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The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler Hardcover – September 9, 2008

4.7 out of 5 stars 129 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Fixed nitrogen (which is immediately usable to plants) is essential in agriculture. Its rarity, as science writer Hager (The Demon Under the Microscope) shows, dramatically shaped the world and its politics. But by 1905, as Hager details, German chemist Fritz Haber discovered a process for transforming abundant air-borne nitrogen into ammonia, and Carl Bosch's ingenious engineering scaled Haber's benchtop chemistry into industrial processes to make fertilizer. But Hager's story is not only one of triumph, of how Haber and Bosch invented a way to turn air into bread, earning a Nobel Prize and saving millions from starvation. This is also a story of irony and tragedy. First, life-saving nitrogen is also the main ingredient in explosives, and Hager cogently summarizes the Haber-Bosch process's critical role in both world wars. In addition, Hager illustrates Haber's extreme German patriotism and desperate wish to assimilate; shattered by the rise of Hitler, he became an outcast, abandoned even by his onetime colleague Bosch. It's unfortunate that Hager ends his fine book with only a brief look at the deleterious role of nitrogen on the environment. (Sept.)
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Named one of the Best Books of 2008 by Kirkus Reviews

"Make[s] the scientific process as suspenseful as a good whodunit."

"[A] smooth, well-researched book that reads like a fast-paced novel."
—News & Observer (Raleigh)

"This scientific adventure spans two world wars and every cell in your body."
Discover magazine

"Haber and Bosch are fascinating if troubled personalities, brought by Hager compellingly to life."
Washington Post Book World

“[A] gripping account of the partnership between two Nobel Prize winners whose efforts to save the world had tragic consequences we’re still sifting through today.”
Plenty magazine

“You will certainly find [Hager’s] story of [Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch] and their discover to be enlightening and entertaining….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

“Many discoveries and inventions are touted as history-changing. But as Thomas Hager admirably proves in his new book, The Alchemy of Air, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch not only changed history, they made much of recent human history possible. As Hager solemnly notes in his introduction, ‘the discovery described in this book is keeping alive nearly half the people on earth.’ ….As with almost all technological advancement, however, there is a downside. The synthetic Haber-Bosch nitrogen, which now makes up about half the nitrogen in every human body, also fueled the weapons of the world wars and created a nitrogen-rich environment that is having a huge impact on Earth, from lush vegetative growth to dead zones in the oceans. Thanks to two visionary and troubled scientists, we are all now, in Hager’s words, ‘creatures of the air,’ dependent for our very existence on a process whose consequences we don’t completely understand.”

