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.)
"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.