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 did not learn to read until I was in my twenties. Have not stopped since. The two most important things to learn are reading & chess.
II can not say anything more about this book than has already been said in previous reviews. It is definitely "Rifting" and an important piece of work. Fritz Habor and Carl Bosch changed the world forever. For the good, the bad, and even worse. Because of them we skirted one global disaster but their invention and work has created another global disaster. It is now our problem to solve, if it can be solved.
Most of the people in the world are alive today and have plenty to eat because of them. That is the good news. The world has now become over populated It will continue to get worse. There is no turning back the clock nor is there anyway way to change the course we are on. That is the bad news. The Habor/Bosch plants are a major contributor, not only to our population problem, but also the "Global Warming" issue. That is the "worse" news.
Haber and Bosch were geniuses and they both paid the price in their personal, as well as professionals, life's. We have them to thank for our "Horn of Plenty". Unfortunately it was not controlled or managed. I do not think anyone could have had the foresight to imagine where their inventions and work would lead. Even it they did they probably would not have been able to do anything to change where it has lead us.
I want to thank the author for taking the time to do the thorough research it took to write this book. It is a gift to all of us. Also, if it weren't for Audible I do not think I would have known about or bought this book.
I am an avid "reader"- I prefer to listen to books rather than read them due to the added dimension added by the narrator.
Perhaps a scientist would have enjoyed this book more. Though there was some human interest in the book, there was also a lot of technical jargon especially in the first half of the book.
I think it would depend on the topic. I found Hager's writing somewhat mechanical overall.
The narrator was dreadful. His voice reminded me of a robot most of the time and I found this only served to strengthen the mechanical nature of the book
The story was interesting enough to keep me listening until the end. But it was painful in spots. I must admit that I found it interesting to see the details of how Hitler rose to power and reassured me that there were many anti-Nazi Germans at the time of Hitler's rise to power.
I can't say I regret reading the book but it was a chore, which reading usually is not, for me.
This topic was something I knew nothing about and it was interesting enough I've brought it up with many people. They're all interested when I share it because its something they know little about also but effects us all.
Very high in interesting subject matter. Knowing this story is an essential basis to understand the challenges we have overcome to allow the expansion of the human race on earth and what might be required to support its continued growth. Yet, with so much discussion of organic farming, gmos, etc, few people seem to understand this important part of our agricultural history. The core story is expertly intermingled with world history to teach a profound lesson about how just a handful of men can change the course of life as we know it.
Will try Demon under the microscope though not hopeful it will be any better
The facts are there but the flair to make this compelling prose is missing. Practically clinical which is nice way of saying it was just shy of being a boring recital of facts.
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.
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