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For anyone who has to buy a present for a thoughtful man this season, Madison Smartt Bell has written the one you're looking for: Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (Atlas/Norton, 2005). This is an almost perfect book, really. It addresses the complete overhaul of chemistry, by a team of French scientists working under Antoine Lavoisier in the 1770s and 1780s, in terms that, while not difficult to follow, require some thought on the reader's part. The writer is a novelist who has undoubtedly had to teach himself everything that he writes about here. Lavoisier in the Year One is part of a series, commissioned by James Atlas, of "Great Discoveries," with David Foster Wallace on Infinity and Rebecca Goldstein on Gödel, and, yet to appear, David Leavitt on Alan Turing. This is what the world needs now: cogent science books for the serious lay reader.

Lavoisier in the Year One will appeal to readers male and female because of its star character. "Man of parts" is an understatement as applied to Antoine Lavoisier. He will always be celebrated as a major chemist, but in his day he held a portfolio of government and NGO roles, one of which - his membership in the General Farm, or hired-out tax-collection service - cost him his life at the height of the Terror, in 1794. He was gifted, but he was also ...

Continue reading about Lavoisier at Portico.


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