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

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4.2 of 5 stars 4.20  ·  rating details  ·  781 ratings  ·  149 reviews
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 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 men who found it: brilliant, self-important Fritz Haber a...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published August 18th 2009 by Broadway Books (first published 2008)
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Michael
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...more
Whispers from the Pirate's Ghost Whisper
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...more
Clif Hostetler
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 peopl...more
Charlie
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!
Lisa Ard
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!
Catherine Read
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...more
Lindsay Luke
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...more
Charles Shapiro
The synopsis in Goodreads 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...more
Shruts
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...more
David
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...more
Doug
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...more
Josh
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...more
Nate
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...more
Prasanna
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...more
Lindsay
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: 5
Writing: 2.5
Steven
I can't believe I had never heard anything about this story before. It really is just a fascinating story all around and gives an interesting back story to what I've been learning recently about World War I.

Although I didn't really feel like I'd learned as much from the story as I had from The Demon Under the Microscope by the same author, when my wife asked me a question about the book, I found myself energetically retelling several of the fascinating details of the guano wars, and their relati...more
Jonathan
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.
J.A.C.H.
The first few pages left me wondering if I'd really get through the book, but then reading flowed and I was hooked. So many interesting facts and factors in this book. I'll list a few.
The world would only sustain 1-2 billion people without fertilizer which captures nitrogen from the air.
People were enslaved to harvest guano from the Galapagos.
Wars were waged over natural sources of nitrogen.
Germany succeeded in capturing nitrogen from air and making synthetic fertilizer.
The synthetic means for m...more
Converse
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.
Cailean
Once in awhile you start a book and immediately know you will love it - the writing style, the topic, all mesh together to create an enjoyable reading experience! This was such a book for me - great tale of warring scientists and historical discoveries, war and world issues. Highly recommend!
Ayneka
This book although it took me some time to finally get through was actually very interesting. If you have an interest in Science than most likely you'll like this book. Even if you don't have an interest in Science I'm sure you'll like this book as it connects the Science to the History.
Leslie
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.

Taffnerd
I much prefered the history and science to the biographical info on the people involved but still worth a read. It's another piece of the food puzzle - the discovery of the process by which we fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to make synthetic fertilizers (and explosives and fuel.)
Harry
An excellent history of the synthesis of ammonia and its derivatives (nitrates), the 2 men who discovered and developed the process, their lives and the impacts of this accomplishment on the world.
Kathy
I liked this book because of what I learned while reading it. I had no idea how amazingly nitrogen/air changed the world.
Brian
Interesting read; good mix of personal and scientific details made for an informative and quick read.
Angie
Who knew how important the history of fertilizer is? Okay, maybe I should have. While I previously knew the outline of this scientific story, I found this book really interesting and informative. The stories are told well and the historical context is amazing.

The book dragged a little towards the end, as things fell apart in Germany and the main characters lost everything. This is not a story with anything approximating a happy ending, but there was a little bit too much industrial detail in the...more
Kale Miller
The book titled "The Alchemy of Air" by Thomas Hager was a great book. Hager had me intrigued from the Very beginning. I couldn't put the book down without wanting to read more. The book talks about the founding of Farber, Germany's largest chemical company. It also talked about Farber factories produced ammonia, synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber for the Third Reich under Hitler's command.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes chemistry. This book is based on chemistry and lots o...more
Michelle
I am secretly and surprisingly such a science nerd. I can't explain anything back to you, but I want so bad to be a scientist and figure out these zany things. My next thing I'd want to be (gotta have a back-up because that scientist thing is not working out for me) is a science writer. I almost have trouble reading books like this because I then start to sit around and plot how I can become one of these two things and it's very distracting to my real life.

Anyway, very interesting read! One, ni...more
Stephen
I really enjoyed this book. It is really a history of a scientific idea, the haber-bosch process, that allowed the mass production of ammonia for commercial fertilizers. This was really one of the greatest inventions that you have never heard of. If you are like me, you grew up with nitrogen fertilizer as ubiquitous with no real thought of where it came from (I always thought it was processed from urea). This book lays out the background for the problem, the initial fascination for the scientifi...more
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Author of six books of nonfiction about the ways in which science and technology change people's lives.
More about Thomas Hager...
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