Modern Day Alchemy

Hey you guys. I just finished having my brain scrambled by finals, and realized I hadn’t put up an entry in a while. I can’t say I can keep up with my three entrances a week thing anymore, but I am planning at put up an entry at least once a week here.  It’s my spring break, yah know? I need to unwind, forget about school, give my brain an ice bath. That’s why, in some weird sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I decided to review a book that I first had to read for class a couple terms ago. For a science class, even.

The huge bonus about going to a liberal arts college is that they have special science classes for humanities majors like myself. My one required non-lab science class was fullfilled by a class called History of Landmark Discoveries in Science, which was basically a history class with an especially scientific bent. So much the better, because I learned a surprising amount of science in that class, a good chunk of it from the book the Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager.AlchemyofAir

I really never thought I would be saying a sentence even remotely like this, but this non-fiction historical account on the history of early efforts to create fixed nitrogen and then mass produce it, was one of the most informative yet emotionally engaging example of historical writing I’ve ever read. I mean, there are Nazis in the second act, in my own defense. Just as importantly though, fixed nitrogen is an essential ingredient of fertilizer, and as Hager explains, a way to mass produce fertilizer, (fixed nitrate being the key ingredients in fertilizer,) was absolutely essential at the turn of the century, if they were to keep the massively expanding population from starving.

Take that story, then add how fixed nitrate also turned out to be essential in the productions of weapons and explosives during WWI and WWII, and you get a delicious historical irony. Add, on top of all that, the fact that one of the two main inventors of fixed nitrogen was a German Jew who found himself and his nitrates rubbing elbows with the Nazis at the dawn of WWII and you’d think we’re going into overkill, but real life can be insane like that. I don’t know if I can technically spoil a story that actually happened  back at the dawn of the twentieth century, but I’ll try to say not much more than that. It doesn’t well for the German Jewish chemist in Nazi Germany, though, to say the least.

The story is intriguing. The science and the way it is presented become a genuinely compelling aspect of the story, and the human side of the story is truly amazing and ultimately tragic, in many respects. I ended up learning a reasonable amount about what it takes to create fixed nitrogen, (electrons and whatnot, I think. The final was a while ago,) and getting treated to a delicious tragedy with Nazis, explosions, and bat poo. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but I really feel that a balanced helping of hard science and humanity make for the most intriguing, memorable reading experience of all. It’s a tricky job that convinces me that  historical writers, like Thomas Hager, or even the master Erik Larson, are some of the most highly skilled types of writer there is, to so delicately balance raw data and information with enthralling writing. Historical books can either become to heavily embellished with fancies or drier than stale raisins. So people pull off the task successfully every time, even Mr. Larson, but for all that we still get Golden gems like Devil in the White City, or this, The Alchemy of Air. 

The good pieces often enough get credit, but other works can get overlooked. I’m doing my duty here, I hope, by pointing you guys towards a good one. It arguably made me pay attention enough to get a passing grade in a science class, so really that should speak for itself. Any of you guys have a piece of nonfiction or historical work you think needs more recognition? Let everyone know in the comments below.

I still, ultimately, have the softest part in my heart for truly fantastical stories, but sometimes the most fantastical stories actually flipping happened, and sometimes there’s a dutiful historian out there skill enough to string all the pieces together into something as enlightening and entertaining as Hager’s work here.

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One thought on “Modern Day Alchemy

  1. Alright, alright, alright. Its on my summer reading list. I recommend Stumbling on Happiness and the Power of Habit – both are good books. And almost anything by Bill Bryson.

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