Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lavoisier in the Year One

Antoine Lavoisier, the "discoverer" of oxygen, had the money, talent, and intellectual curiosity to be a shining star in the new science of chemistry, and the ill luck to have a position in the General Farm, a private taxing entity leased out by the French monarchy in the years before the French Revolution and the Terror.

Lavoisier was not born into the nobility, but his family had gradually improved their position in French society over the course of the previous century, ultimately giving Antoine the opportunity to establish himself in its highest circles. In the golden years of scientific discovery after Newton, during which chemistry blossomed forth from the shadow of alchemy, young Lavoisier was drawn to science and chemical experimentation. He quickly began to make a name for himself, and ultimately disproved a predominant theory of heat called phlogiston, or "matter of fire" - the idea that a particular type of "sulfurous earth" was responsible for combustion. (He would also prepare a sort of precursor to the Periodic Table of the elements, and devise the metric system which most of the world uses today.)

In keeping with the other titles in Norton's "Great Discoveries" series, Madison Smartt Bell, the author of this volume, is a novelist. One would expect a novelist's flair for narrative, but, sadly, this is largely absent. The large middle section of this book is taken up with rather dull descriptions of the experiments which ultimately laid to rest the idea of phlogiston. The promising narrative which begins the book with Lavoisier's detention under the Terror is only really taken up again in the final pages. Lavoisier's role in the Farm, including his role in the creation of a wall around Paris to control the entry of contraband into the city, as well as his earlier snub of the radical Jean-Paul Marat, who once had pretensions of scientific accomplishment, did not sit well with the Revolutionary crowd. A later misunderstanding in which Lavoisier appears to have been facilitating a suspicious removal of explosives from the Arsenal, where his laboratory was located, didn't help either.

Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined on 7 May 1794. In recognition of his achievements, his friend Joseph-Louis Lagrange boldly stated "It took them no more than a moment to make that head fall, and a hundred years may not be enough to produce another one like it."

One assumes that Bell's idea was to juxtapose Lavoisier's role in a scientific revolution with the political revolution that he ignored until it was too late. Despite the author's best efforts, Lavoisier passes through this book as little more than an enigma. A true sense of the man is missing.

Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution
by Madison Smartt Bell