Book review

The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager

Paperback, 336 pages, published by Broadway, August 18, 2009, $15.00 ISBN-10: 0307351785

Always keeping my eyes open for a new read, I found a fascinating book titled The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager. The book gives a well-researched discussion of the lives of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. There is more than just the details of their lives; the book provides plenty of history and science that enriches and ties together some of those stray facts, which chase around in the backs of our minds. I was quite surprised at the level of detail connecting politics and chemistry. Without being lengthy, the author presents the personal and professional challenges for Haber and Bosch. The relationships that both men had with the government of Germany and the political forces were complex and required tremendous personal sacrifices. The contributions made to chemistry are some of the most important and far-reaching and should be included in our teaching, in order to make our subject more relevant.

What did I learn from the book that I plan to share with my students? Well, a lot of things, but one noteworthy story was the very public confrontations that occurred between Haber, Ostwald and Nernst. Their passion and dedication to their respective theories and ideas — even some which were incorrect — are impressive. When you read in a textbook about an equation or a process, you rarely consider the real people who were deeply committed to these ideas.

I also appreciated the information about the history of the South American nitrate mines. There will surely be some way to work this into a high school lecture. I also learned that in 1898, Sir William Crookes made a public speech in which he predicted that the population of the earth had reached a level that was rapidly outpacing the food supply and would soon lead to massive deaths if there was no solution.

The book is engaging and certainly contains enough chemistry to keep you reading. Every year you teach, there are always some students who would find this type of book engaging. You may want to lend them your copy when you are finished.