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

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

Thomas Hager / Jun 20, 2019

The Alchemy of Air A Jewish Genius a Doomed Tycoon and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler 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 twentieth century humanity was facing global disaster

  • Title: The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler
  • Author: Thomas Hager
  • ISBN: 9780307351784
  • Page: 259
  • Format: Hardcover
  • 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 twentieth 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 stoA sweeping history of tragic genius, cutting edge science, and the discovery that changed billions of lives including your own.At the dawn of the twentieth 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, 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 un intended 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 continues to shape our lives in the most fundamental and dramatic of ways.

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    About "Thomas Hager"

      • Thomas Hager

        Author of six books of nonfiction about the ways in which science and technology change people s lives.


    862 Comments

    1. The Alchemy of Air is brilliant science writing, which means that it reads more like a bracing adventure story than a science lecture. At the turn of the 20th century, an impending crisis faces the world: mass starvation. The earth simply can't yield enough food to keep up. The only men that can save the world are chemists tasked with the impossible: distilling nitrogen from the air.Thomas Hager's writing pulses with intrigue and sweeps us away into a cast of characters that includes manure tyco [...]


    2. Guano, though no saint, works many miracles.So goes a local Peruvian proverb. Almost a haiku. It's how I like my wisdom served. Yes, thank you, I'll have a Malbec and an order of the Cryptic Guano, please.Guano, or Birdpoop, as we call it here. There was a time when it was the most prized resource on the planet. Liquid gold. Well, sort of liquid. But golden enough that nations went to war over it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.This is a brilliant book and I can't introduce it to you any better [...]


    3. It's surprising how interesting a book about fertilizer can be. More specifically, this book tells the story of the Haber-Bosch process used to manufacture synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by turning atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plant life. If you believe this to be not very important consider this; nearly 80% of the nitrogen found inside your body—and every other living body in the world—originated from the Haber-Bosch process. It's true, from half to one third of the p [...]


    4. Hager gives us a compelling history of two men we might not be familiar with: Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. By the end we know these men were very important. Their accomplishments changed the world.In 1898 British Academy of Sciences President Sir William Crookes announced that the world faced a crisis. In decades mass starvation would prevail as natural fertilizer stocks were exhausted. The infusion of South American guano in the 1840’s had dramatically increased farm yields. Upon their depleti [...]


    5. This was such a fascinating book. I loved the history lesson on how physical chemists in Germany learned to fix nitrogen and supply the world with enough fertilizer to feed the growing masses worldwide. The latter part of the book was about what I call "The Law of Unintended Consequences." Fritz Haber discovered how to create ammonia out of air just before WWI. Carl Bosch engineered the process on a large scale to produce ammonia out of air and convert it into fixed nitrogen fertilizer. Between [...]


    6. This is an interesting walk through history following two gifted and interesting Jewish gentlemen from Germany leading up to and through the Second World War. I enjoyed the chapters detailing the history of nitrate and how important it was to the world from the earliest days. Guano wars and exploration to pull nitrogen out of everything known to man. There is an interesting finding that as early as 1920 human beings, at least Europeans, have known that without fertilizer the world could not feed [...]


    7. The Washington Post starts off its review of this book: "Somehow fertilizer seems an unlikely subject for a Faustian tale about pride, vanity and ambition. Yet here it is"washingtonpost/wp-dyn/By Faustian, I suppose Hager means the two main biographical characters, Bosch and Haber, "sold their soul" to "the devil." I find myself not entirely comfortable with this framing/analogy, though I can't quite focus in on why I find it unsuitable. The ambition and focus of Bosch and Haber were immense and [...]


    8. Call it "sensational science" - a great story about (of all things) fixing nitrogen from the air, which involves slavery, U.S. land annexation, a Jewish scientist, WWI poison gas, BASF, the rise of Hitler.easy to read non-fiction and too fascinating to put down!


