Book review: “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

hager --- alchemyGrumpy Pat: I just finished Thomas Hager’s The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, and it was a real waste of time.

Amiable Pat: C’mon, it wasn’t all that bad. I kind of liked some parts of it.

Grumpy Pat: Alright, it wasn’t exactly a waste of time. It was a book that took 281 pages to tell a story that could have easily been communicated in 30. I should have known. It’s always a bad sign when a book has a subtitle as long and weighted as this one. “Genius” and “doomed” are favorite subtitle words. And anytime you can get Hitler in there, it’s golden. At least, as far as sales go.

Amiable Pat: Well, you’re right about subtitles. But Hager’s book does feature some interesting stuff about guano and nitrate and saltpeter, and how they were used for fertilizer and gunpowder — to feed and to kill. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Grumpy Pat: Yeah, yeah, but Hager spends the first third of the book on these natural sources of nitrogen. It’s over-padded and over-written. It’s not really about the subject of the book — the creation of nitrogen from air. It’s there to give the book more heft since Hager doesn’t have much to say about the discovery itself.

Amiable Pat: Aren’t you being harsh? After all, he needs to set the stage for the discovery.

Grumpy Pat: Sure, but it’s way too much space for setting the stage. And look at how Hager spends nearly the entire second half of the book about what happened after the scientific breakthrough. Out of his 281 pages, he only devotes 84 to the experiments by Fritz Haber (the “Jewish Genius” of the subtitle) and its refinement by Carl Bosch (the “Doomed Tycoon”).

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

Grumpy Pat and Amiable Pat

Amiable Pat: Well, he’s gotta show how that breakthrough was important — how it probably extended World War I and how Haber and Bosch got caught up in the changes Hitler wrought on Germany and the world.

Grumpy Pat: Most of that stuff, though, is peripheral to the discovery. Instead, it’s about Haber’s attempt to turn seawater into gold, and Bosch’s efforts to create synthetic gasoline. It was that work in synthetic fuels and synthetic rubber that “Fueled the Rise of Hitler,” not what came to be the Haber-Bosch process….

Amiable Pat: Yeah, but….

Grumpy Pat: ….and it really frosted me that Hager trots out Hitler and how Hitler’s anti-Semitism affected Haber and how Bosch had moral vacillations about making lots of money through government contracts while still wishing that the Nazis weren’t so mean to Jews. Millions of people were killed because of Nazi policies, and millions more uprooted and oppressed. Millions, too, had to make moral decisions.

Amiable Pat: Now wait a minute. Don’t these two represent all those millions?

Grumpy Pat: Not really — at least, not well. To play up Hitler’s impact on two well-to-do, well-cushioned capitalists for pages and pages seemed, to me, to be disrespectful to so many others whose lives were so much more affected. Again, it seemed based on a cold, commercial desire to pad the book to make it appear more substantial — and to make it possible to throw Adolf into the subtitle.

Amiable Pat: You have to agree, though, that Hager does a good job in the center section, describing the scientific efforts by Haber to unlock the chemical secret into turning the nitrogen in the air into nitrogen that could be used for fertilizer and cannons.

Grumpy Pat: That was the best part of the book. The pace picked up, and the focus was better. But, even there,…

Amiable Pat: Aw, c’mon…

Grumpy Pat: … Hager’s writing left me wondering if the breakthrough by Fritz Haber was all that significant. Hager describes how, in early, 1909, Haber’s team members “were making incremental progress, balancing heat and pressure, making the system more efficient” but it still wasn’t enough. Then Haber took an idea that another researcher Wilhelm Ostwald had had, and eventually found a successful catalyst for the process — and the result was his breakthrough.

Amiable Pat: Yeah, that’s the way science works. Researchers stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Grumpy Pat: Of course. But, remember, later, a rival chemical company sued Bosch’s firm, BASF, contending “that Haber’s ‘discovery’ was no discovery at all; [competing scientist Walther] Nernst had already shown, more than a year before Haber, that nitrogen and hydrogen could be combined under pressure to make ammonia.”

Amiable Pat: But BASF won that court case.

Grumpy Pat: Yeah, because, after meeting with BASF officials, Nernst switched sides and testified in Haber’s favor. Here’s what Hager writes:

A historian later noted that “Nernst’s change from sharp critic to well-wishing supporter of Haber was amazing.” Or perhaps not. In the weeks prior to the trial, Nernst signed a five-year contract with BASF, which had agreed to pay him an honorarium of ten thousand marks a year to serve as an expert consultant.

In other words, it certainly appears that Nernst was bought off.

Amiable Pat: Well, that doesn’t prove that Haber’s breakthrough wasn’t significant.

Grumpy Pat: True, but it does leave a big question in the center of The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler. And I would have liked Hager to have spent some time trying to unravel that mystery instead of piling on details about guano and the amount of gold in ocean water.

Amiable Pat: Maybe you’re just in a bad mood.

Grumpy Pat: I don’t think so. As soon as I finished Hager’s book, I started reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, and it’s been a whole lot more interesting and fun.

Amiable Pat: Harrumph!

Patrick T. Reardon

1 Comment

  • Patrick T. Reardon Posted July 21, 2015 3:39 pm

    What, specifically, did you find lacking in the review?

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