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)
I like Hager as a science writer. I had not known much about the Haber-Bosch process or its developers. It illustrates that, as usual, scientific and technological progress is a double-edged sword with potential for both good and evil. Of the two main characters, I found Bosch the engineer/businessman to be the more admirable, however brilliant a chemist Haber may have been. The narration is good, except that certain scientific or German words are completely mispronounced.
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.
This is the best kind of non-fiction. It is human-focused, so it organizes the story around a few key people, but it is about wide-scale events of world-changing importance. There are many non-fiction books that seek to deliver information and to do so in an accessible way. Most of these don't figure out how to deliver the information in a compelling way. Still more of these are interesting if you're already interested in the topic, but not otherwise. This book is compelling, and should be interesting to anyone who wants to know something of critical importance to the world. I am a fairly well-read person who is generally scientifically and historically literate, and I have no idea why I knew basically nothing of the subject of this book. So many facts about the first two world wars come into focus thanks to the information in this book. Bravo.
Hi. My name is Mann & I am an Enterprise Communications expert by profession. I have always loved reading books and primarily enjoy books on Finance, Science & Technology and History. I do hear an occasional Fictional book though I prefer to read them instead.
Yes. All those who love reading about science and its impact on our society will enjoy this book a lot. Very well researched book. The best part is the interweaving of the human side and scientific side of the story. Thomas Hager is an exceptional storyteller who brings to context different historical events and their reverberations on our contemporary life.
I always hated Chemistry as a kid and now I feel, if only I had read this book when I was young, my perception of the subject and its relevance would have been way different.
Most Human Human. The books is extremely beautiful series of essays on Computing and Artificial Intelligence. Its another realm of science presented with its larger role in the society and meta-philosophy. The book though gets more exciting towards the latter half.
Awesome performance by Adam.
Follies by Geniuses.
This book should be required reading/listening in schools in my opinion. It explains how we got to where we are today in terms of World population growth and it also explains how the two world wars went on for the length of time they did.
I really enjoyed this book both from the science content and from the detailed descriptions of the key people involved in this discovery. I wish there were more books like this availabe
Audio Addict! Usually listening to History these days. Love Will Durant most of all authors!
I finished listening to this author's first book, Demon Under a Microscope, just yesterday. I immediately went online to see if he had written anything else. I definitely recommend starting with Demon Under a Microscope first, as the stories are somewhat connected. I think you get a better understanding if what life was like at the time of this story.
This is another EXCEPTIONAL story from Thomas Hager. He gives the reader a rare point of view. I listened to both of his books straight through. (Honestly I think Hager could make anything interesting!) Hager is a truly gifted author, who tells each story with a fresh and unusual perspective. I loved the way he presented the main protagonists, with their flaws and disappointments.
Ultimately, this book is about the unintended consequences of the work of two important German scientists, from WWI to WWII, and how things just don't turn out like people intend or expect.
Great narration. Highly recommended!
This is a good book for anyone interested in the history of science or of the firms BASF and IG Farbin. It tells the story of the struggle to synthesize nitrogen for fertilizer (and explosives) and the story of two men (Haber - the pure scientist who figured out how to do it - and Bosch - the scientist/engineer/businessman who figured out how to optimize that process and make it cost effective). The story incorporates mini-stories of early application and sources of fertilizer (mostly in Peru and Chile), how BASF transformed from a cloth dye company to the largest chemical company in the world (by sales), poison gas development in WWI, how IG Farbin (the German chemical conglomerate) was formed, and the tangential story of synthetic gasoline that powered a lot of the Third Reich.
The Alchemy of Air's story easily flows across industries, people and history. I think this is one of those things that looks easiest to do when it is done very well - but weaving this kind of tale isn't very easy, so Thomas Hagan does a great job.
I got bogged down in the beginning and put this audio book down for months because it just didn't grab me. When I picked up the story, it took off. The problem was probably me and not the book, but was my experience nevertheless. Similarly, I started getting bored over the last 30-45 minutes as the story(ies) wound down.
Overall, a great book - just hold on if things feel a little slow, it will pick up again and you will be happy with the overall experience.
There are few that put together the synergy of science, commerce, and their places in history so well as Thomas Hager. I bought Demon Under the Microscope at a sale price, and consider one of the best reads in decades. Alchemy of Air is equally absorbing.
I have taught physics and engineering at university for years, and I try and make history and commerce part of the background in my courses. Personalities and economic pressures do shape the course of technology and as Mr. Hager points out, not always for the better. I hope Mr. Hager continues these pursuits, and might consider exploring the threads of more physics, chemistry, and engineering.
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