Monday, June 8, 2015
Review of The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager (Crown, 2008)
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 War, but ultimately became a victim of Hitler’s scientific culls. Bosch was more reserved and private, but was a schemer and empire builder, helping to found and then lead IG Farben, the world’s largest chemical company. He did try to confront Hitler’s regime but was eased to one side, dying an alcoholic. Hager’s telling gets the balance between wider historical context of seeking natural sources of nitrogen, the science in its fixing, and the biographies of both men just right for a popular science history text. Moreover, the narrative is interesting and engaging. It does though slightly oversell itself - the story is not untold and Hager’s account is one of a number, and nor are Haber or Bosch as forgotten as he suggests. Sure, they might not be household names in America, but they would be well known within the sciences and continental Europe. Overall, a well-told tale of the development of the science and technology that keeps over 2 billion from starving to death.