True history is almost always more interesting than fiction. We all get to read the headlines, but being there and getting the inside scoop almost always brings you past where you imagine fiction could have taken you. Thomas Hager does a wonderful job of combining history, science, and business and bringing you the inside scoop behind human attempts to unlock the triple bonded nitrogen, at once everywhere and nowhere. Starting from the searches for saltpeter, visiting the mounds of birdpoop, the deserts so wonderfully endowed with nitrates, and leading into high pressure German chemistry and its implications and interaction with the world wars. Human beings are tragically flawed but capable of doing remarkable things. At the fulcrum of historical change, the true insider scoop on how it went down is almost more than a fiction writer could dare to dream.
There is history, science (high-level), and business history wrapped in a page turner. If you read Demon (the author's prior book) you are familiar with what a strong story teller the author is. My background is in science (engineering), business, with about a 10 year interest in history. For me, this book in in my sweet spot of converged interests, so I found it all incredibly interesting. Don't be intimidated by the chemistry, it is covered at a high level, as a strong story teller would weave it in.... you won't even realize its there. I think that the people most interested in this book will be folks with a strong interest in history, folks who like getting the inside scoop on an industry and issue so important it literally woven into the human story throughout the ages.
It starts with the issue of how do we provide for ourselves. How much arable land do we have and how much growth and population can it provide for? Similar to and interwoven with the arguments of Malthus, this challenge has existed probably since man has been on the earth, but the author picks it up in the 17-1800s. He discusses the exceptional farming techniques of the Chinese, and how analytical farming techniques led to the search for the perfect fertilizer. Ironically, it turns out the nitrates embedded in saltpeter, birdpoop, and a South American desert become the developing world's best sources for the fertilizer. The realization that these nitrates are the key components to modern explosives ratchets up the importance of the nitrates. Soon everyone requires the fertilizer. Businessmen / scientists in Germany sense an opportunity, an academic dispute shows a thread of hope for a solution and from there the high pressure chemistry industry is born. The nitrates produced have implications for World War 1 and become a source of contention as the victors search for reparations. The German hyperinflation is touched upon. The attempts of the German scientific / business community to find a solution to avert the tragedy of hyperinflation. Anyway enough spoiling the story. There is plenty here to include the personal stories of the men behind an endeavor that has probably changed the course of the world. Seems everyone wants to believe they want to be a "1 percenter". Stories like this can give one pause. Pick the book up, it is relatively light reading. A background in history, science, and / or business probably makes it more interesting, but I honestly think there is something of interest here for everyone.
History as a great story. It is amazing how if Hollywood hasn't made a movie about it, it doesn't exist. Worked at a place where one of these amazing machines pumped out ammonia nitrate day and night and had no idea how the haber-Bosch invention had changed/impacted the world I live in.
This book has changed my life because it has finally made me understand the perils that lie ahead of us as we try to feed ourselves after oil gets harder to produce. Hager is just a genius.
The scope and detail are very satisfying. Hagar has definitely done his homework. Well worth the time to learn some of this fascinating history that you would think we all would have been told about.
Without over emphasizing it, Hagar paints us a shocking picture of one of the tragedies of human work, how a brilliant invention created to feed people and promote life is then used for its exact opposite - to kill as many people as quickly as possible. Many of the inherent contractions of patriotic devotion also come out clearly in this story.
Where the book loses me is the many personal quasi-fictional sections "Bosch slowly raised his forehead off his hands. He thought of his wife. His forehead furrowed..." One gets the impression publishers asked for something that would be dramatic, and maybe appeal to greater audience. How do we know Bosch furrowed his brow and thought of his wife - maybe at that critical point he was thinking about where to eat lunch.
I am a Superintendent of several K-12 Online School programs. I travel extensively with a book in my ear hours every day.
It is in my top 20 out of 350.
It is a combination of good science and history. I probably would compare it to "Einstein: His Life and Universe" by Walter Isaacson. Yes, it is that good.
Thomas Hager keeps the narrative moving quickly. He takes you into details that are unexpected and yet build a better understanding of the process that brought us synthetic nitrogen.
The only issue was the narrator seemed slightly disconected from time to time. Now I am straining to find something critical to say about this wonderful experience.
You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis
History of fertilizer. Both wonderful and horrifying. Well written and narrated. Worth reading.
Research Technologist with deep interests in Host Cell - Pathogen Interactions & Cancer Research. I enjoy and mostly listen to Non-Fiction audiobooks on Medicine/Science, War and History. I also like to Game when I'm not in the lab.
One of my BEST Audiobooks.
The main character of the story; Fritz Haber and he basically in my opinion being the originator and mastermind of Modern Chemistry / Chemical warfare and processes used till date.
A lot and can't say all here, might transcribe the whole book and dont' want to ruin the experience for someone so just buy and enjoy.
Another great audiobook by Thomas Hager. I just love stories liike this. I learnt all the fundamental equations and processes in school but never knew a story like this existed behind it. A story of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, and their collaboration on the Haber-Bosch process for creating fixed nitrogen for the benefit of mankind. I can boldly say that these two were the first great chemists to emerge and Chemistry is really the foundation of all things....without chemistry, nothing really would have existed.
I really appreciate these olden days scientists, their inovative discoveries and all that they did to even make Modern Science a little bit easier. They shall forever be remembered.
This is a well written book about a super interesting story of something that keeps halve the world population alive (artificial fertilizer) and you have probably never heard off. To me this was a great eye opener about why battles were fought over an island of bird poop on the coast of south america.
Also a great personal story about the scientists that sacrificed their lives to develop true technologies while holding false believes in the nation state. Trying to be more german than the germans, finally nevertheless dissed as a jew by those who claimed to represent the imaginary nation state. Both Haber and Bosch developed world changing technology but died disillusioned, the product of their lives being plundered and exploited by politicians and war mongers.
I found this less compelling than "The Demon Under the Microscope." The discovery is relatively straightforward which requires a lot of "filler" material to flesh out the book.
The science of nitrogen fixation and it's profound implications for humanity quickly draw in the reader but the plot climaxes too quickly. This creates a prolonged denouement chronicling the remainder of Haber and Bosch's lives. It really feels like three separate books--one about nitrogen fixation and two biographies.
The performance is good and the characters are interesting but the science is a bit light. I believe most readers come to a book like this expecting to learn some interesting technical details. He talks about the process, but never drills down to the chemistry.
I would recommend it to anyone interested in the protagonists' lives or science history, but I would recommend "The Demon Under the Microscope" first.
Among the best, but I have listened to quite a few good ones.
It expanded my understanding of 19th and 20th century history as well as the problem of world food supply.
Adam Verner read well, at a good clip.