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  • Ross Moughtin

Our most momentous technical advance?


What would you consider to be “the most momentous technical advance in history?” Quite a question!


Vaclav Smil, a Canadian academic and polymath, is a leading scientific commentator with no less than 36 books to his credit. More to the point, Bill Gates has read every single one of them and on Bill’s recommendation I am currently reading Smil’s latest offering, “How the world really works: a scientist’s guide to our past, present and future.”


Smil has the ability to stand back, to stand well back, and see the big picture. He may have a detailed knowledge of the subject in question but he does not allow detail to distract him in seeing the larger whole.


From how food is grown to how we generate power, in this book Smil outlines the basic technologies that keep society going. And in chapter three he identifies the four indispensable pillars of modern civilisation, those materials which enable us to live today as we do.


So what are the big four? Fascinatingly he identifies cement, steel, plastics and ammonia. And the greatest of these is . . . .ammonia, for it is ammonia in industrial quantities which enables us to stay alive.


Now if like me, you had absolutely no idea that ammonia is so important, the reason is simple: fertilisers. Without its use as the dominant nitrogen fertiliser it would be simply impossible to feed half the world’s population of 8 billion people.


The problem is that although we have a huge need for nitrogen and even though there’s a lot of it about (there’s a lot in your lungs as you read this), the synthesising of this simple molecule in order to manufacture a fertiliser is surprisingly difficult.


And we can’t rely on accumulated tropical bird droppings nor nitrates from the Chilean deserts, what the world needs is an industrial process which can convert nitrogen into compounds assimilable by plants.


This need became acute as the industrial revolution really got going and it was clearly articulated in 1898 by chemist William Crookes, the then president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


“England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle, he noted. “Land is a limited quantity, and the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena.” He concludes: “The fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is one of the great discoveries, awaiting the genius of chemists.”


It took just ten years of determined scientific endeavour to work out how to synthesise nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia and German chemist Fritz Haber worked out how to do it using an iron catalyst. But as my son-in-law knows only too well, the real challenge is how to scale this up into an industrial process.


This took another four years and the credit goes to Carl Bosch, another German chemist who with Haber was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry.


So we have the Haber-Bosch process which made ammonia fertilizer widely available, allowing a huge increase of yields in agriculture. To quote Smil here: “Without this synthesis of ammonia, we could not ensure the very survival of large shares of today’s and tomorrow’s population.”


Hence his claim that the Haber-Bosch process is the most momentous technical advance in human history, one – I hasten to add - that I had never even heard of!


But there’s a big BUT, and this is me writing and not Smil. Certainly we can honour human endeavour and ingenuity. Made in the image of our creator, we can develop wonderful technologies and use our God-given abilities to solve challenging problems in the service of humankind.


However, if you were able to follow the timeline above you could work out that the world’s first ammonia synthesis plant began to operate at Oppau in Germany in September 1913, just in time for the Great War. So rather than make nitrates, the plant was used to manufacture explosives which were used to kill human beings, each made in the image of God, on an industrial scale.


And that is what happens whenever human beings come up with an amazing technology. We can all see the wonderful potential but somehow we manage to use it to do terrible things. Even last week’s blog on Top Gun Maverick. The hi-tech F18 Super Hornet is designed simply to destroy and to kill, no more.


“Technology, “ observes comedian Carrie Snow, “is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.”


But the problem is not with technology, the problem is with us, even in me. What the Bible calls sin, our inherent tendency to deny God, his primacy and authority and instead to do our own thing in our own way in our own strength. A recipe for disaster, the road to hell.


That is where the cross of Jesus comes in, God’s necessary response to a problem beyond our fixing. And in his name we pray that God’s Kingdom comes, that his will is done here on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. As it happens a good friend anticipates that in heaven, in God’s renewed creation, there will be some wonderful technologies, ones which will simply bless.


But in the meantime we stay vigilant, never to be taken in by the last technological advance. We refuse to be in awe of such a scientific breakthrough, forever alert to the damage it may cause. We know ourselves only too well.



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