RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKS: ’The Alchemy of Air’ by Thomas Hager

Review by Anthony Becker

RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKS: ’The Alchemy of Air’ by Thomas Hager“The Alchemy of Air,” by Thomas Hager, tells the story of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, two German scientists who developed the process of making synthetically fixed nitrogen, which is necessary for the production of both fertilizer and explosives.

The Haber-Bosch pro-cess, as it is called, has allowed agriculture to sustain our seven-billion-fold human population. This process also made World War I and II and other major conflicts of the 20th century possible.

The book begins by describing the related histories of gunpowder and fertilizer. Originally harvested from naturally occurring substances such as guano and caliche, the nitrates that both of these substances relied on were precious resources to the nations of the world in the late 19th century. Without these substances, farmers could not feed the world’s burgeoning population, nor could kings wage war with muskets and cannons.

Fritz Haber, a German of Jewish descent, set about at the turn of the century to make his nation independent of the world’s nitrate supply. His efforts led him to design a small machine capable of cataly-zing the nitrogen in the air into a reaction that produced ammonia. This ammonia could be used to produce the same nitrates that the world had been warring over for the past half-century.

Haber collaborated with Carl Bosch to build industrial-scale ammonia factories for the German corporation BASF. Bosch was eventually made head of the corporation, which merged with a number of other corporations in the German chemical industry to form the megacompany known as Farber.

Bosch subsequently turned his attention to the production of synthetic fuels and rubber, two inventions that would make Hitler’s war efforts possible.

Haber, in the meanwhile, became head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the mecca of science in Germany. During World War I, Haber led the development of gas warfare, an act that would label him a war criminal. He fled the nation when Hitler rose to power.

“The Alchemy of Air” sheds light on one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century. Thomas Hager fleshes out the character of the two great scientists, Haber and Bosch, detailing their struggles in developing the ammonia-producing technology and the moral dilemma of witnessing the mass weaponization of their invention. This book belongs on the shelf of any person interested in the histories of the 20th century, the World Wars and the sciences.

This weekly column is written by members of the Ridge Writers, the East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. Meetings are held the first Wednesday eve-ning of each month at Ridgecrest Presbyterian Church, and free programs are offered throughout the year. Ridge Writers’ book “Planet Mojave: Visions From a World Apart” is available at Carriage Inn, Jawbone Station, the Historic USO Building, the Maturango Museum, Red Rock Books and online from the official website www.planetmojave.com.

Story First Published: 2013-04-17