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The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World But Fueled the Rise of Hitlerby Thomas Hager
Synopses & Reviews
A sweeping history of tragic genius, cutting-edge science, and the discovery that changed billions of lives — including your own.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, humanity was facing global disaster. Mass starvation, long predicted for the fast-growing population, was about to become a reality. A call went out to the world's scientists to find a solution.
This is the story of the two enormously gifted, fatally flawed men who found it: the brilliant, self-important Fritz Haber and the reclusive, alcoholic Carl Bosch. Together they discovered a way to make bread out of air, built city-sized factories, controlled world markets, and saved millions of lives. Their invention continues to feed us today; without it, more than two billion people would starve.
But their epochal triumph came at a price we are still paying. The Haber-Bosch process was also used to make the gunpowder and high explosives that killed millions during the two world wars. Both men were vilified during their lives; both, disillusioned and disgraced, died tragically. Today we face the other unintended consequences of their discovery — massive nitrogen pollution and a growing pandemic of obesity.
The Alchemy of Air is the extraordinary, previously untold story of two master scientists who saved the world only to lose everything and of the unforseen results of a discovery that continues to shape our lives in the most fundamental and dramatic of ways.
"Fixed nitrogen (which is immediately usable to plants) is essential in agriculture. Its rarity, as science writer Hager (The Demon Under the Microscope) shows, dramatically shaped the world and its politics. But by 1905, as Hager details, German chemist Fritz Haber discovered a process for transforming abundant air-borne nitrogen into ammonia, and Carl Bosch's ingenious engineering scaled Haber's benchtop chemistry into industrial processes to make fertilizer. But Hager's story is not only one of triumph, of how Haber and Bosch 'invented a way to turn air into bread,' earning a Nobel Prize and saving millions from starvation. This is also a story of irony and tragedy. First, life-saving nitrogen is also the main ingredient in explosives, and Hager cogently summarizes the Haber-Bosch process's critical role in both world wars. In addition, Hager illustrates Haber's extreme German patriotism and desperate wish to assimilate; shattered by the rise of Hitler, he became an outcast, abandoned even by his onetime colleague Bosch. It's unfortunate that Hager ends his fine book with only a brief look at the deleterious role of nitrogen on the environment. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Somehow fertilizer seems an unlikely subject for a Faustian tale about pride, vanity and ambition. Yet here it is: Chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch won Nobel Prizes for their contributions to humanity as young men and reached the pinnacle of German science, only to be brought low by their own, very human failings. Haber and Bosch invented industrially made fertilizer during the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) first decade of the 20th century, developing a method of synthesizing and mass-producing ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, hence the title of Thomas Hager's book, "The Alchemy of Air." The need for such a process was urgent. Agricultural crops required nitrogen, but by the late 19th century the parched flatlands of Chile's Atacama Desert were the world's only major source of nitrates, and supplies were running out. With most arable land already cultivated and populations on the rise, a Malthusian nightmare loomed. Haber, a chemist living in Karlsruhe, invented a method of blending hydrogen and nitrogen in a high-pressure, high-temperature chamber using a metal catalyst. He developed a tabletop model and sold the ammonia production process to the German dye works Badish Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik, known today as BASF, one of the world's leading chemical companies. Bosch, a BASF chemist, was given the task of scaling up Haber's idea. He succeeded spectacularly, creating immense manufacturing complexes and eventually becoming managing director of BASF and, subsequently, chairman of IG Farben, the conglomerate he helped create. The Haber-Bosch process is still the leading method of making synthetic fertilizer, and Bosch is venerated in some circles as the father of industrial chemistry. Hager, a science writer who previously wrote a biography of Linus Pauling and a book about the discovery of the earliest antibiotics, tells the story of fertilizer well. But it takes up only half the book. The rest focuses on the personalities of Haber and Bosch, and on how their strengths ultimately became fatal weaknesses. Once he made his initial discovery, Haber, a prodigiously gifted but insecure young chemist, rose to the front rank of the world's scientists as a director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. Genius played a role, as did guile. But Haber also forged ahead by consciously forswearing his Jewish heritage to embrace German nationalism. Albert Einstein, a lifelong friend, at first gently mocked Haber for his willingness to please, then felt sorry for him as they grew older. Bosch, meanwhile, began as an earnest, honest young researcher debunking the claims of lesser scientists. He ended up as a multinational industrial tycoon whose obsession with scoring commercial successes led him to build IG Farben into one of the largest companies in the world. But when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, things changed. Haber suddenly understood that he would always be Jewish and that the terrible bargains he had made would bring him nothing but contempt and ostracism. Bosch, heartsick at the prospect of firing large numbers of his Jewish employees in a Nazi purge, sought an exception in a personal interview with Hitler, only to endure an anti-Semitic tirade. He realized that the immense industrial enterprise to which he had dedicated his life had been placed at the service of a monster. Yet neither man is to be pitied, for both made their choices freely. Inventing fertilizer may have helped mankind, but it also launched their careers, and both took advantage. At the beginning of World War I, Bosch volunteered to convert his entire operation to the manufacture of explosives, fertilizer's chemical first cousin. The government subsidized the biggest munitions plant in the world and built it partly with slave labor. Haber, also eager to please, joined the war ministry, donned a captain's uniform, developed a method of blanketing enemy trenches with poisonous chlorine gas and oversaw its first successful demonstration at Ypres in 1915. Structurally, "The Alchemy of Air" is a series of narrative set pieces linking Haber and Bosch to tumultuous events. First comes a brief history of fertilizer, with episodes in the Atacama and the guano islands off Peru, where Chinese coolies worked in horrendous conditions; it's a harsh but riveting story little known in the United States. Then Hager describes the development of the Haber-Bosch synthesis, a worthy addition to the growing genre of histories about scientific processes. Finally, the author presents a cautionary tale about the misuse of science in modern times: how two brilliant innovators helped create the explosives, poison gas and synthetic fuels that enabled despots in a small nation to wage two catastrophic wars. The "Alchemy of Air" is a quick, easy read, aimed at a general — i.e., impatient — audience. This is unfortunate. Haber and Bosch are fascinating if troubled personalities, brought by Hager compellingly to life. Though Haber and his contradictions have inspired a number of biographies and even a play, Bosch (whose collections of 25,000 minerals and 4 million insects ended up in the Smithsonian) is almost unknown. With these two stars, plus Imperial Germany and the rise of Nazism as a stage and cameos by Einstein, Max Planck and other giants of German science and industry, there is material here for twice as big a book. One wishes that Hager had kept writing. Guy Gugliotta is a former Washington Post science reporter. Reviewed by Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Science writing of the first order." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] gripping account of the partnership between two Nobel Prize winners whose efforts to save the world had tragic consequences we're still sifting through today." Plenty magazine
"You will certainly find [Hager's] story of [Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch] and their discover to be enlightening and entertaining....I know of few other books that provide the general reader with a better portrait of chemistry as the most useful of sciences, and I intend to recommend it to scientists and non-scientists alike." The Journal of Chemical Education
"Thanks to two visionary and troubled scientists, we are all now, in Hager's words, 'creatures of the air,' dependent for our very existence on a process whose consequences we don't completely understand." BookPage
Hager recounts the story of the two men who found a solution to the eminent problem of global starvation at the turn of the 20th century. But their discovery came at a price: the same process they engineered into synthetic fertilizer was used to make the explosives that killed millions during both world wars.
About the Author
A veteran science and medical writer, Thomas Hager is the author of The Demon Under the Microscope; Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling; and more than a hundred news and feature articles in Reader's Digest, Journal of the American Medical Association, and many other publications.
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