Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Lavoisier in the Year One
I'd forgotten about phlogiston. Now, of course, it sounds ridiculous, but 250 years ago, at the dawn of chemistry, scientists needed something to explain how materials lost - or gained - weight when burned. The Year One in Lavoisier in the Year One refers to the revolutionary calendar (the one I learned in high school French class - and also forgot about), but the book is really about the start of organized chemistry. Lavoisier - a socially awkward member of the haute bourgeoisie who trained as a lawyer - largely created science as we know it. He discovered or co-discovered dozens of elements, created (and named) the concepts of acids and bases, and meticulously designed lab equipment and techniques still used today. Madison Smartt Bell frames Lavoisier's scientific achievements with the events leading to his execution at the hands of the French Revolution, and while those scenes are interesting, he would have had a more interesting book if he'd left that as an afterward and spend a few more pages exploring Lavoisier's revolutionary thoughts.