Friday, April 24, 2009

Haber-Bosch revisited

My most recent book review to appear in Chemistry & Industry (No 7, 13.4., page 30)is about another book about Fritz Haber:

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
Harmony books, New York, 2008
ISBN: 978-0307351784

Here's a snippet (including a paragraph that was omitted from the printed version):

It is difficult for writers to find the right way to approach this monumental complex of tragic lives, science and technology of the highest possible impact, and politics gone off the rails. Apart from the epic biography of Haber, I have on my shelves a few slimmer studies of smaller aspects. There is a biography of Haber’s first wife, Clara Immerwahr, for instance, and a master’s thesis on Haber’s quest to mine gold from the oceans. Plus a 1950s account of the history of IG Farben dressed up as a novel, and a volume with short biographies of Jewish scientists in Germany 1900-33.

Now a fresh generation of American writers seems to have discovered this topic for themselves, and they approach it fearlessly. A few years ago, there was a new, shorter biography of Haber by Daniel Charles, who delivered a straight and very readable narrative of Haber’s ambivalent character and his rise and fall.

Thomas Hager has taken a step back to glance at an even bigger picture, including the history of nitrogen fertiliser before it could be made synthetically, and the further development of Bosch’s ambitions after the success with nitrogen. Essentially, he follows the intertwined stories of three protagonists: Haber, Bosch, and nitrogen.

PS checking up on the C&I website (still being rebuilt), I found out that the recently deceased author JG Ballard was a former assistant editor of the magazine:

J G Ballard, author
Former assistant editor of Chemistry & Industry, J G Ballard died on 19 April 2009 aged 78. Best known as a writer of what he described as apocalyptic, rather than science, fiction, his first novel, The Drowned World, published in 1962, recorded the psychological breakdown of a group of scientists examining a London waterlogged by the melting of the polar icecaps. Later books, including The Wind from Nowhere and The Drought, also dealt with ecological disaster. He is probably best remembered for his semi-autobiographical novel of his childhood as a Japanese internee in Shangai, China, Empire of the Sun, which was made into a blockbuster film by Steven Spielberg.

PPS Oh, and my short review of Daniel Charles's Haber biography is here (open access, I believe).

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