from a variety of nervous ailments, was mortified. When he returned home to Karlsruhe, his skin broke out in hives. Before Nernst’s attack, he hadn’t been all that interested in synthesizing ammonia. The insult had the unintended consequence of stiffening his resolve. Haber threw himself full time into proving that ammonia could indeed be cooked up in the laboratory, using hydrogen and ordinary nitrogen gas. The result of this effort, which eventually became known as the Haber-Bosch process, had unintended consequences of its own, some of which proved to be world-altering.

[End of excerpt]


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