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The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Discovery That Changed the Course of History

4.21  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,345 Ratings  ·  209 Reviews
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.
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Kindle Edition, 338 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2008)
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Jun 08, 2008 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Clif Hostetler
May 01, 2014 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon)
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
Catherine Read
Jul 10, 2013 Catherine Read rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lisa Ard
Nov 05, 2008 Lisa Ard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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!
Feb 23, 2009 Charlie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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!
I am always super excited by good science writing (think Mary Roach or Deborah Blum), and this fits the bill!

The book is all about a catalytic technique that suddenly made fertilizers widely available and is now responsible for 80% of the nitrogen in your body: the Haber-Bosch process.

You don't often hear about Haber & Bosch outside of a chemistry class, and this book does a good job of explaining the scientific and political implications of an industrial process without getting bogged down
Apr 08, 2009 Prasanna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 13, 2015 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
John Valesano
Dec 06, 2014 John Valesano rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-war-ii
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 ...more
Lindsay Luke
Oct 01, 2013 Lindsay Luke rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listened
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
Mar 10, 2013 Charles Shapiro rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 01, 2009 Shruts rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 28, 2009 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 01, 2010 Doug rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Apr 08, 2010 Nate rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 17, 2016 TheRealMelbelle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really good book! Nicely written - fascinating history and its implications for today too! This is important. The personal lives of these two men were very interesting too. Here is the full review"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 st
Rob Kitchin
Jun 14, 2015 Rob Kitchin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After setting the scene and charting the natural sources of nitrogen and the wars fought over its harvesting, The Alchemy of Air tells the story of the fixing of nitrogen, primarily through plotting the careers of Haber and Bosch. Both men were ambitious and determined, and their careers went up and down at different points, and both won Nobel prizes. Haber, a Jew, was nationalistic and a somewhat confrontational and controversial character, having also invented gas warfare in the First World Wa ...more
Rangarathnam Gopu
Two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, devised chlorine gas weapons that were used against French and British troops, in the First World War. Haber’s first wife committed suicide. Then they went on to invent new forms of explosives. During the Second World War, they worked for Hitler, developing a coal based substitute for petroleum that fueled Nazi planes and trucks.

I had never heard of them until last year. Most people are blissfully unaware of them.

All life needs nitrogen, but the
Mar 09, 2015 Fractalhead rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kisah luar biasa dua ilmuwan jenius dalam misi "mengubah udara menjadi makanan". Diawali dengan ketakutan pada awal abad kedua puluh akan terjadinya kelaparan global sebagaimana yang diramalkan Thomas Malthus, para ilmuwan dihimbau untuk mencari solusinya. Pupuk adalah satu solusi untuk meningkatkan produksi pangan. Selama bertahun-tahun, dunia bergantung pada kandungan nitrat untuk pupuk yang didapat dari kotoran hewan maupun pertambangan. Ketika produksi pupuk alam seperti guano, salitre dan l ...more
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
Mar 22, 2014 Steven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 28, 2010 Jonathan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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.
Mar 03, 2014 J.A.C.H. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
K. Lincoln
Jan 01, 2015 K. Lincoln rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So I'm a lit-lover, non-sciencey kind of person and thought that this book would be a slow read because of the chemistry-technical aspects. It purported to discuss how synthetically fixing nitrogen through ammonia-factories changed the world (snooze-fest, I know, right? But not this book).

It actually didn't take me that long to read once I got through the first chapter. Once the author described the hell-on-earth that was Peru's guano-export system, the book's economic focus on how and why nitro
Mar 28, 2016 Vivian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This author has the ability to take a topic you have never heard of, know nothing about, and in fact would have dismissed as completely boring and pulls you in immediately by persuading you of its absolute necessity to our very lives and fleshes it out with riveting accounts, all while sharing the science and research involved in a way that is understandable to the reader who is not at all grounded in science. At the same time those with a sound scientific background would also appreciate his wo ...more
Jan 08, 2015 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always was fascinated by Fritz Haber, I was looking for a book about alchemy and chemistry and stumbled upon this instead and loved it.

For humans, the search for good fertilizer has always been a struggle. Without fertilizer, farming quickly wears out the soil without good crop rotation. The problem is that fertilizer is hard to find. Nitrogen, of the kind that can be used in fertilizer is only created naturally in lightning strikes and some bacteria. Otherwise, the fixed nitrogen (the useful
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Author of six books of nonfiction about the ways in which science and technology change people's lives.
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