Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Alchemy of Air - 9 - Ten books that influenced me



I picked up this book from the now defunct Landmark bookshop at Spencer’s, along with Darwin’s Armada by Iain McCalman. The latter book was extraordinarily delightful and informative, describing the ocean voyages of four scientists, all biologists. I knew about Darwin and Wallace (my blog is named after Wallace), their co-discovery of Natural Selection, and the great divergence in their fame and fortunes. I also knew a bit about Thomas Huxley, famously called Darwin’s Bulldog. But the book gave very detailed information about their backgrounds, their voyages, adventures, travails, mishaps, discoveries, surprises, collaborations, friendships, mutual admiration, Wallace falling out of favour; absolutely riveting stories of nineteenth century biology, some of which I knew.

Of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the heroes of Thomas Hager’s book, I knew nothing. My friend and high school chemistry teacher Mohan Krishnamurthy, says he spent a month teaching the Haber-Bosch process to his students, but I don’t remember reading it at all in school.

Or ever hearing about it. Anywhere.

I only vaguely knew that NKP, Nitrogen(N) Potassium(K) and Phosphorus(P) are important elements in fertilizers.

Hager’s book was eye opening in every single way. About agriculture, about chemistry, chemical engineering, about Germany, German industry, industrial espionage, guano, South America, the first and second world wars – I learnt so much about everyone of these areas. Along with Guns, Germs and Steel and Sivakamiyin Sabatham, I rank it the most informative in multiple domains that book I have read. A year or so later, I found his other book, The Demon under the Microscope, equally amazing, informative, and brilliantly narrated.

Hager talks about how vital nitrogen is to life – it is an essential element in every protein, in DNA, so in every plant and animal cell. But while Earth’s atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, it is in a form unusable except by a few microbes, or when it is transformed by lightning into usable nitrogen compounds. (This raises questions about evolution about which there are no books or any research that I have come across.)

The book starts with William Crookes’ challenge to the world’s scientists, to solve the Malthusian threat of famine to a growing human population. I was only aware of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution. This book made me realize that Haber-Bosch had really given us the first Green revolution of the twentieth century.

The first two chapters survey the state of agriculture and fertilizers, across space and time  - ancient Rome, medieval China, colonial India, the Prairies in America and steppes in Russia. Saltpeter and other nitrogen fertilizer sources, are also raw material for explosives, and hence their critical for military use. The next three chapters discuss mountains of guano in South America, nitrates in the Atacama desert, how they were shipped to European and American farms, and the political and social turmoil in Peru and Chile.

The next section explains, first, Fritz Haber’s discovery of the process of making nitrogen form the atmospheric air. Haber succeeded where much more famous scientists before him failed. The book gives a brief history of the development of the German chemical industry, and companies like BASF. Haber’s success was astounding, but not sufficient. To make fertilizer on an industrial scale, required a vast number of other inventions, financing, investment and Government backing; and this was mostly overseen by Carl Bosch, an expert in metallurgy, who didn’t mind working physically with everything. The complexity and enormous difficulty of translating a laboratory invention to factory production, is superbly illustrated by the challenges that Bosch faced and the solutions he came up with. Hager narrates this in great detail, satisfying and enlightening for the engineer and scientist, not too difficult to understand for the lay reader. As difficult an accomplishment in writing as whatever Bosch accomplished in industrial production. This section is the core of the book and explains the development of the Haber-Bosch process, and its global success in averting famines and providing alternates for guano.

The third section explains the work of Haber in producing chemicals weapons for Germany, for WW1; his marital troubles because of this apparently unseemly activity; the conflict in Europe about whether he should be lauded as a man who fed the world, or a war criminal who produced deadly weapons. Haber, a Jew, converted to Christianity, feeling more German than Jewish. This didn’t help him a decade later, when Hitler rose to power. The book describes the terrible sufferings Germany went through after its defeat in the WW1, humiliation, hyperinflation, economic crash and the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitism. All this was new history to me; the social history is as fascinating as the scientific and technological one. BASF and Bosch came up with processes to make petrol substitutes from coal. Germany had a lot of coal but no oil, and this was vital. The Haber-Bosch process was also vital for German manufacture of ammunitions, especially explosives. The decline and disappointment of Haber and Bosch, the two scientists, as Germany conquered and colonised Europe and then was devastated by Allied Forces, is well narrated in this section. This also explains why these two people are almost unknown to most of the world, in spite of their inventing perhaps the most useful scientific process of the twentieth century.

There are surprising facts scattered around the book. For example, the Romans had a god of manure! India’s Gangetic plains were a major source of the best nitrates, and were exported to Britain both for fertile and ammunitions. This aspect of colonialism was unknown to me. Until reading these books I thought America is most influential country of the twentieth century; but I think Germany was at least equally influential. We see the world through an Anglo-American perspective, because of the dominance of English and Hollywood, and global media in general.

In 2013, I responded to an email within the THT email group about some strange phenomena in Indonesia, with a strange explanation. I replied to the group that the strange phenomenon had a name – the Wallace Line. This instigated Badri Seshadri, who was in the email group, to tell me I should start a blog and write such things there, for public consumption, rather than restrict it to a small group. I had already started the blog in 2012 on the Mayan Long Count date, but I hadn’t made it public. So I wrote about Haber-Bosch, based on Hager’s book, as my first public blog essay. Even Badri and Prof Swaminathan were quite impressed; usually they are the ones impressing other people. And my blog made its way into Badri’s blog honor list – a list of some of the most popular writers and most influential writers in Tamilnadu, all 100x bloggers. Badri wrote about this book in Tamil, in greater detail than I did. I reviewed this book at Gandhi Study center that year; in Tamil; and the small audience of about twenty-five stayed put.

I discovered Vaclav Smil via Hager, and a couple of years later Bill Gates stumbled upon Vaclav Smil too, featuring him often in his blog. Smil is an energy expert, an amazing analyst and opens up new worlds and perspectives also. But he is very technical, which doesn’t seem to suit the general public. But I find his books extraordinary also. For that too, I am doubly thankful for Hager’s book.

Literature essays in my blog

Chemistry essays in my blog

Agriculture essays in my blog

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