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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 Hitler [Kindle Edition]

Thomas Hager
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

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Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 819 KB
  • Print Length: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; 1 edition (26 Aug. 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #186,089 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Alchemy of Air 14 May 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The Alchemy of Air

It is ironic that the man whose self-imposed mission to save Germany, economically and militarily, was a German Jew. He invented the process for fixing nitrogen which is still dominant in the chemical industry a century later. He invented poison gas. And he tried unsuccessfully to extract gold from seawater in order to pay his country's reparations. The author of this biography of Fritz Haber (1868 - 1934) studiously avoids the use of all chemical terms and explanations which, as a chemist, I found irritating, but Hager writes so well that I found the book compulsive reading. Required reading for all students of the history of technology - and twentieth century European history generally.

Readers who want the chemistry too should buy The World's Greatest Fix: a History of Nitrogen and Agriculture by G.J. Leigh (1994).

Alan E. Comyns
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read. 2 Aug. 2015
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The pace of the book is reasonably fast, and gives a very interesting overview. The pace is complimented by the writing style, which is not too ornate. There is a decent balance between description of events and the authors interpretation and speculation (of motives, etc.).
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in history of science; although, for those with more chemistry and/or engineering knowledge, this book does not explore those aspects of the story in any great depth, and as such may not satisfy those interests.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars andy lee 25 Sept. 2010
By A Customer
Format:Kindle Edition
fantastic story with real life history idea as relaxation for science students ! could not put it down
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  108 reviews
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down 30 Oct. 2008
By anonymous - Published on
This is a fabulous true tale exceptionally well told by Thomas Hager. History changing events in Latin America and Europe are made palpable, interesting, and are told in a way that makes you care very intensely about the protagonists involved. Especially fascinating is the telling of the history of contesting in Peru and Chile over the raw materials for nitrogen fertilizer. Get this book now and I guarantee you won't put it down and will learn much about world history and how it could have been quite different. I can't say enough good things. Just get the book now. Gee, it almost sounds like I know the author, or stand to gain somehow. I don't and just want to share this book with the world.

John Lavender
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bosch, Haber and Fixation of Nitrogen 26 Oct. 2008
By Chemistry One - Published on
The author has written a well researched and readable account of the
early 20th century work of Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber, who set in place
modern nitrogen fixation methods. The author has done a good job of simplifying the technical details for the average reader.
As an academic chemist, I feel compelled to quibble a little with some of the details, none of which should bother most readers.
The author states(chapter 12) that nitric acid could not be made from ammonia, but could be made from cyanamide( this is in 1914). He goes on to say that Bosch built a factory to produce sodium nitrate from ammonia. This is confusing on several grounds. The presently used production of nitric acid proceeds through the catalytic oxidation of ammonia. The book mentions Bosch having a catalyst.Synthetic sodium nitrate would be produced from nitric acid. As for cyanamide, it is a source of ammonia-
therefore it is hard to understand how nitric acid could be prepared from
cyanamide, but not from ammonia, as the author suggests.
The book has a very extensive bibliography, and perhaps I can solve all these questions by recourse to the original sources. None of this makes much difference for the main points of the book.
I have read quite a bit on this general area, and this is one of the best books I have found on Haber and Bosch, and I found it interesting and provocative.
I found one puzzling entry in the bibliography which may have been included in error : a biography of Whistler, which as far as I can tell is not referenced anywhere else in the book.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most engaging "history of science" book I've ever read 29 Oct. 2010
By Craig MACKINNON - Published on
Books that describe the history of scientific events are all-too-often dry tomes that spend too much time citing the background research to the science, without putting it into the social/political context required to understand why the science was important. Conversely, other, usually more readable books will ignore or misunderstand the science in an effort to provide a breezy prose for the scientific layman. Hager finely straddles the line of science, entertainment, and social context, and the book is a fascinating look at the development of arguably the most important technical achievement man has ever made - the fixation of nitrogen.

Nitrogen in the air is so notoriously unreactive that only a select set of organisms (and then only bacteria) can do it. They are also present in such low numbers that available nitrogen is usually the factor that limits growth in an ecosystem. The book starts with an overview of fertilizer, which in the hands of a lesser author would be fatal. Fortunately, the first 50 pages deals with nitrate deposits all over the world and liberally sprinkles in interesting anecdotes from the observations of Darwin to a war between Chili and Peru over what was thought to be worthless desert before the discovery of nitrates in the area. Similar to the modern concept of peak oil, people worried about tapping out all the natural sources of fixed nitrogen, leading to starvation as crop yields decreased. The German scientist Fritz Haber set to work to discover how to convert elemental nitrogen to ammonia, and eventually fellow German Carl Bosch developed a whole new field of high-pressure manufacturing required to create fixed nitrogen in bulk.

The irony is that the second-most common use for nitrates, after fertilizeer, is explosives. Since this book (and Haber and Bosch's lives) covers the period from 1870 to 1945, the rise of Germany and two World Wars are fought over the course of the book, and the explosive use of nitrogen fixation became as important (or more important) than the process for making fertilizer. WWI became known as the Chemists' War because the greatest "advances" in killing people were chemical: improved explosives, food production and preservation that allowed for larger armies, and, of course, poison gas.

