WORLD ON FIRE:
A Heretic, An Aristocrat and
The Race To Discover Oxygen
by Joe Jackson
Pub Date: 2006
Tells the amazing, little-known story of the race to discover Oxygen in
the Europe of the 1700s, and the effect of the discovery upon the world.
"An exhilarating narrative, sweeping us through great discoveries and internaitonal rivalries, yet strengthened by meticulous research and analysis - the drama of the scientist made
"In this engrossing, illuminating and entertaining book, Joe Jackson tells with verve one of the great stories in the history of science, that of the discovery of what was first thought to be dephlogisticated air, but is better known to us as oxygen."
"Joe Jackson's A World on Fire is much more than the tale of a discovery. It tells of a terrifying time when nations crumbled around two rivals who were struggling to build a new science. It is a fascinating and tragic story, and Jackson paints a vivid picture of revolutions political as well as a revolution scientific."
"It is impossible to read A World on Fire without admiring the raw courage shown by the pioneers of science. Joe Jackson vividly recreates the drama of men prepared to risk everything – homes, reputations, even their lives – to understand how the world worked. What they achieved directly affects our lives today, and this enthralling account of their battles is especially welcome at a time when science finds itself under renewed attack."
"In the shared riddle of the “pure air” that allowed enclosed mice to live and covered candles to flame high, Jackson locates the thread linking the lives of a Frenchman who lost his life because of his ties to the ancien régime and that of an Englishman who lost his home because of his support for new ecclesiastical and political liberties. Ironically, the English champion of new theological and political ideas stubbornly clung to an outmoded science in trying to explain the substance he had isolated, while it was the French aristocrat who formulated the revolutionary new concepts that explained that strange substance. Jackson deftly recounts both the scientific triumphs and political tragedies that define the lives of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier. Readers see—procedure by procedure—the experiments that turned a bit of mercuric oxide and one brilliant candle into a puzzling riddle for Priestley, and they witness the intellectual daring of Lavoisier in solving that riddle by repeating the British researcher’s work with quantitative precision and a theoretically lucid new nomenclature. But readers also see the piquant personalities and turbulent social circumstances behind the science: a man so solicitous of his fellow creatures that he tries to revive suffocated mice is himself despoiled by mobs who regard him as a dangerous monster; a man who adheres to truth so assiduously that he measures it grain by painstaking grain falls victim to Jacobins who see in him a cheat and liar. A probing composite portrait of two martyrs for science."
"Five-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Jackson (Leavenworth Train ) once again puts his investigative skills to the test, this time to trace the story of oxygen's discovery by Englishman Joseph Priestley and Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier. Rivals, yet eternally linked to each other, these scientists experimented and dared to challenge centuries-old Greek philosophy. Though their cumulative body of research was extensive, the watershed moment for both was their nearly simultaneous discovery of oxygen and the significance it held for what was to become the new science of chemistry. Jackson dramatically unfolds the parallel lives of these two men, explaining their research and insights in terms that will captivate most readers. He deftly interweaves their lives and the violent events of the final third of the 18th century in alternating chapters. However, Jackson devotes a greater part of his book to Priestley; for a more comprehensive
treatment of Lavoisier, see novelist Madison Smartt Bell's Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. This book is appropriate for high school, public, and academic
"Cracking the mysteries of the universe can get a person in trouble. Witness Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, the twin subjects of this lively study.
Jackson (Leavenworth Train, 2001, etc.) opens with the chance meeting of the two scientists, one English, the other French, who sized each other up and then renewed the race to solve a puzzle: "What was invisible, yet all around them? Nowhere, but everywhere?" Priestley, an utterly remarkable English thinker and putterer who wrote more than 150 books on everything from politics to grammar to physics, had been experimenting with the composition of air and had come to the conclusion that it was not made up of just one thing, but an unknown number of somethings, a mixture of some sort. A couple of years before the meeting, Priestley had busily been discovering gases, "more new gases . . . than any other man before," coincidentally determining a method for quantifying air quality. Lavoisier, no less remarkable, was a tax collector who spent his spare time studying the process of burning, sure that the truth of the matter lay in "dancing flames and terrible destruction." Both retired to their separate laboratories and worked at revolutionizing 18th-century physics and chemistry, Priestley cultivating correspondence and friendship with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier working in such isolation and secrecy (despite encouraging visits from Priestley) that he was chided for his uncollegial omissions and mistakes by the French Academy. Still, it was Lavoisier who eventually divined some notion of the chemical processes at work, realizing that many different elements existed, as opposed to Priestley's view that "all substances were ultimately made of the same stuff, just differently arranged." In the end, the times swallowed both up: Lavoisier fell afoul of the Terror, assigned to the guillotine, while Priestley fled England for his unorthodox political and religious views.
Scientific history fluently recounted-just the thing for would-be alchemists."