Before 1866, when engineers
wanted to blow something up they used nitroglycerin. It’s very nasty stuff that has a habit of going off
just when you don’t want it to. Now there was this guy,
let’s call him Alfred, and Alfred set out to see
if he could make nitroglycerin less, how shall we say, less unpredictable. And Alfred discovered
that if you absorb nitroglycerin on a silicone packing material what you get
is a more handleable, safe material, a safer explosive. Dynamite. Fame and fortune followed. Alfred naively hoped that the
destructive power of dynamite would put an end to all wars. Disillusioned,
he sold off all his factories and he wrote his will. He left several thousand quid
to his family but with the bulk of his fortune,
he set up a fund. “The profit from which
shall be annually distributed to those who
during the preceding year have conferred
the greatest benefit on mankind.” Alfred? Alfred Nobel, Nobel Prizes. I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes
of the United States are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night
of racial injustice. After contemplation, I conclude that this award
is a profound recognition that non-violence is the answer
to the crucial political and moral questions of our time. Thank you. Remember Fritz Haber?
Ammonia, fertiliser, TNT? He was also the first scientist
to make chemicals for war. “Haber knew how catalysts work, that a catalyst is not innocent, but joins in, to carve off the top
or undermine some critical hill, or, reaching molecular arms
for the partners in the most difficult stage
of reaction, brings them near, eases the desired
making and breaking of bonds. Geheimrat Haber
of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute thought himself a catalyst
for ending the war; his chemical weapons would bring
victory in the trenches. Burns and lung cankers were better
than a Dum Dum bullet shrapnel. When his men
unscrewed the chlorine tank caps and green gas
spilled over the dawn field at Ypres, he carefully took notes,
forgot his wife’s sad letters…” So why have we looked at Haber,
a man long dead? Well, his work is of enduring
importance, of that there’s no doubt. All the nitrogen fertiliser
manufactured today is still made using Haber’s process. He was a complex individual. A Nobel laureate who wanted
to hasten the end of World War I by manufacturing poison gas. He was a patriot but ironically, as a Jew he was forced
to flee Germany in 1933. We can look at Haber and try to understand
what motivated him as a person but what of the subject? What of chemistry? In the popular imagination chemistry seems to have
a personality of its own. It’s conspicuous. And the sheer range of chemical
products and their importance means that sometimes the subject
spills over into other domains like power. And because
these products have a high value they inevitably attract
the money makers. Haber’s story illustrates well the creativity
that’s possible in chemistry but it also serves as a warning. I think chemists
and scientists in general have a social responsibility. I think we are born to create. We are sentenced
to create by our nature. There’s no way of hiding something. If one person
doesn’t find it one day, somebody else
will make that molecule the next day. But given that
which comes out of our curiosity not of our being human, we, chemists in particular, have the responsibility
to think of all the effects, bad as well as good, of what we do.