History Books


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. Lavoisier will always be celebrated as a major chemist, but that was just his specialty He held a portfolio of government jobs and NGO roles, one of which - his membership in the General Farm (the hired-out tax-collection service) - cost him his life at the height of the Terror in 1794. He was certainly gifted, but he was also very well organized, leading a methodical life that was interrupted only by bursts of creative excitement that, one gathers, he savored in tranquility. The great-great grandson of a postal courier, he was the last flower of an upwardly mobile family, and he had no taste for idleness. His days were long and constructive. He does not appear to have been a party person, which may be why his wife very discreetly cheated on him for thirteen years. She saw enough of him at the office, as it were: she was also the assistant who kept the minutes of his experiments and who provided the illustrations of instruments that were published in his books. The Lavoisiers were fairly rich, but there is no feeling of holiday in Mr Bell's account of their lives. Lavoisier definitely lives up to my new definition of ambition. He clearly loved to work.

While Lavoisier in the Year One covers Lavoisier's life and times at the speed of an extended sketch, its real focus is on Lavoisier's achievement in dethroning the theory of phlogiston. (That's flow-jist'-on.) Phlogiston theory is just difficult enough to provide a good mental workout, because a few things that any educated person knows about nature have to be not only set aside but inverted. Here are two: "air is a compound" and "fire is the release of energy." Until the late eighteenth century, air was thought to be a substance, and energy was thought to be a quality inherent in everything, to some degree or other. The theory of combustion that took hold at the beginning of the seventeenth century explained fire by positing the existence of a substance called phlogiston that was consumed in the burning. It made a certain circular sense, and nobody was in a position to test it until the development of precision instruments in the eighteenth century. Phlogiston theory hit a big bump when highly accurate scales showed that substances gain weight when they're burned. It was to solve this conundrum that Lavoisier devised a series of experiments that identified oxygen, proved that air is a compound, and set the stage for the transformation of the language of chemistry, which remains firmly established on Lavoisier's foundations.

Lavoisier was vastly aided by a preternatural attraction to concision. As a student, he suspected that his textbooks didn't explain anything about the world. "I was surprised," he wrote in a manuscript currently held in the archives of the French Academy of Science, "to see how much obscurity surrounded the approaches to the science. During the first steps, they began by supposing in place of proving. They presented me with words which they were in no position whatsoever to define for me, or which at least they could not define without borrowing from knowledge that was absolutely foreign to me, and which I could only acquire by the study of the whole of chemistry. And so, in beginning to teach me the science, they supposed that I already knew it." He was much happier working with astronomer and mathematician Abbé Lacaille. There were no loose ends astronomy.

Chemistry as we know it did not exist. Alchemy did. Alchemy was a farrago of undemonstrated assumptions about the world that, in resisting the blasts of trial and error for thousands of years, showed how silly and useless mental activity can be, and how bent by conceit, when it is not tested by real conditions. Alchemy, like the physics that it was a part of, worked from the brain out, and not very far out at that. The theory of the four elements (five in China), and that of the corresponding four humors were foundation stones of alchemy. You have doubtless heard of the search for the "philospher's stone," which would effect the metamorphosis of lead into gold, but alchemists did pay increasing attention to the real world in the wake of the Renaissance. The Seventeenth Century is justly sited as the home of the Scientific Revolution, an alteration rooted in the quantification of scientific discourse. With the advent of precision instruments, the precursors of scientists could weigh and measure as never before. When they discovered, as they somewhat routinely did, that burned substances gain weight, they resorted to the old Ptolemaic trick of complicating phlogiston theory in order to explain it. This was exactly the approach that Lavoisier temperamentally rejected in 1772, when he submitted a sealed memorandum to the secretary of the Academy of Science suggesting that his discovery of weight gain contradicted the phlogiston theory. It would take thirteen years for him to prove it.

