Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air

The subtitle of this book is “A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler.” But if that’s not a broad enough net to grab you, let me tell you a bit more. This book describes a scientific and engineering feat on the scale of the Manhattan Project (p. 122). In achieving nitrogen fixation on a grand scale, engineer Carl Bosch turns chemist Fritz Haber’s table-top process into a huge city-size factory, and then a bigger one. In doing so, he and his many colleagues invent a whole new type of business model, solve a global crisis (starvation, by creating fertilizer to counteract inevitable soil depletion and thus a decrease in worldwide crop production), and address a national crisis (Germany’s lack of explosives with which to fight WWI).

The book is not only fascinating on the history of chemistry, especially the history of dyes, nitrogen fixation, and the development of synthetic fuels, but also incredibly moving on the human side. The two main scientists are fascinatingly contradictory characters, revealing just how inconsistent and flawed even very brilliant and hard-working humans are. The story of these two men is moving and thought-provoking. Shakespeare could have based a tragedy on these linked stories. The book reiterates the power of science to work for good and evil, but it does so in detailed and original ways, so that the lessons seem newly learned and spelled out more completely. For one, science is not just a double-edged sword: even the good edge has two edges.

These men’s ambitions, ideals, personal strengths and weaknesses, affinities, competition on a corporate or personal scale–and just their intense interests and special abilities–all combine as in a complex chemical reaction with the historical moment’s needs and the political atmosphere to create a unique result. We see how and when they control and lose control of what they create, and how they very differently react to their somewhat self-determined and somewhat uncontrollable fates.

I think an engineer would not only enjoy the book but also benefit from reading it. The story itself is interesting—the important scientific and industrial history—and it’s also  very well written. Hager demonstrates how to define terms in simple, subtle way; how to use a single sentence to clarify and re-emphasize a point that he’s discussed for pages; how to describe methods by describing the materials used; how to give scientific information in detail when needed and just sketchily when not so important; and how to link one boring-sounding topic (“nitrogen fixation” has to be one of the most off-putting nouns I can think of) to far-reaching consequences, important historical moments, philosophical questions, and global influence. The power to link your topic, whatever it is, to many other fascinating ones is worth learning!


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