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
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