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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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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.
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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CITATION: Bell, M. S. (2005). Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (Great Discoveries). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Reviewer: Dr W. P. Palmer
I was very favourably impressed with this book which is now available cheaply through several Amazon sellers. My edition of the book has 214 pages, though the publishers claim it has 256 pages. After the acknowledgements there are five chapters, notes for further reading, notes, illustration credits (six helpful black and white illustrations) and a good index. The five chapters are:
Chapter 1 Ancien régime 1
Chapter 2 Out of alchemy 34
Chapter 3 Le principe oxygine 63
Chapter 4 The chemical revolution 119
Chapter 5 The end of Year One 151
There are many excellent features of the book especially long quotations from Lavoisier and the one that follows is perhaps my favourite (p. 141):
“Thoroughly convinced of these truths, I have imposed on myself, as a law, never to advance from what is known to what is unknown, never to form any conclusion which is not an immediate consequence necessarily flowing from observation and experiment; and always to arrange the facts, and the conclusions which are drawn from them, in such an order as to render it most easy for beginners in the study of chemistry thoroughly to understand them.”
There is one really inaccurate sentence (p. 66) in the book, which irritates as it indicates a lack of chemical understanding “Modern science … and less than 1 per cent each of various gases, such as argon, methane, carbon dioxide, krypton, ammonia and so on.” All these gases together total about 1 per cent of the atmosphere so the expression ‘less than 1 per cent each’, though literally true, paints an inaccurate picture. Probably some comment about water vapour should be made. Ammonia certainly is not an atmospheric gas and could not be a permanent component of the atmosphere on this planet.
Amongst the books to which Bell most frequently refers and which he thoroughly recommends in his notes for further reading are:
Poirier, J-P (translated Rebecca Balinski) (1993). Lavoisier: chemist, biologist, economist. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Donovan, A. (195?). Antoine Lavoisier, science, Administration and revolution.
French, S. J. (1941). Torch and crucible: the life and death of Antoine Lavoisier. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
McKie, D. (1952). Antoine Lavoisier, scientist, economist, social reformer. London: Constable.
Guerlac, H. (1990). Lavoisier - the crucial year, New York: Gordon and Breach.
‘Lavoisier in the Year One’ provides a fairly complete picture of Lavoisier’s life as a whole, referring the reader to other longer works where more detail is required. Throughout the book there is an emphasis on Lavoisier’s thinking and in how he came to reject the phlogiston theory which was the earlier explanation of combustion. This leads on to Lavoisier’s ‘Principe oxygine’ and his dealings with Joseph Priestley. Madame Lavoisier’s (Anne-Marie) assistance to her husband is well described. Lavoisier made many enemies in his lifetime and the causes of those enmities is carefully explained. The year 1789 is given special prominence in this account as it was when his very influential book ‘Traité élementaire de chimie’ was published. This can be seen as the start of his chemical revolution yet where it is where his political influence in the French Revolution rapidly declined. The book does move backwards and forwards in time, and the chronology may occasionally confuse some readers. But overall this work is thoroughly recommended.
My only hope is that Dr Bell would be willing to write a biography on Karl Wilhelm Scheele. He was also a co-discoverer of Oxygen and is mentioned in this book. Yet, there are no history books that cover his life and discoveries.