A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen

A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen

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by Joe Jackson

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
An exhilarating narrative, sweeping us through great discoveries and international rivalries, yet strengthened by meticulous research and analysis. (Jenny Uglow, author of The Lunar Men)

This tale of eminent scientists victimized by political ideology is told with passion and a splendid attention to vivid detail. (Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times)

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. Agent, Noah Lukeman. (Oct. 10) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Jackson (Leavenworth Train) once again puts his investigative skills to the test, this time to trace the story of oxygen's discovery by Englishman Joseph Priestley and Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier. Rivals, yet eternally linked to each other, these scientists experimented and dared to challenge centuries-old Greek philosophy. Though their cumulative body of research was extensive, the watershed moment for both was their nearly simultaneous discovery of oxygen and the significance it held for what was to become the new science of chemistry. Jackson dramatically unfolds the parallel lives of these two men, explaining their research and insights in terms that will captivate most readers. He deftly interweaves their lives and the violent events of the final third of the 18th century in alternating chapters. However, Jackson devotes a greater part of his book to Priestley; for a more comprehensive treatment of Lavoisier, see novelist Madison Smartt Bell's Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. This book is appropriate for high school, public, and academic libraries.-Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cracking the mysteries of the universe can get a person in trouble. Witness Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, the twin subjects of this lively study. Jackson (Leavenworth Train, 2001, etc.) opens with the chance meeting of the two scientists, one English, the other French, who sized each other up and then renewed the race to solve a puzzle: "What was invisible, yet all around them? Nowhere, but everywhere?" Priestley, an utterly remarkable English thinker and putterer who wrote more than 150 books on everything from politics to grammar to physics, had been experimenting with the composition of air and had come to the conclusion that it was not made up of just one thing, but an unknown number of somethings, a mixture of some sort. A couple of years before the meeting, Priestley had busily been discovering gases, "more new gases . . . than any other man before," coincidentally determining a method for quantifying air quality. Lavoisier, no less remarkable, was a tax collector who spent his spare time studying the process of burning, sure that the truth of the matter lay in "dancing flames and terrible destruction." Both retired to their separate laboratories and worked at revolutionizing 18th-century physics and chemistry, Priestley cultivating correspondence and friendship with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier working in such isolation and secrecy (despite encouraging visits from Priestley) that he was chided for his uncollegial omissions and mistakes by the French Academy. Still, it was Lavoisier who eventually divined some notion of the chemical processes at work, realizing that many different elements existed, as opposed to Priestley's view that "all substances wereultimately made of the same stuff, just differently arranged." In the end, the times swallowed both up: Lavoisier fell afoul of the Terror, assigned to the guillotine, while Priestley fled England for his unorthodox political and religious views. Scientific history fluently recounted-just the thing for would-be alchemists.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Joe Jackson's three previous books of nonfiction include Leavenworth Train, a finalist for the 2002 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. He worked for twelve years as an investigative reporter for the Virginia Pilot.

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A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
CGH More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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