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.
*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 ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved