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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.
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.
24 of 25 people found this review helpful
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.
17 of 18 people found this review helpful
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.
17 of 18 people found this review helpful
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.
13 of 14 people found this review helpful
"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!
10 of 11 people found this review helpful
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.
9 of 10 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
I got turned onto this book after listening to Demon Under the Microscope, Hager's other popular work. The two books are very similar, although I must say I enjoyed the Alchemy of Air more. It details the interesting lives of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, both of whom played a large part in the reason why you and I lead healthy lives here on earth.
The ability to fix nitrogen has presented humans with an interesting paradox. On one hand, nitrogen is naturally limiting in most environments, and this essential element can help humans produce crops in quantities and in smaller areas than ever before. On the other hand, it can also be used to create bombs and is essential for any military.
Hager tells this story in a fascinating way, including many stories that are interwoven and tied together, making the narrative sound like a fictional story.
Its a fascinating book - you won't be disappointed!
8 of 9 people found this review helpful
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.
7 of 8 people found this review helpful
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.
6 of 7 people found this review helpful
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.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
What a great book, I've been meaning to read it for over a year now. I wasn't disappointed with the story, an amazing peek into history from a fresh angle that we don't really learn about in any other platform. HOWEVER! Adam Verner's voice was really a problem, I am a sound engineer myself so I do understand the studio process, the voice sounds very much robotic, as if it has auto tune running on it (!?) at the beginning of the book I was actually under the impression that it was being narrated by speach software, it took a while to realise that it was actually an actor. Having gone so far as to look at Mr. Verner's website, he is actually a great voice actor, so either the processing on the voice was extremely heavy or Adam just missed the plot on this particular performance. It really made the listening experience less pleasant than it should have been. Having said that, I would still get the book, regardless. The story is really strong enough to deal with the voice. and frankly, I'm most probably going to listen to it again another couple times to get all the details memorized.
What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?
I was convinced at the start that this was the result of automated text-to-speech software, but apparently the narrator is a real human. The intonation and cadence is most strange - I am surprised that a professional 'voice talent' can make a career sounding like a robot. The pronunciation of German names and words (quite a few in this book) were also very unlike the correct versions - a little homework goes a long way.
Who might you have cast as narrator instead of Adam Verner?
You didn’t love this book--but did it have any redeeming qualities?
The story is fascinating, if a little heavy in detail. I mostly enjoyed the book and have learnt a lot from this well-researched history.