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.