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Publisher's Summary

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.

Critic Reviews

"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)

What members say

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fascinating subject I didn't realize until now

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.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael
  • Northmead, Australia
  • 01-01-12

Surprisingly Satisfying

Where does The Alchemy of Air rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

One of the best non-ficiton books.

Any additional comments?

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.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Must read for chemists and environmentalists

I loved this book and the paradox of building a world saving machine that may yet end the world through pollution. Bosch comes off as a sympathetic but flawed character, and even Haber's decisions to apply his technology to weapons of war is made understandable (but not defensible). I couldn't stop listening. The performance was excellent.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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I can't believe I didn't know any of this

What did you like best about this story?

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.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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A Fascinating & Engaging Book

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

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. <br/><br/>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.

What other book might you compare The Alchemy of Air to and why?

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.

What about Adam Verner’s performance did you like?

Awesome performance by Adam.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

Follies by Geniuses.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Paul
  • California
  • 06-13-12

Facinating Work of Industrial History

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

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. <br/><br/>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

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Martin
  • Kansas City, MO, United States
  • 05-03-12

Great history

One of the best books ever! The subject was very interesting and the narration was excellent.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Benoibe
  • New Orleans, LA, United States
  • 05-12-13

Amazing story! Perfect audiobook!

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!

6 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Adri
  • IA USA
  • 12-13-17

This is probably the best book I've ever read.

A tremendous wealth of information spanning eons and traversing history, sociology, agriculture, science, technology, engineering and ecology.

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Engaging on Several Levels, One Unexpected

Not only presents the industrialist's mindset (tracing the paths of several German industrialists), but, most interestingly and unexpectedly, when WWI arrived, the folly of war, where you saw the leaders and generals as mere boys by comparison; then when WWII arrived, you saw the folly of Nationalism and Dictators, and the broader destruction and ghoulish results of war. The ability of the book to shed such light was due to the book's centerpiece industrial product, which could cross the line from peace to war - either being used for fertilizer or gun powder, as external factors dictated.