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 20th 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 continue to shape our lives in the most fundamental and dramatic of ways.
©2008 Thomas Hager (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
"This scientific adventure spans two world wars and every cell in your body." (Discover magazine)
“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)
Although only a third of the way through this book I wanted to add my review to the mix since there are currently only 2 reviews. I vociferously disagree with the claim that the bird dung content was boring. The details included in the narrative illustrate the basis for the value of nitrogen as a fertilizer and therefore the justification for searching to create a synthetic product. I am so far riveted by this book. Will update my review after completing the read.
A small slice of history that is very interesting and informative. The author is not just a good historian, but a good writer as I was glued to the book until I finished it.
This is one of the best audio books I have listened to in a long time, and I listen lots. It is the story of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, and there collaboration on the Haber-Bosch process for creating fixed nitrogen using ultra high pressure chemistry in specially engineered Haber-Bosch machines. Haber was the scientist who discovered the process for making ammonia from nitrogen, hydrogen, and various catalysts while heating them under very high pressures. Bosch is the one who solved the practical engineering difficulties and build the original Haber-Bosch machines for the German chemical giant BASF. Both men are fascinating. Haber was the extrovert, the Jew who for social purposes converted to Christianity (which is an important element in the story once Hitler came to power), the scientist who signed the agreement with BASF and then went on to direct the famed Kaiser Wilhelm institute during WWI and thereafter, even spearheading poison gas efforts. Bosch was the metallurgist and mechanic who took Haber's process and brought it to large scale production. Literally, 5/7 of the world's population would not now be alive if it had not been for the process, which made fixed nitrogen fertilizers cheap and widely available, replacing the old guano or naturally occurring Chile nitrates as the fertilizer of choice around the world. The story does not end with nitrogen chemistry, however. Bosch rose to head BASF, and later I. G. Farben, the German chemical giant, and pursued synthetic gasoline as his next great project.
The book explains the technical processes, which I found fascinating, the history of nitrate fertilizers--far more interesting than you can imagine--and German history as they impinged on the lives of Haber and Bosch. Both men display greatness, even hubris, and essential flaws. Their reactions to the Hitler regime are their personal crucibles, but their lives are fascinating in what they managed to accomplish. A really great audio book even though the subject seems unlikely.
I cannot say the same for the quality of the performance. It is adequate, but uninspired.Several words are annoyingly mispronounced--like the word "solder," for example, pronounced with a long o--a sure sign that the reader was unfamiliar with the subject--but don't let this criticism dissuade you from listening to this fine book. It's a 3-star performance of a 5-star book.
My favorite niche in audible books seems to be books that examine technical advances and the sociological theatre that surrounds the development. In this regard, this is a great, fascinating book, more interesting than I anticipated. The development of agricultural additives might not sound thrilling, but the history of how Europeans and Americans cultivated their food is really wrapped up in a wide range of influences - people at their best, and at their worst. Nonfiction lovers should really like this one.
College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
"how did I not know about this?" I felt the exact same way. This is the remarkable story of a life sustaining process of which I would guess almost no one in the general population is immediately aware. Elegantly and poetically told, this book proves to be enthralling as well as educating. It is a real "page turner," that is, you will want to listen from beginning to end. What every science based tale should be!
What a dry subject, nitrogen! It would be hard to write an interesting book about this topic, but the author succeeded. He describes how the planet's population was on the verge of starvation, having consumed nearly all the natural deposits of fixed nitrogen to use as fertiliser, and how nations vied for the last scraps of the chemical in remote outposts of South America.
Nitrogen is, of course, plentiful, in the air we breathe. But in order to be useful as a fertiliser, it must be converted to a solid form. Two German scientists, Haber and Bosch, (excuse any mis-spelling, I never saw these names in written form!) worked tirelessly to solve this tricky problem. Their drama unfolded against the backdrop of a fascinating period of German history, in which nitrogen played an especially important role because of its use in explosives (and hence in warfare).
The theme of antisemitism is also important in the book, because a large proportion of Germany's scientists were Jews.
It is a good story, well narrated, and worth a listen.
I got this after reading Mr. Hager's "Demon Under the Microscope," which is one of the best books I've read in a long time. "The Alchemy of Air" isn't in the same class but is written with the same level of completeness and mix between science and social factors. Thomas Hagar has a great way of taking history and making it seem like someone is just telling you a great story.
I never knew the importance of fixing nitrogen and the large amount of roles it played. I recommend reading "Demon" first then this one.
This book is a riviting story of, well, nitrogen. It's also a story of famine and war, since nitrogen's main industrial uses are fertilizer and gunpowder. I'll never read history the same, knowing that Europe, in the 1700's, and China, in the 1960's were both in famine, both relieved by fertilizer. It's amazing to plot the path from ship-to-ship barrages in the Napoleonic wars back to guano deposits in then-Bolivia, and before that, to compost trenches required on every British farm.
Poor Haber is as sad a bit of humanity as you can imagine. His effort to end hunger drove German into two wars, his effort to end all wars created poison gas, and his efforts at insecticide ended up gassing Jews. The only rough part of the book was the sweeping, brief summary of nitrogen in today's world.
One of the best non-ficiton books.
I was expecting to be educated a little but I was entertained by the unfolding storyline and I learned much more than I had anticipated. A phenomenal story that needed to be told - so few people have heard the facts of the discovery that has changed the world. If all knowledge could shared as cleverly as in this book, we wouldn't need schools.
I'll be another reviewer to say "how did I not know this?" ! There is so much in this book that should be well known but simply isn't, I was astounded. I'd never thought about how chemical fertilizers were discovered - about how difficult and ground-breaking it was, and how desperately the world needed it. I'd never thought about the geopolitical importance of fertilizers (organic and chemically created), though it was huge and had significant effects on world affairs. And that doesn't even get into the close association between chemical fertilizers and explosives/munitions.
Actually, the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer: This book is really about the work, life, and discoveries of two men - Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. It starts with nitrogen and the need for fertilizer and continues through the discovery of the process and creation of chemical fertilizers, but it is much more. While Haber invented the original process and Bosch created the means and methods for making it practical on a large scale, it continues to follow the lives of the two men past the time when the Haber-Bosch process was novel (and unique to Germany) and through the rise of Hitler to the second world war. How the mechanisms Bosch used were turned to making synthetic fuel and rubber, how the chemical company BASF grew to be a part of the chemical giant IG Farben (most notable now for creating the Zyklon B gas used in the Holocaust), and how the changing fate of Jews in Germany in the 1930s affected both Haber and Bosch.
Both men were, by all accounts, devastated to see how their scientific discoveries intended to feed the world and support Germany after WWI were used to fuel the rise of a martial state with Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies. Haber was Jewish born and had been a proud veteran of World War I, and Bosch was heartbroken and shocked to see so many of his fellow scientists minimized and tossed out of their jobs because of their religion, and to see his inventions used to fuel and supply that process. Ultimately, those things led to their ill health and sad deaths - Haber in Switzerland on his way to Palestine, and Bosch in Germany.
Sadly, the narration was merely adequate, and it's the weak point of this audiobook.
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