In the fall of 1898 Sir William Crookes (right) gave his inaugural address as the incoming president of the British Academy of Sciences. Unlike the typical such speech, this one was prophetic and alerted the British populace for the first time to a real and growing problem. And the populace began to worry, because Sir William was the Al Gore of his day, alerting his country (and the world) to a looming danger.
Other than prophesying disaster, however, there were a few notable differences between Sir William and Al Gore. First and foremost, Sir William was a true scientist, not a bloated former politician with no technical training. He was the inventor of the predecessor of the tubes later used in televisions and radios and had discovered and added thallium to the periodic table. The second major difference is that his worries were valid. They weren’t concocted from a gibberish of people hoping to cash in on the public’s fears of an imaginary melting of the earth, but were born of a serious concern for the continued success of the human race. Or at the very least, the continued success of the people of Great Britain.
Sir William Crookes was deeply (and rightfully) concerned that the world would soon run out of the ability to fertilize crops, and that, as a consequence, millions would die. At that time Britain was importing guano (the droppings of sea birds) from islands off the coast of Peru and from the nitrate fields of Chile, but those sources were finite, and Sir William realized they would at some point run out. (He predicted sometime in 1930 as doomsday.)
To those of us today who can go to our local hardware or garden store and grab all the fertilizer we can afford to pay for, this hand wringing seems a bit melodramatic, but at the time, it was of real concern to many scientists. The world’s population was growing rapidly, and, like today, the vast majority of the world’s population depended upon grains – mainly wheat – for sustenance. Most grains suck nitrogen from the soil to fuel their growth, and once that nitrogen is gone, it takes a long time to get back. And until it does, most any crop grown in nitrogen-depleted soil fails to thrive, and yield per acre falls dramatically.
The fact that nitrogen is lacking in the soil seems strange since we all walk around breathing air that is about 80 percent nitrogen. But the nitrogen in the air can’t get into the soil in a form plants can use unless it is ‘fixed.’ Which I guess isn’t so strange when you consider that we ourselves need nitrogen to grow and repair our tissues, but we can’t get it from the air we breathe either. We have to get it from the protein in our diets.
Bacteria that live symbiotically with the roots of certain clovers and legumes (the so-called green manure) are able to fix nitrogen from the air and covert it to the form plants can use. Over the years farmers had figured this out and planted clovers and legumes in fields for a year or two to replace the nitrogen and make the fields fit to grow cash crops. Or they could use manure or compost – both traditional sources of nitrogen – to replace that needed for growth, but they needed a lot because these were not particularly rich in fixed nitrogen. Consequently, crop rotation and spreading manure/compost wasn’t a particularly efficient way of keeping a profitable farming business growing. A more rich and readily available source of nitrogen was needed.
When enormous deposits of guano – about 10 stories high, extremely rich in nitrogen, and taking literally centuries to accumulate – were discovered off the coast of Peru, a bustling shipping business grew up hauling the stuff from there to Britain. As those supplies started to dwindle, explorers found fields of nitrites in Chile that began to replace the guano. But, as Sir William observed, those sources were finite as well, and would at some point be gone. If nothing was done or no other sources discovered by time the Chilean fields ran out, then the world would be in real trouble.
Sir William pointed out that the populations of all the great wheat-eating peoples, the Brits, the United States and Europe mainly, would outstrip their grain of choice, resulting in the deaths of thousands and perhaps even millions. He announced in the most racist of terms (common at the time) that if a solution of this problem weren’t discovered, and discovered fairly quickly, “the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to which wheaten bread is not the staff of life.”
“It is through the laboratory,” he pontificated, “that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.”
I don’t know what the population at large thought about Crookes’ speech, but the scientific community took it seriously. In Germany, a Jewish scientist named Fritz Haber, after years of work, developed a desktop working model of a machine that could convert the nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which is basically the form needed for both fertilizer and gun powder. Other scientists thought Haber’s contraption was interesting but impractical in that the temperatures and pressures required couldn’t be produced with the technology available then in any kind of industrial-sized plant. One non-naysayer was Carl Bosch, an engineer at BASF, the giant German chemical company. Bosch thought he could make Haber’s machine work, and after intense effort he succeeded on a giant scale. Now Haber-Bosch machines use about one percent of the earth’s resources and provide the nitrogen that sustains around 40 percent of the earth’s population. That’s the good news. The bad news is that these machines allow us to live in a carb-dominant world, rich in wheat and corn. Had this technology never have been invented, who knows how the nutritional history of the world would have progressed.
The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager is the fascinating story of the development of the Haber-Bosch system as told through the lives of the main players. The secrecy, the infighting, the suicides, the war-time intrigue – all provide high drama in this fascinating story. What I found particularly interesting – not to mention germane for us today – was how Bosch, who could apparently do just about anything chemical engineering-wise, developed a method to make gasoline out of coal. By the end of WWII, 35 percent of Germany’s gasoline and all of its gunpowder came from plants developed and built by Bosch. Why aren’t we looking at this technology that’s already existent to help wean ourselves from foreign oil?