The ultimate irony of Haber's life is that he, an "ethnic" Jew (as Hitler defined them), gave everything he could to gain acceptance as a German, and worked diligently for the Kaiser's war effort (and won an Iron Cross in WWI). He was discarded callously and criminally, like all Jewish scientists in Nazi Germany. Bosch was not so naive - as National Socialism took hold in Germany, he apparently predicted the course of WWII and bemoaned his technology serving to enable the Nazi war machine. Luckily he died before he could see his "baby" - the giant factory at Leuna used to produce ammonia for fertilizer and bombs, and to create synthetic gasoline and rubber - pounded to rubble by the USAAF.

Thus, the story of nitrogen fixation has an epic, tragic quality - raising two men to the pinnacle of scientific acheivement (both won Nobel Prizes), vast wealth, and public renown, only to have their acheivements sacrificed at the alter of national ambition, racism, and war. Thomas Hager doesn't waste the topic - he deftly combines the science and engineering of the story with the personal, financial, and political ambitions of Haber and Bosch with general history. The result should please everyone - scientists who aren't historians as well as historians who aren't scientists, but most importantly "armchair" historians and scientists will find this engaging and illuminating.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A historical account of nitrogen chemistry 3 Feb. 2009
By Guy F. Airey - Published on
The story of nitrogen is that although we have plenty of it in the atomosphere, it exists in a tripled bonded state which is not biologically useful. Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber take a new invention to a higher level to change all of this by feeding a (predicted) starving world with the production of ammonia, and accordingly, synthetic fertilizer. Needless to say, the idea of being wealthy did enter the minds of the inventors as well. But as history has its hand in most everyones' lives, so it dealt some special cards to these otherwise high achievers of the 1930 or so era. Before they could really start on their mission to save man, the Nazi boss (Hitler) needs a war factory to create explosives, which, by the way, also requires this mercurial supply of useful nitrogen so friendly to agriculture. The story intrigues one by using a most ultimate delima. The one device designed to save mankind, will now make devices than kill him. The Haber-Bosch device and its "friendly" nitrogen may have some rather strange and unforeseen consequences for our earth's environment as well. The author, Thomas Hager, formulates a breathless tale of intrigue by omitting some of the more technical aspects of nitrogen chemistry, and instead insisting on story details we need to incorportate into modern times. guyairey
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On Par with the Best Thillers; Excellent Book on Synthetic Nitrogen 16 Oct. 2009
By Gregg Eldred - Published on
History is full of excellent stories. The problem, usually, is that some of the books detailing them are poorly written or edited, reducing the audience to a handful of readers. That fate does not befall The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, by Thomas Hager. Written extremely well, Hager makes the story of the discovery and dual use of synthetic nitrogen accessible, enlightening, and very enjoyable, The problem I have with this excellent book, and it is quite minor, is the lack of pictures of the principle characters and, maybe, some maps. However, this is one of the best books I have read in 2009.

Introduction: Creatures of the Air
I: The Ends of the Earth
II: The Philosopher's Stone
III: Syn
Source Notes

During his 1892 speech as the incoming president of the British Academy of Sciences, Sir William Crookes warned of a coming global food shortage. More people were leaving farms for the industrialized cities, reducing the number of farmers and the amount of new, available farm land was dwindling while the global population was rising. For the industrialized countries, it would mean mass starvation. His solution? The creation of synthetic fertilizer in massive amounts; as the earth was farmed, it lost vital nutrients such that subsequent crops were not as plentiful as the first ones cultivated. Even the rotation of crops did not replenish the soil fast enough. From this speech, Hager relates the interesting story of fertilizer, the many scientists that worked on a solution, and the final, incredible answer; Haber-Bosch. In 1905, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, discovered a process to remove nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia. Carl Bosch, a German chemist with amazing engineering skills, took Haber's desktop machine and transformed it into an industrial powerhouse that created tons of ammonia from air, saving the world from starvation. Both earned the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Along the way, Bosch eventually led the giant German chemical company, BASF and made millions. Haber achieved success as one of the world's leading scientists as a director at Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. The irony of nitrogen; it can be used to feed millions or it is a key ingredient in weapons. The latter haunted Bosch as he looked to Hitler's government for financial assistance to increase production of his huge factory and to fund research into synthetic gasoline and rubber. Haber was hampered by anti-Semitism in his beloved homeland and tried his best to assimilate, only to leave the country, and his prestigious directorship as the Nazi's rose to power. Both men, while reaching the pinnacle of scientific achievement struggled in their private lives, which makes this story more than just about synthetic nitrogen.

Hager does an excellent job of making this story accessible to the reader, regardless of the reader's knowledge of science. At times it reads as if it is a thriller, and in some cases it is. especially when Hitler rises to power and both men are struggling with that fact. Further, while this is a very interesting story of the discovery of synthetic nitrogen, Hager uses the second half of the book to focus on Haber and Bosch; fascinating, conflicted, troubled men who struggle with their legacies. In addition, the reader is given a perspective of Germany before, during, and after both World Wars which really contributes to the story. The final chapter deals with the ramifications of the Haber-Bosch machine, which is thought provoking, but is also, I think, low key. A fitting end to the book. One of the most interesting, important discoveries in human history, presented in a book that is well written and engaging, The Alchemy of Air is a book that will remain with you long after the last page has been turned.

Obtained from: Library
Payment: Borrowed
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