The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager

There aren’t many books out there that mix science and history so well. And as far as I can tell, there’s only one that can make a story about fertilizer sound interesting.

The Alchemy of Air was published in 2008 but tells a story that started soon after the invention of agriculture. The story of fertilizer. The story of two men who revolutionized chemistry and agriculture.

The story begins with every great civilization’s need to improve their agricultural yields to support growing populations. Experimentation led to discoveries that certain materials could help crops grow, even if the people didn’t know why. Farm manure, white salts, bones, human waste, guano. The value of natural fertilizers spurred a complex political and economical situation in South America where abundant resources went to those who were strong enough to claim them or buy them.

But the natural fertilizers were sure to dry up eventually, not to mention that some of the biggest buyers were thousands of miles away in Europe. So when Sir William Crookes gave his inaugural presidential speech at the 1898 British Academy of Sciences he was spot on when he said the next great scientific revolution would be the discovery of synthetic fertilizer. Synthetic nitrate to be exact.

Fritz Haber, a Jewish German scientist, was the mastermind behind the invention of synthetic nitrate. He discovered the necessary mechanisms and catalysts necessary to make highly valuable nitrogen fertilizer from the air.

Carl Bosch tinkered with the invention, perfected a cheap catalyst, and scaled up the process to be commercially profitable. Together, the two created the most influential chemical advancement in the world.

But as we all know, Germany did not remain a peaceful place in the 1900s.

In a cruel twist of fate, the chemical that allows for the increase in crop yields that secured food supplies was also capable of being used for gunpowder and explosives.

The rest is a tangled tale of greed, power, scientific innovation, and war. Haber and Bosch face moral conflicts as they decide how far they will go to support Germany if it means they get the advancements and money they want.

The tale of the greatest agricultural advancement in modern history is also the tale of the greatest weapons of war.

I can’t believe how interesting this book turned out to be! I never knew how synthetic nitrate was made and never even knew who Haber and Bosch were, so this whole book was a new story for me.

I loved the blend of science and history. I got a real sense of what the Haber-Bosch process is and how the machinery actually works. The marvels of invention and ingenuity never cease to amaze me.

I highly recommend readers continue researching the Haber-Bosch system here and here. Even if you aren’t a scientist, it’s worth it to know the how and why of what our modern agricultural system relies on.

Hager did a great job making a now commonplace invention seem wonderous and impactful, which in actuality, it truly was. Without synthetic fertilizers, we could only feed about half of today’s population. That’s how important this discovery was. Half of the world would not be here.

While making and applying synthetic fertilizers is valuable to humanity, I do know that excess nitrogen in agriculture is adding greenhouse gasses to our atmosphere at an alarming rate. It’s important to realize the environmental impacts too. But overall, I think that’s paled by what chemical weapons and explosives were made and used with the help of nitrate made from the Haber-Bosch system.

I’ll leave it up to readers to decide if Haber and Bosch should be thanked for their contributions to science, or hated for their contributions to war.

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