THE ALCHEMY OF AIR: A JEWISH GENIUS, A DOOMED TYCOON, AND THE SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY THAT FED THE WORLD BUT FUELED THE RISE OF HITLER by Thomas Hager (Random House), 316 pages, $27.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Most science books are full of interesting tidbits but don't have much of a storyline. The Alchemy Of Air, however, has a killer narrative. Author Thomas Hager examines the technology that led to the production of artificial fertilizer and powerful explosives.
It sounds as dull as a chemistry lesson, but it's got everything from South American pirates to suicidal wives to secret chemical weapons programs.
Plants need nitrogen to grow, but can't use it in the form found in our atmosphere. Animal feces made a fine fertilizer for thousands of years, but as stocks of choice Peruvian bird guano dwindled at the end of the 19th century, the pressure was on to find another method.
Germans Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch perfected a way to turn nitrogen gas into fertilizer. Agribusiness was born.
Hager describes the process in just enough detail. He deftly deals with the paradox that this fertilizer, which could efficiently feed the world's growing population, came along at a time when Germany was plunged into war. During World War I, fertilizer plants were easily retrofitted to produce nitrogen-based explosives and mustard gas.
Business boomed in the 20s, tanked in the 30s and was then re-appropriated by an angry little man named Adolf Hitler. Hager recounts a gripping scene in which Bosch yells at Hitler because his best Jewish scientists have been forced out of Germany. Hitler storms out of the room and never talks to Bosch again.
Hager paints a touching portrait of Haber, a Jew who felt betrayed by his country.
Soap-opera science doesn't get much better than this.
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