05 June 2008

Off with Lavoisier's head, get on with chemistry

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) was one of the founders of the modern science of chemistry. His experimental findings towards the end of the 18th century were instrumental in the demolition of the ill-defined, nebulous phlogiston theory that had all but stifled the progress of physical sciences during most of that century. The multitasker Lavoisier also held several influential government positions. Apparently mostly because of his involment in tax collection, and despite his scientific fame, he eventually lost his head to the guillotine during the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution.

I just finished reading Madison Smartt Bell’s Lavoisier in the Year One (W.W. Norton, 2005), a biography of the original chemist. I didn't quite like the book for several reasons. First, I am not sure how much of the book is original material that was derived from original sources. For one thing, the Notes section at the end gives me the impression that most, if not all, of the quotations in the book are regurgitations of what was already in Lavoisier’s previous biographies. Gathering up all the existing biographies of a person and then writing a "new" biography out of them doesn’t sound like a big deal to me.

Second, I found the author’s habit of mixing up the chronological orders of events quite confusing and annoying. Example: the very 1st sentence of the book is about the events of 1793, the year before Lavoisier died; as the chapter progresses, the narrative moves backward; rather annoying. Another example: chapter V begins in August 1789, but on the next page we suddenly return to March 1789 and start over again; rather confusing.

Third, Mr. Bell’s apparent lack of a background in chemistry seems to have introduced a few errors that an editorial review should have corrected. Example: The footnote on page 94 states that “Carbon dioxide dissolved in limewater {Ca(OH)2(aq)} precipitates carbonate ion {CaCO3}.” What precipitates is not carbonate ion, but calcium carbonate proper, CaCO3. Also, I had never seen the use of curly brackets ({}) around chemical formulae before.

Criticism aside, I did learn from this book, but that was mostly because I knew very little about Lavoisier’s life before. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’d give Lavoisier in the Year One a 2.

I have also posted a shorter version of this review at Amazon.

The famous painting of Lavoisier and his cheatin’ wife Marie-Anne was the subject of this post.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Gosh, a book about a chemist you would think the chemistry in there would be correct.

An ion precipitate? Amazing.

But it does sound like the historical perspective is interesting.