The Alchemy of Air

electronic resource

English language

Published Dec. 8, 2008 by Crown Publishing Group.

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4 stars (4 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. 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 …

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4 stars

Everything comes at a cost—we just don’t always know what that will be or when we’ll have to pay. Haber and Bosch saved the world from Malthusian collapse and in the process gave us both WWI and WWII, not to mention obesity, diabetes, and oceanic dead zones. (We don’t have a say in whether or not it was worth it. There are no do-overs in history, and as yet we have little visibility into parallel universes.)

This was a surprisingly enjoyable book: an (IMO) appropriate mix of history, biography, speculation, and opinion. Hager provides useful context for understanding the world of that time—the agricultural need for nitrogen, the political environment—while also weaving in the personalities involved, the technical problems solved (not technical enough for my taste, which probably means it might be just-right for yours). It’s a complex story, well woven, with nuances I was not aware of: Haber, for …

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