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Like Charles Seife’s Zero and Dava Sobel’s Longitude, this passionate intellectual history is the story of the intersection of science and the human, in this case the rivals who discovered oxygen in the late 1700s. That breakthrough changed the world as radically as those of Newton and Darwin but was at first eclipsed by revolution and reaction. In chronicling the triumph and ruin of the English freethinker Joseph Priestley and the French nobleman Antoine Lavoisier—the former exiled, the latter executed on the ...
Like Charles Seife’s Zero and Dava Sobel’s Longitude, this passionate intellectual history is the story of the intersection of science and the human, in this case the rivals who discovered oxygen in the late 1700s. That breakthrough changed the world as radically as those of Newton and Darwin but was at first eclipsed by revolution and reaction. In chronicling the triumph and ruin of the English freethinker Joseph Priestley and the French nobleman Antoine Lavoisier—the former exiled, the latter executed on the guillotine—A World on Fire illustrates the perilous place of science in an age of unreason.
A World On Fire Prologue: God in the Air
Part I: Problem
1. The Cloth-Dresser's Son
2. The Sums and Receipts of Parallel Worlds
3. The Gas in the Beer
4. The Prodigy
5. The Goodness of Air
6. The Problem of Burning
Part II: Solution
7. The Sentimental Journey
8. The Mouse in the Jar
9. The Twelve Days
10. The Language of War
11. "King Mob"
12. The World Out of Joint
13. The New World
Epilogue: The Burning World
Dramatis Personae Chronology Glossary of Chemical, Historical, and Scientific Terms Notes Bibliography Acknowledgments Index
Posted April 9, 2010
A World on Fire is history, science, biography, tragedy, and triumph in one riveting, entertaining volume. It is the spellbinding tale of two competing scientific giants of the late Eighteenth Century; Joseph Priestly in England and Antoine Lavoisier in France, and their race to discover and isolate what became known as oxygen, the gas without which we humans cannot live.
This fascinating book does not "talk down" to the non-scientist, but will captivate anyone with any interest in the development of scientific method. Joe Jackson masterfully intertwines the engrossing stories of two vastly different men. His narrative gallops along, as much a page-turner as any novel, with its sometimes horrifying backdrop of political revolution in America and France, religious revolution in England, and the affect all this shock and turmoil had on the pursuit of pure, testable science.
The individual stories are compelling: Priestly was an unlikely tinkerer whose chief aim was the reform of religion; he was the "heretic," one of the founding fathers of Unitarianism, yet he managed in his spare time to isolate oxygen, what he called "dephlogisticated air." He stubbornly clung to what was called "phlogiston theory," which posited that there was a substance, called phlogiston, that caused combustion in materials that burned.
Lavoisier, the aristocrat, in his inquiries came to reject phlogiston, and he ultimately coined the word "oxygen." Lavoisier believed that the gas he had isolated was a cause of acidity, so he used the Greek oxy (acid) plus gen (maker).
The wives of both men loom large in their lives and work. Neither man, especially Lavoisier, for whom his wife was an active and enthusiastic lab partner, could have gotten as far as he did without the strong, supportive woman in his life.
Since this is history, it is not giving anything away to say that the tragedy is that Priestly ended his days in exile in America, rejected by his country and his people because of his then-radical religious and political beliefs; Lavoisier ended his on the guillotine in the Reign of Terror because, like so many others, he had made enemies. The triumph is that between them, in spite of their unsettled times, they independently discovered and isolated oxygen and laid much of the foundation for modern scientific method.
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Posted May 23, 2011
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