A fast-paced account of the early-20th-century quest to develop synthetic fertilizer. Today hundreds of factories convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia in order to manufacture the artificial fertilizers that make modern-day agricultural yields possible. They are based on the technological advance known as the Haber-Bosch process, developed prior to World War I by the German chemists and Nobel laureates Fritz Haber (1868–1934) and Carl Bosch (1874–1940). Hager (The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug, 2006, etc.) offers a superb narrative of these brilliant men and their scientific discovery. Around the turn of the century, the world faced a shortage of the fixed nitrogen needed to provide food for a growing population. Hager sets the stage by describing the world’s reliance in the 19th century on nitrates from Peru and Chile that could be used as natural fertilizer or to make gunpowder, and finds plenty of human drama in the battles to control the lucrative international trade. Determined to help end Germany’s dependence on South American nitrates, Bosch and Haber worked at the German chemical company BASF to find a way to convert nitrogen into ammonia. Bosch developed the process, and Haber designed bigger industrial plants. By 1944, the Haber-Bosch factory at Leuna—a primary target for U.S. bombers—occupied three square miles and employed 35,000 workers. The author not only illuminates the scientists’ complex work, but also digs into their personal lives. Bosch, a melancholic with a huge villa in Heidelberg, asked Hitler to spare Jewish scientists for the sake of German chemistry and physics (the Fuhrer replied: “Then we’ll just have to work 100 years without physics and chemistry!”). Haber, a Jew, developed the chlorine gas used in World War I, sought a way to extract gold from the oceans to pay off German war reparations and conducted research that led to the development of the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi death camps. Science writing of the first order.
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (September 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307351785
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307351784
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #120,185 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The author has written a well researched and readable account of the
early 20th century work of Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber, who set in place
modern nitrogen fixation methods. The author has done a good job of simplifying the technical details for the average reader.
As an academic chemist, I feel compelled to quibble a little with some of the details, none of which should bother most readers.
The author states(chapter 12) that nitric acid could not be made from ammonia, but could be made from cyanamide( this is in 1914). He goes on to say that Bosch built a factory to produce sodium nitrate from ammonia. This is confusing on several grounds. The presently used production of nitric acid proceeds through the catalytic oxidation of ammonia. The book mentions Bosch having a catalyst.Synthetic sodium nitrate would be produced from nitric acid. As for cyanamide, it is a source of ammonia-
therefore it is hard to understand how nitric acid could be prepared from
cyanamide, but not from ammonia, as the author suggests.
The book has a very extensive bibliography, and perhaps I can solve all these questions by recourse to the original sources. None of this makes much difference for the main points of the book.
I have read quite a bit on this general area, and this is one of the best books I have found on Haber and Bosch, and I found it interesting and provocative.
I found one puzzling entry in the bibliography which may have been included in error : a biography of Whistler, which as far as I can tell is not referenced anywhere else in the book.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a fabulous true tale exceptionally well told by Thomas Hager. History changing events in Latin America and Europe are made palpable, interesting, and are told in a way that makes you care very intensely about the protagonists involved. Especially fascinating is the telling of the history of contesting in Peru and Chile over the raw materials for nitrogen fertilizer. Get this book now and I guarantee you won't put it down and will learn much about world history and how it could have been quite different. I can't say enough good things. Just get the book now. Gee, it almost sounds like I know the author, or stand to gain somehow. I don't and just want to share this book with the world.

John Lavender
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Format: Paperback
Books that describe the history of scientific events are all-too-often dry tomes that spend too much time citing the background research to the science, without putting it into the social/political context required to understand why the science was important. Conversely, other, usually more readable books will ignore or misunderstand the science in an effort to provide a breezy prose for the scientific layman. Hager finely straddles the line of science, entertainment, and social context, and the book is a fascinating look at the development of arguably the most important technical achievement man has ever made - the fixation of nitrogen.

Nitrogen in the air is so notoriously unreactive that only a select set of organisms (and then only bacteria) can do it. They are also present in such low numbers that available nitrogen is usually the factor that limits growth in an ecosystem. The book starts with an overview of fertilizer, which in the hands of a lesser author would be fatal. Fortunately, the first 50 pages deals with nitrate deposits all over the world and liberally sprinkles in interesting anecdotes from the observations of Darwin to a war between Chili and Peru over what was thought to be worthless desert before the discovery of nitrates in the area. Similar to the modern concept of peak oil, people worried about tapping out all the natural sources of fixed nitrogen, leading to starvation as crop yields decreased. The German scientist Fritz Haber set to work to discover how to convert elemental nitrogen to ammonia, and eventually fellow German Carl Bosch developed a whole new field of high-pressure manufacturing required to create fixed nitrogen in bulk.

The irony is that the second-most common use for nitrates, after fertilizeer, is explosives.
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Format: Hardcover
The story of nitrogen is that although we have plenty of it in the atomosphere, it exists in a tripled bonded state which is not biologically useful. Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber take a new invention to a higher level to change all of this by feeding a (predicted) starving world with the production of ammonia, and accordingly, synthetic fertilizer. Needless to say, the idea of being wealthy did enter the minds of the inventors as well. But as history has its hand in most everyones' lives, so it dealt some special cards to these otherwise high achievers of the 1930 or so era. Before they could really start on their mission to save man, the Nazi boss (Hitler) needs a war factory to create explosives, which, by the way, also requires this mercurial supply of useful nitrogen so friendly to agriculture. The story intrigues one by using a most ultimate delima. The one device designed to save mankind, will now make devices than kill him. The Haber-Bosch device and its "friendly" nitrogen may have some rather strange and unforeseen consequences for our earth's environment as well. The author, Thomas Hager, formulates a breathless tale of intrigue by omitting some of the more technical aspects of nitrogen chemistry, and instead insisting on story details we need to incorportate into modern times. guyairey
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