Bell: Lavoisier in the Year One
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Madison Smartt Bell, Lavoisier in the Year One : the Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. New York : W.W. Norton, 2005. xi + 214 pages; includes bibliographical references and index.
I know practically nothing about French history. Some things that sound familiar to me include: the Bastille, Let them eat cake!, Napoleon. And that's about it. I've heard of Lavoisier from Chemistry--the conservation of mass in chemical reactions is a pretty basic tenet in science. So, this book combines both of these aspects of Antoine Lavoisier's life--his scientific role, and his part during the time of the French Revolution and I learned a lot.
The history part is kind of boring, quite honestly, but I did get a picture of what happened. Lavoisier was a quasi-noble so he had important jobs although science was also his love. He tried to stay somewhat neutral and felt his job was as a civil servant, not a politician. I liked how important his wife was to his scientific discoveries, and it was good to see a woman get some credit. Describing the background of the theory of what would become elements also was a bit boring, but also the part that I found most fascinating.
Hopefully, most people who have finished high school have a model in their head of atoms, and molecules, and elements. We know that air is made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, plus an assortment of other gases. But imagine not knowing that, and figuring out that there were several different types of gases making up the atmosphere, as well as the extra problem of where energy comes into reactions, and connecting it to fire and heat. Lavoisier was one of the first scientists to make progress in the breakdown of the atmosphere. He debunked the phlogiston theory and isolated oxygen. He also developed a nomenclature for chemistry that is still used to this day. Plus the conservation of mass was evident due to his meticulous chemical reactions as recorded by his wife. That history and story was amazing! He battled against the scientific establishment, and scientists from other countries but seldom his own doubts. He won his battle with the scientists, but not the one with the Jacobin rebels. Ooh, bad ending for Lavoisier, but good for science.
-- Notes by RG3