- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Broadway Books; 1st Edition edition (August 18, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307351793
- ISBN-13: 978-0307351791
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 180 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #45,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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 Paperback – August 18, 2009
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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."
"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.”
“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
About the Author
A veteran science and medical writer, THOMAS HAGER is the author of The Demon Under the Microscope; Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling; and more than a hundred news and feature articles in Reader’s Digest, Journal of the American Medical Association, and many other publications.
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This is my favorite quote from the book from Bosch:
"I have often asked myself whether it would have been better if we had not succeeded. The war perhaps would have ended sooner with less misery and on better terms. Gentlemen, these questions are all useless. Progress in science and technology cannot be stopped. They are in many ways akin to art. One can persuade the one to halt as little as the others. They drive the people who are born for them to activity."
This is Bosch's opinion, and it highlights the double-edged nature that this book does of good job of explaining. In fact, the book seems to touch mostly on the negative aspects of the pursuit of better fertilizer and the Haber-Bosch process. Much of the book covers wars, including wars in South America over Guano and salt in Chile, WWI, and WWII. It touches on the slave-like work conditions in Peru and Germany. And in the end, the book notes that the end result is pollution and obesity.
One aspect of the book that threw me off in certain parts was when the author described the challenges with developing the Haber-Bosch process, related to finding a catalyst and dispersing hydrogen. The book would seem to spend a couple paragraphs describing the issues and then suddenly the next sentence would state that Bosch somehow found a solution with explaining the process. It seemed to make the book over dramatic in parts.
Overall, I liked the book.
As the author details, Haber and Bosch were fascinating, driven, and complicated men. They lived in a time of great upheaval. And they came to understand much of the bad, as well as great significance of their work. My one concern about the book is the range of subjects touched upon and consequent short discussion of a lot of it. Author Thomas Hager had enough important topics and material to write perhaps half a dozen good books. More detail could have been used on the chemistry involved, the moral dilemmas, the Jewish-Nazi interaction (Haber was Jewish), Bosch's synfuel development, and other topics. Despite this minor qualm, I recommend this book as one from which a lot will be learned.
Haber also invented the poison gas that was first launched at the Allies at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915. The Allied forces were unprepared for the attack in which 10,000 are said to have perished. Haber developed the gas and also the method of delivery. He calculated when the wind would blow the gas away from the German lines and toward the Allied lines. Haber also developed Zyklon A, out of which Zyklon B, the gas used by the Germans in WWII to exterminate the Jews. Both Bosch and Haber were important scientists at BASF before I. G. Farben, the great German conglomerate, was created. Bosch was able to design and have constructed the huge factory that made the mass production of ammontia economically feasible. Without his practical implementation, the Haber discovery would have been economically useless. BASF’s original factory site was at Ludwigshafen. During the early part of WW I, the French were able to bomb Ludwigshafen even with their primitive planes. Bosch created a new site, Leuna, which was far less accessible to French bombers. In WW II, another Farben product. Leunabenzin, synthetric gasoline, enabled Germany to stay in the war in spite of the diminution of supplies of natural petroleum products. During WW II allied, mostly American, bombers bombed Leuna as the key to taking Germany out of the war.
When I. G. Farben was originally formed in 1925, Bosch became its head, In the late 1930s Farben was the world's largest chemical corporation and the world's fourth largest corporation., In addition to BASF, Farben's component corpoations included Hoest, Bayer, Agfa, Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was born Jewish in what was then Breslau and is now Wroclaw in Poland. He converted to Lutheranism. Both of his wives were born Jewish but converted as a condition of marriage. About twenty per cent of BASF-Farben’s scientists, before Hitler, were Jewish as were a number of members of the governing board. Bosch was not a Nazi. He tried unsuccessfully to retain the Jewish scientists. He was more helpful in finding work for them outside of Germany. Farben was speedily Nazified. Bosch ended up an emotional wreck who drank too much after attempting to appease the Nazis while attempting to get his Jewish scientists out of Germany.
Both Haber and Bosch were utter geniuses. I did not realize the crucial importance of Farben before reading this book.I knew it was important. In reality it was crucial to Germany's war effort in both wars. One of Farben's corporations during WW II was I.G. Auschwitz which produced buna, synthetic rubber, using Jewish slave labor which were worked to death and then replaced by other slave laborers who were similarly worked to death. After the war, the Allies put an end to Farben although its component parts have flourished. Haber was regarded as a Jew by the Nazis although he had been a passionate German nationalist.
It can be argued that Haber was the most important scientist of the first half of the twentieth century because of his creation of synthetic fertilizer, It can be argued that he was one of the most destructive because of his contributions to German weaponry. In 1933, he left Germany for Cambridge where Lord Rutherford, Britain's leading physicist, refused to shake his hand,
According to Hager, the huge jump in the world’s population since 1900 was due to the work of Haber and Bosch. Without it, there would have been at least 40% fewer people in the world. Thus, Haber was one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. Without his discoveries and Bosch’s productive implementation, there would have been catastrophic Malthusian famines. But, Haber who enabled so many to live was also the inventor of the poison gas that killed many. He created zyklon a; zyklon b was used by the Nazis in their death camps. In spite of his desire to serve Germany, the Nazis wanted him out and disgraced. He was a Jew.Religious conversion meant nothing to the Nazis.