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Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production (MIT Press) Paperback – February 27, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

I am tremendously impressed with this book. It will make a very significant contribution to the literature on the Haber-Bosch processof nitrogen synthesis, but perhaps even more significant, to putting into perspective the importance of nitrogen fertilizer to humanity.

(E. T. York, Chancellor Emeritus, University System of Florida, and Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, University of Florida)

The history of an industrial process that creates ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen sounds at best boring. However, in his sixteenth book, Vaclav Smil has done his usual outstanding job of creating a fascinating reading adventure. Starting with the statement that almost two thirds of the global population owes its existence to the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 20th century, the book reviews the history of the discovery, provides, fascinating details about the driving forces behind the discovery, and as important, looks to the future. Anyone with an interest in how humans modify their environment will find this book fascinating.

(James N. Galloway, Professor and Chair, Environmental Sciences Department, University of Virginia)

Vaclav Smil has written a fascinating review of Fritz Haber and Carl bosch's contribution to the world's food production through their discovery of the ammonium synthesis process. We hope that this book will stimulate efforts to make best use of the derived nitrogen fertilizers.

(Luc M. Maene, Director General, International Fertilizer Industry Association)

What is the most important technological innovation of the 20th century--telecommunications, nuclear energy, computers, space flight, or molecular transformation of the genetic code? Vaclav Smil makes the case instead for the Haber-Bosch process, which allows industrial synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and provides the foundation of our human food supply. his detailed story of the scientific trail that led to development of this process and its global impact is both enjoyable to read and an important contribution to the history of modern science and technology.

(Kenneth G. Cassman, Professor and Head, Department of Agronomy, University of Nebraska)

Vaclav Smil has built a road between the bleak, windswept fields of the catastrohists on one side and the sunny, bountiful fields of the cornucopians on the other. The road offers no easy passage. But followed with intelligence and persistence it has high promise of taking us to a future in which all people everywhere have the food they need for healthy, productive lives. Smil has performed a valuable public service.

(Pierre Crosson, Senior Fellow and Resident Consultant, Resources for the Future)

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, the environment, food, and the history of technical advances, including Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Product Details

  • Series: MIT Press
  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (February 27, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262693135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262693134
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #636,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jeffrey S. Bonwick on July 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Haber process is arguably the most significant development of the 20th century, yet it remains virtually unknown to the general public. There are a few chapters on the history and chemistry of this vital process, and they are reasonably well written. But the vast majority of the book is an endless litany of statistics, completely devoid of narrative structure. For example:
"In the United Kingdom more than half of all nitrogen fertilizer has been applied to grasslands. A Royal Society study found that in the late 1970s average applications on pastures surpassed the inputs to arable land (172 vs. 135 kg N/ha), and that synthetic compounds accounted for 57-63% of all inputs. The overall use of fertilizer nitrogen in the United Kingdom rose by almost 50% between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s, but it declined afterwards, and its average during the late 1990s has been only about 20% higher than a generation earlier, which means that the synthetic fertilizers supply between 65 and 70% of all nitrogen inputs. But high-yielding winter wheat -- the 1998 mean was 7.97 t/ha -- still receives more than 180 kg N/ha, double the amount applied in 1970 when the yield was around 4 t/ha, and the secular correlation between the rising applications of inorganic nitrogen and rising harvests is obvious (fig. 7.8)."
Now imagine 300 more pages of text just like that, and you get the idea. There is no *story* here, just data. It's a shame, because there is definitely a story to be told.
The material on the Haber process itself is better, but not great. In particular, the author can't seem to choose the level of the audience: descriptions of chemistry alternate between being too simplistic and assuming too much.
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Format: Paperback
First of all, this is not a book that most people would take to the beach to read, but rather a fairly scientific book on the use of nitrogen in agriculture, as befits a publication of MIT Press.

Smil initially set out to write a biography of Fritz Haber, but found that Haber's contribution to agriculture was so much more complicated than he could fit into a biography. Instead, he wrote a history of nitrogen supplements in agriculture. The amount of nitrogen is by far the main determinant of crop yield; within common sense limits, a crop's yield is more or less linearly dependent on how much nitrogen a farmer spreads on his fields. In the 1910s, Fritz Haber and Bosch, devised a way to extract nitrogen from the air; until then farmers had been dependent on compost and the shipments of guano (bird dung) from South America to get more nitrogen onto their fields. The results include a huge increase in crop yields, a huge decrease in the percentage of the population that must toil the fields, a huge increase in literacy and much more.

Smil's book is quite interesting to anyone interested by science; if you have a teen that you are trying to interest in science, this is a book you could send his way. If you're averse to the occasional number, equation, graph, or scientific nomenclature, you're best off avoiding this book. These caveats stipulated, I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a great book for any one interested in the way the Haber-Bosch process of making Nitrogen fertilizer changed the world. Enriching the Earth provides in depth information on the history that led up to the discovery of the process of using N2 and H2 to make NH3. It also contains up to date information on the effects that all of this new nitrogen has on the earth.
The book can get a little technical at times, with chemical formulas and schematics of the instruments. While I found this information useful, some people might find it overwhelming. If you skip over the techincal parts, the book is very well written for the average person.
These little known scientists really changed the world as we know it. When you think about it, what has Einstein done for you lately? These guys put food on the table.
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Format: Paperback
This is an interesting and interdisciplinary examination of one of the most important technological innovations of the 20th century; the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process. To explain the impact of this innovation, Smil explains the importance of nitrogen in the biosphere and agriculture, the complex nitrogen cycle, and has an extended discussion of how the Haber-Bosch process affected modern agriculture and demography. In the first half-two thirds of the book, Smil nicely and concisely cover both the basics of nitrogen cycling, the discovery of the importance of nitrogen in agriculture, and the discovery and implementation of the Haber-Bosch process. Briefly, nitrogen is an essential element for many, many crucial biomolecules including amino acids and nucleotides. While nitrogen is abundant in the biosphere, it is largely in the form of non-bioavailable atmospheric N2. As realized in the first half of the 19th century by talented European scientists, the amount of bioavailable nitrogen in soils is a major limiting factor in soil fertility and agricultural productivity. What is called by some the First Green Revolution in the second half of the 19th century was based on inorganic fertilizers mined from guano and other deposits in South America. By the end of the 19th century, it was quite clear that some substitute for this non-renewable resource would need to be discovered to maintain or increase agricultural productivity. Enter a number of talented chemists, mostly Germans, who worked on this problem in the years just before WWI. Fritz Haber made the crucial breakthrough, developing a method to produce ammonia from atmospheric N2.Read more ›
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