    9. I read this book at the insistence of my father, as I (perhaps in a bit of snobbery) thought a book about fertilizer would be extraordinarily dull. I could not have been more wrong. Written by a relatively unknown author of scientific books, the prose is eminently readable and elegant, and the story of the development of the Haber-Bosch process which has solved Thomas Malthus' and Sir William Crooke's (to name two of many) prognostication of mass starvation due to the lack of something that is a [...]


    10. I learned so much from this book--about chemistry and history and humans who aim to do good but whose efforts turn out to result in both good and unspeakable evil. Hager tells a very important story engagingly, unblinkingly. And he follows the story with an epilogue that suggests we have larger concerns than simple 'global warming.' Our fertilizer--something that is used for good--is possibly doing the most damage of all to our environment even while it's feeding the world. I will be thinking ab [...]


    11. An excellently written story about two tragic scientists who discovery of how to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere fed billions and killed millions.After explaining the important role nitrogen plays as a fertilizer and as an explosive, The Alchemy of Air then traces the history of the two tragic German scientists (Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch) who discovered a process that allowed nitrogen to be pulled from of air.A great read!


    12. Fritz Haber was a German Jew who was a chemist and had a deep love of Germany. Carl Bosch was the owner of BASF a chemical company in Germany. Bosch was a political liberal and good to his employees. In 1900 William Crookes predicted unless the food supply was increased humanity would outgrow the food supply by 1940. Nitrogen at the time was the limiting factor on crop yields. We are swimming in nitrogen 80% of the atmosphere is nitrogen but only a small amount makes it into the food chain throu [...]


    13. The synopsis in covers the general course of the book, but puts more emphasis on the final outcome than the process, which does not reflect the relative focus of the book. This book does an excellent job of explaining the need for nitrogen fertilizers, the history of the commercial trade, and just how difficult is was to develop the process to convert nitrogen gas to ammonia. Some of the science is slightly off the mark, but is not critical to the story. What was left out of the review was the [...]


    14. A fascinating back-story of the pre-eminent position nitrates held in human lives and how a chemical process averted genocide by starvation for the human race, and lets the present civilisation live way beyond the means of "organic" production.Also engrossing is the story of inventors Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber and their different paths and contributions to modern science and society, and of course the jewish-nazi conflict. A very good book because it draws a parallel between an earlier crisis t [...]


    15. WOW!! This was so well done. Of course, synthetic fertilizer is one of the most important inventions of our time. It's kind of amazing if you think about how much impact it has had. In this story, he takes you through the history of fertilizers which is fascinating!! I swear!! And hand and hand with fertilizer is gunpowder, which is also nitrogen based. The author does a great job of bringing to life all of the people involved. I will be looking for more books by Thomas Hager.I was thinking that [...]


    16. A gripping and important true story, with awe-inspiring ramifications throughout our world today. Highly recommended!


    17. I enjoyed The Alchemy of Air — it was a good mix of science and history, showing the cycle of how problems produce solutions that produce other, unexpected problems. I especially enjoyed the first third. The second third became a little tedious, focusing on Bosch’s concerns in running a huge business, the kind of leviathan that is always trying to expand and can plunge entire cities into depression if top executives make the wrong gamble, but which stagnate and eventually fall anyway if they [...]


    18. Crucial read for any chemical engineer (especially those at BASF) and a truly fascinating tale of the rush to scale-up ammonia production, a scientific/engineering effort on par with the Manhattan project and the space race. Well written.


    19. Fascinating book about the discovery and implementation of an industrial process to fix nitrogen from air under high pressure and heat. The process allowed Germany to produce fertilizer, explosives, and poison gas to both help and harm the earths quickly expanding human population. Haber the scientist and Bosch the industrialist together perfect the process while working for BASF chemical company at the turn of the 20th century. It allows Germany to become independent from the Peruvian and Chili [...]


