The Alchemy of Air: Book summary and reviews of The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager

The Alchemy of Air

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

By Thomas Hager

The Alchemy of Air
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  • Published in USA  Sep 2008,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

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, more 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 un­intended 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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Media Reviews

"Not only [a story] of triumph,...this is also a story of irony and tragedy." - Publishers Weekly.

"Starred Review. Science writing of the first order." - Kirkus Reviews.

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Bailey
A Great Read
The beginning is slow, but it gets more interesting to the point where you do not want to stop reading. I don't usually read this type of book but Hager did a great job of interpreting interesting and relevant tales into it, and I found it very intriguing.

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The Haber-Bosch process transforms nitrogen in the air into ammonia, which in turn can be used to make nitrates and nitrates, essential for the large-scale production of both nitrate fertilizers and munitions. Haber and Bosch were both awarded Nobel Prizes for their work, Haber in 1918 and Bosch in 1931. It has been hypothesized that without the ability to create ammonium nitrate on a large scale Germany would not have fought in World War I.

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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