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A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen Hardcover – October 6, 2005


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 414 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (October 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670034347
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670034345
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,302,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Who first discovered oxygen in the 1770s: English scientist Joseph Priestley or the French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier? The question became a controversial one, as novelist and nonfiction author Jackson relates, at a time when France and England were enemies. Jackson (Leavenworth Train) shows that Priestley was the first to isolate oxygen, but didn't realize what it was: British scientists still clung to the old "phlogiston" theory of burning, and Priestley called the gas "dephlogisticated air." Lavoisier, who undoubtedly based his discoveries on conversations with Priestley, recognized that oxygen was a distinct gas and in the process revolutionized thinking on combustion. (He also developed the chemical nomenclature used today.) Both men met unhappy fates: Priestley, a vocal opponent of the power of both the king and the Church, saw his home burnt down by a mob and fled to America. The aristocratic Lavoisier (as Madison Smartt Bell also recounted in his recent Lavoisier in the Year One) was guillotined during the Terror, condemned with the words, "The Republic has no need of scientists." Jackson offers a well-written and lavishly detailed account of a seminal period in the development of modern chemistry. 8 pages of illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In the shared riddle of the "pure air" that allowed enclosed mice to live and covered candles to flame high, Jackson locates the thread linking the lives of a Frenchman who lost his life because of his ties to the ancien regime and that of an Englishman who lost his home because of his support for new ecclesiastical and political liberties. Ironically, the English champion of new theological and political ideas stubbornly clung to an outmoded science in trying to explain the substance he had isolated, while it was the French aristocrat who formulated the revolutionary new concepts that explained that strange substance. Jackson deftly recounts both the scientific triumphs and political tragedies that define the lives of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier. Readers see--procedure by procedure--the experiments that turned a bit of mercuric oxide and one brilliant candle into a puzzling riddle for Priestley, and they witness the intellectual daring of Lavoisier in solving that riddle by repeating the British researcher's work with quantitative precision and a theoretically lucid new nomenclature. But readers also see the piquant personalities and turbulent social circumstances behind the science: a man so solicitous of his fellow creatures that he tries to revive suffocated mice is himself despoiled by mobs who regard him as a dangerous monster; a man who adheres to truth so assiduously that he measures it grain by painstaking grain falls victim to Jacobins who see in him a cheat and liar. A probing composite portrait of two martyrs for science. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

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I know much more about oxygen now than I did before I read this book.
John Wenzler
Mr.Jackson has meticulously researched this fascinating story, then presented it in a manner and style that make it eminently readable.
Wiley.Moses.vonBach
Joe Jackson goes to great lengths to show the people behind the science.
S. Luk

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By John Wenzler on January 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I want to give this book a quick thumb's up because nobody has reviewed it yet, and it does not seem to be selling well. I bought this book at the same time as "Descartes Secret Notebooks," and I have to say "World on Fire" is far superior to that more successful book about Descartes. Joe Jackson really demonstrates what the history of science can and should do.

I know much more about oxygen now than I did before I read this book. It is interesting to learn how these early scientists performed their experiments, and important to remember how difficult it must have been to recognize that common everyday substances such as Air and Water were compound substances rather that unified elements.

Also, the lives of these two scientists (Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier) in the late 18th century "Age of Revolution" is fascinating.

At times I was annoyed by Jackson's slightly bombastic writing style, but that is a small quibble. Mostly I want other people to discover this wonderful book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Einsteinian on February 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I'm a professional chemist with a long interest in the history of science, including the history of chemistry. I've studied the history of the "chemical revolution" brought about by Lavoisier, Priestley, and others, and have read some of the original works. Even though I know much of the scientific history, this book really brings to life the two protagonists, the Englishman Priestley and the Frenchman Lavoisier, in a way no other book does, including some recent ones that are selling much better. Not only the characters, but their environments, the places and time in which they lived. I'm in the middle of the book and enjoying every word of it. I heartily recommend this book if you're interested in the breakthrough in chemistry that took place in the late eighteenth century, interested in the lives of two of the leading protagonists, or even just interested in the social history of the time. It's a darn good read!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Wiley.Moses.vonBach on March 1, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is simply one of the best books I have ever read; it deserves to be a best seller. Mr.Jackson has meticulously researched this fascinating story, then presented it in a manner and style that make it eminently readable. I am here today to buy copies for all of my friends- something I have never felt compelled to do before. My advice to prospective purchasers: buy it/read it. You will not be disappointed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By S. Luk on April 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In A World on Fire, Joe Jackson recounts the lives Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier and their roles in the discovery of oxygen. Joe Jackson goes to great lengths to show the people behind the science. Too often people neglect the lives of the people their personal experiences that lead them to their discoveries, the challenges they overcame to prove their findings to society, and the impact of their work. Yet, Jackson does a marvelous job of encompassing all the aspects of Priestley's and Lavoisier's lives to fully convey the history and science of the discovery of oxygen.

The discovery of oxygen is not a well known story, but certainly deserves recognition as its discovery laid the foundations of modern chemistry. Its story is equally intriguing as it is set in the 1700s amidst the political turmoil in France, England, and America, which is further complicated by the rivalry and debates between the two discoverers of oxygen Priestley and Lavoisier.

With a holistic view of two scientists at the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the reader will come to fully appreciate the genus and devotion of these men. Not only that, but the reader may gain a sense of the excitement and terror to live in such a time when science and nations were redefining themselves ushering us into the modern age.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Giordano Bruno on November 9, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It would be hard to maintain that Truth is Stranger than Fiction in this era of millennial fundamentalism, creation "science", free-market anarcho-capitalism, neo-conservatism, and related fantasies. So let's just say that Truth is More Fun than Fiction. A World on Fire is a fun book to read, a double biography of Joseph Priestley (the heretic) and Antoine Lavoisier (the aristocrat,though he wasn't born one), within a framework of cultural history. Only the smallest knowledge of science is required of the reader, though a modicum of "recognition knowledge" of events in the 18th C will ease the reading. Is it arrogant of me to suppose that for many people the "outcome" of the narrative will be as much a mystery as that of any Dan Brown novel? So I suggest reading it on those terms, not thinking of it as an intellectual duty as some other reviewers have.

There is a subtext, nonetheless, of intellectual inquiry into the question of how science functions within its historical/cultural paradigm. The author, Joe Jackson, makes frequent references to the modern philosopher Thomas Kuhn, and the whole book may be taken as a manifestation of Kuhn's ideas in literary form.

Priestley is a figure who keeps popping up in studies of the ideological roots of the American Revolution, also. This book will be of great interest to serious students of US history as much as to readers like me who relish the history of science.

Priestley was a veritable archetypical "liberal" - humane, optimistic about human nature, of extreme probity, indifferent to pomp and power. In the 1790s, he became "the enemy" to two segments of the English populace, the Tories and the exploited, misguided poor.
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