Chemistry and Morality

Reviewed by Guy Gugliotta
Sunday, December 14, 2008


A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

By Thomas Hager

Harmony. 316 pp. $24.95

Somehow fertilizer seems an unlikely subject for a Faustian tale about pride, vanity and ambition. Yet here it is: Chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch won Nobel Prizes for their contributions to humanity as young men and reached the pinnacle of German science, only to be brought low by their own, very human failings.

Haber and Bosch invented industrially made fertilizer during the first decade of the 20th century, developing a method of synthesizing and mass-producing ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, hence the title of Thomas Hager's book, The Alchemy of Air. The need for such a process was urgent. Agricultural crops required nitrogen, but by the late 19th century the parched flatlands of Chile's Atacama Desert were the world's only major source of nitrates, and supplies were running out. With most arable land already cultivated and populations on the rise, a Malthusian nightmare loomed.

Haber, a chemist living in Karlsruhe, invented a method of blending hydrogen and nitrogen in a high-pressure, high-temperature chamber using a metal catalyst. He developed a tabletop model and sold the ammonia production process to the German dye works Badish Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik, known today as BASF, one of the world's leading chemical companies.

Bosch, a BASF chemist, was given the task of scaling up Haber's idea. He succeeded spectacularly, creating immense manufacturing complexes and eventually becoming managing director of BASF and, subsequently, chairman of IG Farben, the conglomerate he helped create. The Haber-Bosch process is still the leading method of making synthetic fertilizer, and Bosch is venerated in some circles as the father of industrial chemistry.

Hager, a science writer who previously wrote a biography of Linus Pauling and a book about the discovery of the earliest antibiotics, tells the story of fertilizer well. But it takes up only half the book. The rest focuses on the personalities of Haber and Bosch, and on how their strengths ultimately became fatal weaknesses.

Once he made his initial discovery, Haber, a prodigiously gifted but insecure young chemist, rose to the front rank of the world's scientists as a director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes. Genius played a role, as did guile. But Haber also forged ahead by consciously forswearing his Jewish heritage to embrace German nationalism. Albert Einstein, a lifelong friend, at first gently mocked Haber for his willingness to please, then felt sorry for him as they grew older.

Bosch, meanwhile, began as an earnest, honest young researcher debunking the claims of lesser scientists. He ended up as a multinational industrial tycoon whose obsession with scoring commercial successes led him to build IG Farben into one of the largest companies in the world.

But when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, things changed. Haber suddenly understood that he would always be Jewish and that the terrible bargains he had made would bring him nothing but contempt and ostracism. Bosch, heartsick at the prospect of firing large numbers of his Jewish employees in a Nazi purge, sought an exception in a personal interview with Hitler, only to endure an anti-Semitic tirade. He realized that the immense industrial enterprise to which he had dedicated his life had been placed at the service of a monster.

Yet neither man is to be pitied, for both made their choices freely. Inventing fertilizer may have helped mankind, but it also launched their careers, and both took advantage. At the beginning of World War I, Bosch volunteered to convert his entire operation to the manufacture of explosives, fertilizer's chemical first cousin. The government subsidized the biggest munitions plant in the world and built it partly with slave labor. Haber, also eager to please, joined the war ministry, donned a captain's uniform, developed a method of blanketing enemy trenches with poisonous chlorine gas and oversaw its first successful demonstration at Ypres in 1915.

Structurally, The Alchemy of Air is a series of narrative set pieces linking Haber and Bosch to tumultuous events. First comes a brief history of fertilizer, with episodes in the Atacama and the guano islands off Peru, where Chinese coolies worked in horrendous conditions; it's a harsh but riveting story little known in the United States. Then Hager describes the development of the Haber-Bosch synthesis, a worthy addition to the growing genre of histories about scientific processes. Finally, the author presents a cautionary tale about the misuse of science in modern times: how two brilliant innovators helped create the explosives, poison gas and synthetic fuels that enabled despots in a small nation to wage two catastrophic wars.

The Alchemy of Air is a quick, easy read, aimed at a general -- i.e., impatient -- audience. This is unfortunate. Haber and Bosch are fascinating if troubled personalities, brought by Hager compellingly to life. Though Haber and his contradictions have inspired a number of biographies and even a play, Bosch (whose collections of 25,000 minerals and 4 million insects ended up in the Smithsonian) is almost unknown. With these two stars, plus Imperial Germany and the rise of Nazism as a stage and cameos by Einstein, Max Planck and other giants of German science and industry, there is material here for twice as big a book. One wishes that Hager had kept writing. ยท

Guy Gugliotta is a former Washington Post science reporter.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company