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

Thomas Hager, Author . Harmony $24.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-307-35178-4

Fixed nitrogen (which is immediately usable to plants) is essential in agriculture. Its rarity, as science writer Hager (The Demon Under the Microscope ) shows, dramatically shaped the world and its politics. But by 1905, as Hager details, German chemist Fritz Haber discovered a process for transforming abundant air-borne nitrogen into ammonia, and Carl Bosch’s ingenious engineering scaled Haber’s benchtop chemistry into industrial processes to make fertilizer. But Hager’s story is not only one of triumph, of how Haber and Bosch “invented a way to turn air into bread,” earning a Nobel Prize and saving millions from starvation. This is also a story of irony and tragedy. First, life-saving nitrogen is also the main ingredient in explosives, and Hager cogently summarizes the Haber-Bosch process’s critical role in both world wars. In addition, Hager illustrates Haber’s extreme German patriotism and desperate wish to assimilate; shattered by the rise of Hitler, he became an outcast, abandoned even by his onetime colleague Bosch. It’s unfortunate that Hager ends his fine book with only a brief look at the deleterious role of nitrogen on the environment. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 06/23/2008
Release date: 09/01/2008
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