Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: The Alchemy of Air

I was given this book by my postdoctoral advisor as a gift. One of the graduate students in my lab recommended it to him and after he'd read it he decided to buy a copy for everyone else in the lab.[1] It is primarily a biography of two men, Fritz Haber (1868–1934) and Carl Bosch (1874–1940). Fritz Haber was a German chemist who developed a chemical process to convert inert atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into ammonium (NH3), which can then be used to make fertilizer or explosives. Carl Bosch, a chemist employed by the German chemical company BASF, perfected this process and scaled it up to industrial levels. Thus this process is usually refered to as the Haber–Bosch process. For their work they each received a Nobel Prize, Haber in 1918 and Bosch in 1931.[2] This book also details the role fertilizers played in world history before the development of the Haber–Bosch process as well as the involvement Haber and Bosch (and their process) had in World War I and World War II.[3]

My verdict: He uses a fairly straightfoward style [4] and does a fairly good job at explaining chemical concepts in a way that should be understandable to an educated layperson. The personal histories of Haber and Bosch were pretty interesting and the author manages to bring them to life pretty well. But to be honest I thought the most fascinating part of the book was the historic accounts about Peruvian guano (from the Chincha Islands) and Chilean saltpeter (from the Atacama Desert). I only had a few complaints. For one thing, there were a few glaring typos that should've been caught by a copyeditor; these became more frequent in the later chapters. Also, I was displeased with the way he cited his sources.[5] Rather than give direct credit for borrowed ideas, he simply compiled a list of sources for the entire chapter and lists them in an appendix at the end of the book. That was just lazy. Also, the author insists that the Nazis were right-wing extremists, but overlooks the many facts he lays out in this very book that indicate a left-wing ideology.[6]


[1] The reason this topic is of interest to us is because we study bacteria which are able to perform the same process (converting N2 into NH3) but at much lower temperatures and pressures than the industrial process.

[2] You can read their Nobel lectures at prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-lecture.pdf and prizes/chemistry/laureates/1931/bosch-lecture.pdf.

[3] For example, Haber was responsible for the development of gas warfare in World War I and an insecticide he helped develop (Zyklon B) was later used by the Nazis in their gas chambers during the Holocaust.

[4] Unfortunately he uses the word munificent in two different chapters but in nearly the same sentence. It's not a common enough word that you can get away with that.

[5] One of the sources cited is actually hosted at my alma mater, BYU: von Spee's Report.

[6] Hitler himself denounced both capitalism and communism, choosing what he saw as a centrist position (socialism). Most historians choose to overlook the left-wing aspects of Nazism, choosing to focus only on what they suppose are right-wing aspects (nationalism and racism).

Image attributions:

The portrait of Fritz Haber (left) is in the public domain. It can be found at prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber postcard.jpg.

The portrait of Carl Bosch (right) is in the public domain. It can be found at prizes/chemistry/laureates/1931/bosch postcard.jpg.

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