Chemical attractions

The 'Alchemy of Air' follows the brilliant German Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber.

alchemy air book  (photo credit: Courtesy)
alchemy air book
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Alchemy of Air By Thomas Hager Harmony Books 336 pages; $24.95 Before Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany was home to many prominent scientists, a number of whom won Nobel Prizes. About 20 percent of them were Jews, with the list being topped by Albert Einstein. The brilliant chemist Fritz Haber was also in this group, although he converted to Christianity at 24. The story of his tragic life is included in The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler as a significant part of the effort to manufacture a synthetic fertilizer to insure a sufficient food supply for the world's growing population. Haber's important contribution to this effort was the basis for his Nobel Prize in 1919. When Haber was growing up, he experienced some anti-Semitism in school but generally, the existing prejudice against Jews was tempered by tolerance and social integration. After earning his doctorate in chemistry in 1891, he tried various jobs until becoming convinced that more doors would open if he became baptized. His lack of Jewish identification made this a relatively easy step. It facilitated his appointment to the faculty of the second-tier University of Karlsruhe, where he published a book on the thermodynamics of gas reactions. In 1906, he was promoted to full professor; he married a Jewish woman who was also a chemist but the marriage took second place to his driving ambition. His research on ammonia earned him contracts with a large German chemical company, where his collaboration with Carl Bosch led to the development of factories for transforming nitrogen into ammonia which was used to produce fertilizer. With his reputation firmly established, Haber accepted a lucrative and prestigious position as head of a new research institute in Berlin. Two years later, when Einstein returned to Germany, the two became friends although Haber turned into a Prussian patriot while Einstein was a free-thinking pacifist. When World War I began in 1914, Haber was made a top adviser to the German government and he transformed his institute into a military research center. His militaristic views antagonized his wife and his marriage crumbled. When she learned that he was developing poison gas to use as a weapon, she killed herself. Two years later, Haber married another Jewish woman who converted to Christianity at his insistence. Devastation in Germany after the war and Haber's identification as a war criminal led him to move temporarily to Switzerland, but after he was awarded the Nobel Prize (despite considerable protest), he was able to return to Berlin and resume his work as head of the research institute. He secretly continued his research into chemical warfare and was involved in clandestine construction of poison gas factories in Spanish Morocco and the Soviet Union. He was also involved in a quixotic and failed effort to recover gold from the ocean. However, his center flourished as a mecca for physical chemists. Putting all his energy into his work, his health degenerated and his marriage fell apart. In 1927, Haber and his second wife were divorced and the deterioration in his health continued at an accelerated pace. After Hitler came to power and began issuing edicts against employment of Jews, Haber resigned rather than firing the Jews on the staff of his institute. Other scientists were afraid to speak out and Haber was devastated. He looked for a job elsewhere and was offered opportunities in Cambridge and Palestine. He spent two months in Cambridge and was on his way to Palestine in January 1934 when he died in Switzerland. The book also follows the career of Haber's non-Jewish partner, Carl Bosch, and the impressive consequences of their work. Both men were disillusioned and they died without fully realizing some of the results of their combined efforts. Modern chemical engineering owes much to Haber and Bosch as is well described in this powerful chronicle by author Thomas Hager, a veteran science and medical writer. The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work of Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.