October 25, 2013

"The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel."

"The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life."

I was interested to see nitrogen fixation at #11, because it's something I've got to tell you I had never thought much about that at all until last week when I was reading this excellent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, "Head Count, Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population growth," which begins with this topic:
Early in the history of agriculture, people realized — without, obviously, understanding the chemistry behind this insight—that when usable nitrogen ran low fields turned barren. Eight thousand years ago, farmers in the Middle East were already planting legumes, whose roots harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria, in rotation with cereal crops, such as wheat. Later, Cato the Elder recommended that Romans “save carefully goat, sheep, cattle, and all other dung.” Bird shit is an excellent source of nitrogen, and in the early nineteenth century, when Europeans learned that there were mountains of the stuff on remote islands off Peru, the discovery inspired a guano rush; by the eighteen-fifties, Britain was importing four hundred million pounds of bird poop a year, and the United States a hundred and seventy million pounds....

By [Fritz] Haber’s day, the appetite for crop-friendly nitrogen was so huge that scientists had turned their attention skyward. Nitrogen is the most common element in the earth’s atmosphere.... but almost all of it is floating around in the intractable form of N2. When... Haber showed how to bust up N2 to produce ammonia — NH3 — he basically solved the problem. No more guano would be needed. Haber had, it was said, figured out how to turn air into bread.

27 comments:

El Pollo Raylan said...

And here I was just chiding Cedarford about Haber a few days ago.

Haber was a seriously conflicted man--a genius, of course--but look more closely at anyone of that caliber and you see ugly things.

rehajm said...

Most striking to me- zero and calculus were debated and failed to make the list, but mathematics wasn't considered?

El Pollo Raylan said...

The turning air into bread is a nice metaphor, even though it leaves out the CO2, water, and sunshine. Still, I wish I had thought of it.

The Drill SGT said...

the Pill and the PC are way way less important than many things at the end of the list like, OMFG, the lever?

there are many other forms of birth control, and noting that I did not argue about the internet, even without the PC but with the semiconductor and the internet we could be using thin client apps over our broadband even w/o the PC

Original Mike said...

More like turning air into shit.

(Not that that's a bad thing.)

Peter said...

The Haber process requires hydrogen as well as nitrogen, and that hydrogen is mostly obtained from natural gas.

Which is to say, the cost of ammonia fertilizer can be expected to become significantly higher if/when the price of natural gas increases.

Although I suppose that fossil-fuel input makes the use of "natural" fertilizers (like dung) as well as use of crop rotation with legumes more attractive to greenies.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Although I suppose that fossil-fuel input makes the use of "natural" fertilizers (like dung) as well as use of crop rotation with legumes more attractive to greenies.

I reversal of the Green Revolution, i.e., a marked depopulation of the earth, is also popular with greenies. Funny how those things work together.

El Pollo Raylan said...

We'll have to starve people to feed people.

Peter said...

Greenies will insist that the hydrogen be obtained from the electrolysis of water, using electricity generated from wind and solar.

AJ Lynch said...

Interesting - thought maybe the TV should be higher on the list. And agree with Drill Sgt that the pill does not belong on the Top 50.

SJ said...

I don't know if the contraceptive Pill counts as one of the 50 greatest inventions in the history of humanity.

But it has done as much to reshape our culture as electronic communication has. (Electronic comms ranging from Morse's telegraph to Internet-enabled smart phones.)

dbp said...

Greens are pretty much against any industrial process and so, not surprisingly also against synthetic fertilizer. The odd thing is that as a fraction of the the total, Nitrogen fixation is a pretty significant portion of the total: We manufacture around 50 Million metric tons/year and the whole rest of the planet makes around 200 MMT.

Meanwhile, Humans contribute only a tiny fraction of the total CO2 produced and look at all the hysteria. From a change to the environment standpoint, it seems pretty obvious that modern agriculture with synthetic inputs is far more disruptive.

I am not saying that either are bad or good, just that synthetic Nitrogen fixation has a larger impact.

Crunchy Frog said...

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Plastics.

Peter said...

The list includes "steam engine" but does not include "steam locomotive" or "steam-powered loom."

And that's as it should be: the fundamental invention was the steam engine, and particular applications of it are secondary. Arguably, something like a steam locomotive was going to follow once reasonably efficient steam engines were available.

And so, too, with "semiconductors" and "PC." The fundamental invention was microelectronic semiconductor technology. Once small, inexpensive microprocessors, memory chips, etc. were available, something like a PC was almost inevitable.

Almost Ali said...

Google (quantifying and valuing back-links) belongs on that list.

St. George said...

"Discovery" of DNA and genetic engineering.

Space travel—The ability to see the "Whole Earth" and thus evolve human consciousness, i.e. The Overview Effect, as discussed in this brief documentary.

SteveBrooklineMA said...

The Pill is out of place, I agree with others here. I think Archimedes screw is too, as there are numerous other water lifting devices. I'd lump PC, semiconductors and internet into modern electronics.

Was the lever invented after the wheel? Hard to believe.

Mathematics? Absolutely shameful omission. Good call rehajm.

Mitch H. said...

Unpleasant article, by a hateful turd of a writer. And Weisman strikes me as one of those haters of humanity who seem to be trying to commit suicide by genocide.

No indication in the New Yorker article of the iron-clad rule of demographics: prosperity brings a bending of the demographic curve. It's not wealth, but relative poverty in the context of modern medicine that drives the high fertility rates of the Third World. Look at Mexico, for instance, which is cresting the development curve and experiencing the expected cratering demographic fertility rates of their rung on the prosperity ladder.

T J Sawyer said...

Disappointing that "shipping container" didn't quite make the cut. Not enough people have read "The Box" by Marc Levinson. It has probably transformed more lives than the pill.

T J Sawyer said...

Disappointing that "shipping container" didn't quite make the cut. Not enough people have read "The Box" by Marc Levinson. It has probably transformed more lives than the pill.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Perhaps what people don't appreciate about the Haber process is its longevity. It's been tweaked and optimized to the nth degree but it's still essentially unchanged from Wilhelmine German times:

N2 + 3H2 ==> 2NH3

Nature uses a different stoichiometry, employing protons and electrons instead of the "equivalent" hydrogen. They both get the job done and one day we may have a synthetic nitrogenase enzyme. We don't, yet, but we have Haber-Bosch chemistry.

William said...

That list was not made for people like me. In my lifetime, the invention that has proven itself to be the greatest boon is the tv remote control. I rank it even higher than microwaveable bacon.

David said...

They left of plywood. It's why our world looks they way it looks.

zd87 said...

How is sliced bread not on the list?

Michael McNeil said...

Which is to say, the cost of ammonia fertilizer can be expected to become significantly higher if/when the price of natural gas increases.

Natural gas — given fracking, shale oil, Arctic Ocean reserves, etc. etc. — doesn't seem likely to become unavailable or expensive for a long time.

Then too, don't forget the semi-frozen methane clathrates that exist in large quantities in sediments on the seafloor. The Japanese are already beginning to exploit those reserves.

But beyond that, the real solution it seems to me is to genetically engineer food crops so they know how to conduct the synthesis path for nitrogen fixation, not requiring either legumes or the bacteria that actually do it (in culture) for the legumes — much less needing fixed-nitrogen fertilizer. Bacteria know how to do it — which we can simply copy, we don't even have to invent — let's train our crops so they can do it too, all powered by the sun.

Michael McNeil said...

But, I forget… That's horrifying, “Frankenfood,” zombie-apocalypse crap that will destroy the world!!

Michael McNeil said...

Original Mike: LOL!