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Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution

Hal Harris's picture
Mon, 10/01/2007 - 01:00 -- Hal Harris

There is supposedly a Chinese curse, "May he live in interesting times". While the origin of this phrase is apparently not really in China, it certainly applies to the life of one of the first modern chemists. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was a French nobleman who lived from 1743 until he was beheaded in 1794. He is given credit for the first statement of the law of conservation of mass, which was possible only after his careful studies of the chemistry of gases. He recognized and isolated both oxygen and hydrogen, was instrumental in discrediting the theory of phlogiston, and he introduced the metric system. One might guess that, had it not been for Lavoisier, current chemistry textbooks would only be about fifteen pages long. What got him beheaded was his involvement in pre-revolutionary French economics and politics, in which he was involved up to his ears. The author of this history is best-known for his novels (none of which I have read), but he uses writing skills to good effect here, and I did not notice any big errors (but I'm just an amateur in chemical history).

Pick Attribution: 

Madison Smartt Bell

Publication Date: 
Saturday, January 1, 2005
Price: 
$13.95