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Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (Great Discoveries) Hardcover – June 13, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Bell (The Stone That the Builder Refused, etc.) knows a good story when he sees it: the life of French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794) is full of suspense and intrigue set against a backdrop of war and revolution. Lavoisier, best known for having "discovered" oxygen, was arguably one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the Enlightenment, helping to lay the foundation for our modern understanding of chemistry. He was also a wise investor, amassing a substantial personal fortune by buying into the privatized French tax system—which eventually placed him on the wrong side of the French Revolution and at the foot of the guillotine. This account works best as the story of a well-intentioned and honorable man caught up in events beyond the comprehension of his formidable intellect, and Bell uses his novelistic skills in the service of narrative and character to keep Lavoisier's story fresh. When Bell detours into the history of chemistry, the writing drags. This solid if uneven book will appeal most to readers interested in the vibrant life and tragic death of a key figure in the history of science. 8 illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The dramatic story of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-94) is a tale of revolution, the perfect subject for Bell, author of a trilogy of powerful novels about the Haitian revolution. Bell's classy and instructive contribution to the superb Great Discoveries series portrays a visionary who freed chemistry from its alchemical roots, helped establish the practice of systematic experimentation, and isolated and named oxygen. These -paradigm-altering feats were made possible by the fortune Lavoisier accrued as a tax collector and used to build uniquely precise laboratory equipment, but triumph was followed by catastrophe as his governmental appointment made him an enemy of the people once the French Revolution was under way. Writing with equal panache about scientific breakthroughs and social upheaval, Bell shares his fascination with how Lavoisier launched a "chemical revolution" as his enemy, the "firebrand journalist and provocateur" Jean-Paul Marat, plotted his downfall. Bell portrays Lavoisier and his gifted wife with admiration and empathy as he reflects on the tragic irony of how a brilliant scientist devoted to reason was executed in a maelstrom of rage and madness. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Great Discoveries
  • Hardcover: 214 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (June 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393051552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051551
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,036,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Madison Smartt Bell is a critically acclaimed writer of more than a dozen novels and story collections, as well as numerous essays and reviews for publications such as Harper's and the New York Times Book Review. His books have been finalists for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among other honors.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Leonard Fleisig VINE VOICE on July 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
3 ½ stars.

The Englishman Edmund Burke, one of the most outspoken critics of the French Revolution, once said that in revolutionary France "learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude." The death by guillotine of Antoine Lavoisier, one of the founders of modern chemistry, during the revolution's Reign of Terror speaks to Burke's pessimistic prophecy. Lavoisier and his fate is the subject of Madison Smart Bell's compact (186 pages) but informed, "Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution." Despite some flaws I think the book is worth reading.

The first three quarters of the book is a straight forward, condensed biography of Lavoisier. Although brought up in a comfortable environment Lavoisier managed to accumulate great wealth in a very short period of time. Although a student of law, Lavoisier developed a great interest in science and thereafter dedicated his life to his business activities and to expanding his knowledge of the physical world. He quickly focused his greatest efforts and achieved astonishing results in the realm of what we now know as chemistry. In particular, after repeated experiments with equipment he largely designed and built, Lavoisier identified the element of oxygen, which he identified as le principe oxygine. Perhaps more importantly he developed methods for scientific investigation and a particular, methodological language for describing the results of the elements he identified. This language, or nomenclature, was set out in the first periodic table, or Table of Chemical Nomenclature as it was then known.

The revolutionary nature of Lavoisier's work is set out well by Bell.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wischmeyer on August 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Antoine Lavoisier, a meticulous laboratory chemist, was one of three European chemists credited with the discovry of oxygen; however, he is remembered even more for developing an effective language for chemistry itself. Unfortunately, Lavoisier is also known for his tragic death by guillotine.

Many accounts of the early years of chemistry are at best confusing, some even bewildering, largely because alchemy's secrets (in many cases poorly understood to begin with) were disguised and obfuscated by codes, ciphers, arcane terms, and even literary metaphors. Despite this inherent difficulty, Madison Smartt Bell's examination of the formative years of modern chemistry is surprisingly clear and lucid. Lavoisier in Year One will appeal to a wide audience.

The young Lavoisier learned in university classes that the presence of phlogiston (the 'matter of fire') in a substance was responsible for the combustibility of that substance. Charcoal, wood, and sulfur burned readily because they contained significant phlogiston.

The process of smelting ores was described as the transfer of phlogiston from charcoal to the ore; the ores absorbed the phlogiston, thereby becoming refined metals. In calcinations (now call oxidation) metals were heated and transformed back into ores, thereby releasing their phlogiston.

Obviously, one serious drawback to this widely accepted explanation was that phlogiston had never been observed in the laboratory.

For years Lavoisier directed his efforts toward understanding the essence of fire and the nature of air. He compiled a detailed account of all earlier research on on free air and 'fixed air' (carbon dioxide) by French, English, German, and other European scientists.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
There was the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, but there was an even greater and more far-reaching revolution in France at the time. It was a chemical revolution, an abandonment of ancient ideas about the material around and in us, and an adoption of the products of experiment and rationality. The greatest of the revolutionaries in chemistry was Antoine Lavoisier, whose story has been told many times before. It is brightly summarized within W. W. Norton's valuable "Great Discoveries" series by Madison Smartt Bell in _Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution_ (Atlas Books). Bell is usually a novelist, not a biographer, and he knows how to tell a good story. The title is an exaggeration, as it only concentrates on events around "Year One" of the French Revolutionary Calendar which started at the establishment of the French Republic in 1793. The important accomplishments of Lavoisier's life, and the stupid blood festival that put an end to it, are thus highlighted in a useful and accessible biography.

Lavoisier was born into a prosperous bourgeois family in 1743, and gained his fortune as a private investor working as a tax collector for the government. His wealth enabled him to practice his passion, science. Perhaps more than anyone else, Lavoisier pulled scientific chemistry out of the ancient and respected practice of alchemy. He also dethroned the well-accepted theory that burning represented the release of a peculiar element called phlogiston. He also quite spectacularly decomposed water into hydrogen and oxygen, and recomposed it again from the two gases.
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