If a technical book is more your style, then grab a copy of Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil. You will learn more about the science of ‘fixing’ nitrogen and less about the personal dramas of the main players on the stage. I read both and found them complementary to one another. If you read both, you will know just about everything there is to know about fertilizer and nitrogen. But if you just read one, make it The Alchemy of Air.
Below is a photograph of a Haber-Bosch plant operating in the United States today.
Let’s jump subjects and move into the world of fiction. Mystery fiction, to be precise. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately, and I catch up on my ever-growing stack of crime novels while on the airplane. I enjoy all kinds of mystery fiction, but lately I’ve had a run of British police procedurals along with an Italian one and a few German ones thrown in the mix.
I just finished Peter Robinson’s All the Colors of Darkness, which I found so so. I thought it a wee bit contrived, much more so than his previous books, which are good books to start with if you’re unfamiliar with the British police hierarchy. The author was born and grew up in the UK, but has lived in Toronto for years. He writes with the knowledge that his readers won’t be up with all the British police jargon, so he goes easy on them.
Despite my ho hum feelings about this book, I did find a paragraph that caught my eye. The paragraph describes a lazy, off-duty Saturday morning routine (which, after this setup, you know ain’t going to last long) followed by Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, the protagonist of the series:
Banks stopped at the newsagent’s and bought The Guardian, which he thought had the best Saturday review section, then headed to the Italian café for his espresso and a chocolate croissant. Not the healthiest of breakfasts, perhaps, but delicious. And it wasn’t as if he had a weight problem. Cholesterol was another matter. His doctor had already put him on a low dose of statin, and he had decided that that took care of the problem and allowed him to eat pretty much what he wanted. After all, he only had to be careful with what he ate if he wasn’t taking the pill, surely?
I suspect the author of this series takes a statin. From his photos he doesn’t appear to be overweight. I would be willing to bet that he, like his character, takes a low-dose statin (what with all the statinators around, who doesn’t these days?) and probably doesn’t watch what he eats because the statin makes him feel safe. Bad mistake, probably, but one I’m sure more than a few who feel themselves invincible on statins make. (Who would’ve thought I could dredge an anti-statin blog out of a mystery novel?)
If you want to get started reading Peter Robinson, find a few of his earlier books. Try Gallows View or Hanging Valley or Past Reason Hated. Any of his books are a good introduction for the US reader into the intricacies of how the UK police works.
I read recently the second novel in Susan Hill’s mystery series, The Pure in Heart, which is a much different kind of book than the Peter Robinson books. Susan Hill is a prolific writer of note who sticks mainly to contemporary fiction with the occasional ghost story thrown in. The detective novel is a departure from her normal course of work, but she adds her own creative touch to the genre. If you decide to read this book, read the one before it, The Various Haunts of Men, first or you will learn something in The Pure in Heart that will give away a big part of the plot in the previous book. As I say, these aren’t your regular mysteries, but that’s what makes them nice.
If you want a mystery that’s a series you can get into and that is quick and fun to read, have a go at any of the novels by Andrea Camilleri about Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano. I’ve read most of these books and just finished the most recent one, August Heat. With this series, you can start anywhere. These novels will certainly show you the difference between the police systems in the UK and in Italy. I don’t know where I would rather be arrested, but I do know that I wouldn’t want to have been arrested in Germany in the 1930s.
If you really want to go back to pre and post WWII Germany, read the wonderful series of books by Philip Kerr about Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (I always have a long, serious book going that I dip into read a little of daily. Right now I have two: The Rise and Fall and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.), and Kerr’s novels describe pre WWII Germany to a tee. If you want to see what life was like for Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and others living in Germany as Hitler came to power, you’ll do no better than to read these novels. The first three books in the series, referred to by aficionados as the Berlin Noir trilogy are March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem. You can get all three now in one large paperback, but I would save it for last. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to read these books is from last, to second to last, then the trilogy. In other words, in opposite order in which they were written. Start with the last book, A Quiet Flame, move on to the next-to-last one, The One From the Other, then finish with the trilogy. You won’t be disappointed.
As I’m sure most of you know, I read a lot. I’ll be happy to post from time to time about some of the books I enjoy if most everyone is game. Let me know in the comments if you like these little book reviews. And, please, feel free to recommend any of your own favorite books.
Thanks to ALLIED 2008 151 for the photo of the fertilizer plant
Monthly Book Reviews
I have been writing a series of book reviews each month that I email to subscribers. If you're interested and want to get on the list, sign up here (or above where it says Get free email alerts in the upper right). I'll send you an email notice of all new blog posts plus all my monthly book reviews. Also, you will get a link to all the previous month's book reviews I've sent. Hope to see you aboard.