Lavoisier was not the first to isolate oxygen, or to note that there was a special kind of air in which candles burned more brightly. But we are right to credit him with the discovery of oxygen, because he was the first to understand it, as he showed by naming it intelligibly. "Oxygen" means "acid producer," and it is indeed the element that produces acids in combustion. (This is another difficult concept to hold onto; we naturally think of oxygen as pure and life-giving, not acid and toxic.) Naming oxygen was tantamount to distinguishing it from "fixed air," as carbon dioxide and other uncombustible gases had come to be called. Lavoisier discovered that air is not elemental but a compound.

That it took thirteen years to work this out is not surprising. Instruments had to be fabricated for experiments that had to be conceived. The fact that oxygen and carbon dioxide are both utterly colorless was a great hindrance, but eventually Lavoisier realized that the gas produced by combustion was very different from the gas produced by reduction. In reduction, oxidized materials are heated to the point where they release their oxygen. Working with Pierre-Simon de LaPlace, now remembered as a great pure mathematician but gifted at designing instruments, Lavoisier synthesized water, established that respiration is a form of combustion, and achieved a small cascade of related demonstrations that, unified, led not only to the atomization of the old four elements but to a new understanding of physical reality. (It is important to note that Lavoisier never did figure out that "fire" was not a substance; to some extent, he simply reversed the phlogiston equation.)

Despite his declared suspicion of theory, Lavoisier's most durable achievements would be as a theoretician - not as a discoverer of previously unknown facts.

So, at the end of Chapter II, Mr Bell lays down the thesis that his book will demonstrate. It is essentially a thesis about the conception of science, and to the very close relationship between science and descriptive exactitude. Aware that theory had a way of leading philosophers astray, he was slow to realize that his new approach was not a theory as well. Insofar as Lavoisier equated "theory" with "untruth," he was right. Instead of reeling out assumptions, Lavoisier invented a rigorous nomenclature, dynamic in that it situated whatever it described in the world of substances. He did not invent the difference between "oxides" and "oxates," but he identified it and gave the two groups of substances names that reflected it. Out the window went such fanciful but dead terms as "minium" (one lead oxide, Pb3O4) and "litharge" (another, PbO) words derived from the contingency of appearances. Now it would be possible to demonstrate, without endangering lives, that while carbon dioxide (C02) is harmless, carbon monoxide (CO is lethal).

As a coda, Mr Bell provides an account of Lavoisier's final ordeal, as a series of official exemptions and exculpations lost their force against the tide of the Terror that swept France under Robespierre - who would perish himself not long after the scientist. The ambiguities of Lavoisier's social position were thrown into relief by the Revolution. Although his father had bought him a title upon his marriage (making him a "secretary of the king"), the noblesse of the sword refused to acknowledge him as one of their own. With his great faith in reason and organization, Lavoisier was unaware of the havoc that tempestuous dread, working on a new and war-beset nation, could work on his fellow French. He appears to have gone to the guillotine with admirable stoicism - which only means that we'll never know how or if he suffered.

Marie-Anne Lavoisier survived the turmoil. She lost a great deal of her wealth, but she held on to David's very grand 1788 portrait of the couple. A descendant sold this painting to John D Rockefeller, in 1924, and now, thanks to the 1977 gift of the Charles Wrightsmans, it hangs in pride of place at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of Old Master paintings. I am tremendously proud that this painting hangs in New York, a few blocks from home; at the same time, I often feel that it ought to hang in the Louvre. So my feeling about the picture are somewhat unsettled, just as they are by knowing that this handsome as well as brilliant man would be dead within less than a decade. And now, Lavoisier in the Year One has changed the way I see the painting. First, I have a better understanding of the symbolism; not only are instruments related to Lavoisier's achievement arranged across the right-hand edge of the picture, but they're placed in an order related to chronological sequence. More interestingly is the difference in Mme Lavoisier's face. Until reading Mr Bell's book, I saw her as a simpering ninny out of Vigée-Lebrun. Now I see she is not simpering. She is barely smiling. I know that, for all her pretty lace and muslin, beneath that pile of poufed hair there was a brain capable of comprehending what her husband was writing with his quill pen; in all probability, he was working from her notes. More than ever, this has become for me the picture of a married team, and I'm grateful just for that. (September 2005)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me