September 25th, 2010


Lavoisier in the Year One, by Madison Bell

The bahleeted-but-lovable jason_brez lent me this book on 'the birth of a new science in an age of revolution'. The book does a good job of presenting how Lavoisier helped give birth to chemistry, starting from a discipline that was little better than alchemy, hampered by obscurity and confusion over the basic concepts. It also gives me a better appreciation for how difficult it was to strike upon the right path. Look around you at your stuff. Who's to say how many different basic kinds of stuff there are? Why not 4, or 10, or a dozen? Or a different stuff for different things? Pumpkin stuff and bronze stuff and water stuff and glass stuff and ...
Anyway, enough detail is given of the relevant experiments that you get a good feel for how it slowly sorted itself out, and a good peek inside some of the primacy controversies... Priestley was first to publish his discovery of 'dephlogisticated air', but Lavoisier was first to do so and really recognize that he'd liberated an element, and banished phlogiston (the nonexistent element of fire) in favor of the equally nonexistent caloric (heat fluid). [But as Asimov said, it's true that the earth is neither flat nor a perfect sphere, but if you think the one idea is just as wrong as the other, you're crazy.]
There are also some neat drawings of Lavoisier's apparatus, executed by his wife, a modestly talented artist who studied under David. And David's painting of the Lavoisiers.
One particular apparatus that Lavoisier used with great success (but didn't own) was the French Academy of Science's burning glasses... sort of a cross between a catapult and a magnifying glass. Rather than be satisfied with burning ants, as I would have been, the French scientists turned their beam onto diamonds, finding it remarkable that there was no ash left behind as they burnt up (the pure carbon diamonds being turned entirely to carbon dioxide gas). The glasses are aptly analogized as the LHC of its time, smashing matter into its constituents.
Lavoisier uses these and other results to start piecing together the puzzle, and ultimately he hits on the right basic idea and sways the scientific community to his way of thinking.
And then the other half of his life and history take things in a very different direction. Lavoisier was quite wealthy and his wealth was founded on his position as a tax collector. He also had the poor luck to have been highly critical of some youthful scientific work of one Jean-Paul Marat. And his father-in-law had the ill luck (in hindsight) of buying a petty noble title for Lavoisier. These facts combined with the Terror lead to a date with the guillotine. The section on the Revolution is a bit fast and confused (at least to me - perhaps historians would find it comfortable and the chemistry less so) but I do love the peculiar detail that gives the book its title:
The date [of the seizure of Lavoisier's papers], in the French Revolutionary Calendar, was 24 fructidor of the Year One, though neither Lavoisier nor anyone else knew it. So far as they were all concerned, it was September 10, 1793. The French Revolutionary Calendar, though dated from the establishment of the French Republic on September 22, 1792, was not proclaimed and adopted until October of 1793. Therefore, the Year One existed only in retrospect; no one experienced it directly.