    20. This book is the story of two scientists who developed a process to make Ammonia out of nitrogen in the air. This ammonia could in turn be made into both fertilizer and explosives. The methods that they developed also led to the gas used as a weapon in WWI and the gas used in concentration camps in WWII and the synthetic fuel that fueled the Wehrmacht, as well as huge chemical companies like BASF and IG Farben. In addition to these developments, we see the role of Germany in both world wars, the [...]


    21. I work in the fertilizer manufacturing industry- so, I am here to tell you this is not a technical tome of science and engineering, although it feebly tries. It is the tragic story of how in the early 20th century, somehow plowhares, inexpensive fertilizer to feed the hungry masses, morphed into the swords of the Nazi war machine.The individual stories of the inventors of the modern process to manufacture synthetic ammonia, Nobel prize winners Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, are equally tragic, with [...]


    22. Fascinating history of the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia (and then nitrate-fertilizer or nitric acid or munitions).The main part of the book - the story of German Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch and their quest to be the first to fix nitrogen from the air on a large commercial scale - is book-ended by 2 equally interesting sections.The first focuses on what the world did before the Haber-Bosch process - use bird guano and naturally occurring nitrate deposits (especially from Chile) - and how [...]


    23. A good review of pre- and post-WWI Germany and the German chemical revolution (Planck, Einstein, Nernst, and of course Haber and Bosch), the rise and fall of BASF, and how it essentially fueled Hitler's war machine. Interesting and kind of tragic personalities at work. The book did not cover much chemistry, surprisingly, but instead focused on the history, personalities, and industry behind fixing nitrogen into fertilizer and explosives. I never knew that the War of the Pacific (sometimes called [...]


    24. A great story that most people know nothing about, but should. Nitrogen is abundant in the air, but frustratingly difficult to fix into a form farmers can use as fertilizer. Two German scientists figured out how to do just that in the early 20th century, and their efforts fueled both two great wars, as well as the expansion of the world's population over the next 100 years to a figure previosuly unthinkable. Presently, massive "Haber-Bosch" plants dotted around the world labor 24 hours a day to [...]


    25. One of the best nonfiction books I've read. Hager does a terrific job interweaving several interesting historical threads. He covers the push for better agricultural methods and technologies in the 19th century (including the fascinating worldwide quest for guano!), and how those needs spur the world's fertilizer and food industries into the 20th. Much of the book focuses on the work of Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber, who earned Nobel Prizes for their efforts to produce ammonia synthetically, and ho [...]


    26. The scientists and subject of this book and their importance to contemporary history is so interesting, but the book is written like a first draft. The uneven writing made it really hard to stick with at times, which was disappointing because the information is so great and there aren't many works on the topic of Haber-Borsch. It seems like Hager rushed to publish and just threw his notes together without revising or something.Content: 5Writing: 2.5


    27. A very interesting look at the historical ramifications of the the Haber-Bosch process and the effects it had on feeding the world's exploding population at the turn of the 19th century and also how it fueled the German war machine in World War I and II. In a few chapters of the book, the author offers conjectures that are presented as truth without providing references to sources which could support his opinions.


    28. Mainly about how Carl Bosch & Fritz Haber made fixing atmospheric nitrogen viable commercially, it also looks at earlier commercial sources of Nitrogen (guano mining from Peruvian islands, sodium nitrate mining in Chile, as well as how Bosch ended up helping Hitler (esp. with synthetic gasoline, a spin off from nitrogen fixation technology) despite opposing Hitler's anti-semitism.


    29. I admit I had no idea what this book was about. I got it because it had a cool title and the cover looked awesome. Surprise its about Nitrogen, fertilizer, deadly gas, and two slightly likable somewhat villainous scientists! If I had known this I probably wouldn't have picked it up, which would have been too bad because it was actually very enjoyable.


    30. Straightforward and well written, Hager's examination of the work of Haber and Bosch to create a chemical process to create fixed nitrogen is excellent. Appealing on many planes, The Alchemy of Air combines biography, chemistry, engineering, and history in an easily read stew.


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