A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen

A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen

by Joe Jackson


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Like Charles Seife’s Zero and Dava Sobel’s Longitude, this passionate intellectual history is the story of the intersection of science and the human, in this case the rivals who discovered oxygen in the late 1700s. That breakthrough changed the world as radically as those of Newton and Darwin but was at first eclipsed by revolution and reaction. In chronicling the triumph and ruin of the English freethinker Joseph Priestley and the French nobleman Antoine Lavoisier—the former exiled, the latter executed on the guillotine—A World on Fire illustrates the perilous place of science in an age of unreason.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143038832
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 774,437
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Joe Jackson is the author of four works of nonfiction and a novel. He was an investigative reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot for 12 years, covering criminal justice and the state’s death row. He lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be reached through his website, joejacksonbooks.com.

Table of Contents

A World On FirePrologue: God in the Air

Part I: Problem

1. The Cloth-Dresser's Son
2. The Sums and Receipts of Parallel Worlds
3. The Gas in the Beer
4. The Prodigy
5. The Goodness of Air
6. The Problem of Burning

Part II: Solution

7. The Sentimental Journey
8. The Mouse in the Jar
9. The Twelve Days
10. The Language of War
11. "King Mob"
12. The World Out of Joint
13. The New World

Epilogue: The Burning World

Dramatis Personae
Glossary of Chemical, Historical, and Scientific Terms

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A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
CGH More than 1 year ago
A World on Fire is history, science, biography, tragedy, and triumph in one riveting, entertaining volume. It is the spellbinding tale of two competing scientific giants of the late Eighteenth Century; Joseph Priestly in England and Antoine Lavoisier in France, and their race to discover and isolate what became known as oxygen, the gas without which we humans cannot live. This fascinating book does not "talk down" to the non-scientist, but will captivate anyone with any interest in the development of scientific method. Joe Jackson masterfully intertwines the engrossing stories of two vastly different men. His narrative gallops along, as much a page-turner as any novel, with its sometimes horrifying backdrop of political revolution in America and France, religious revolution in England, and the affect all this shock and turmoil had on the pursuit of pure, testable science. The individual stories are compelling: Priestly was an unlikely tinkerer whose chief aim was the reform of religion; he was the "heretic," one of the founding fathers of Unitarianism, yet he managed in his spare time to isolate oxygen, what he called "dephlogisticated air." He stubbornly clung to what was called "phlogiston theory," which posited that there was a substance, called phlogiston, that caused combustion in materials that burned. Lavoisier, the aristocrat, in his inquiries came to reject phlogiston, and he ultimately coined the word "oxygen." Lavoisier believed that the gas he had isolated was a cause of acidity, so he used the Greek oxy (acid) plus gen (maker). The wives of both men loom large in their lives and work. Neither man, especially Lavoisier, for whom his wife was an active and enthusiastic lab partner, could have gotten as far as he did without the strong, supportive woman in his life. Since this is history, it is not giving anything away to say that the tragedy is that Priestly ended his days in exile in America, rejected by his country and his people because of his then-radical religious and political beliefs; Lavoisier ended his on the guillotine in the Reign of Terror because, like so many others, he had made enemies. The triumph is that between them, in spite of their unsettled times, they independently discovered and isolated oxygen and laid much of the foundation for modern scientific method.
IslandDave on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The history in A World on Fire centers on two men whose scientific curiousity led them to discover vital new clues about the air we breath and eventually, oxygen. Joseph Priestley, a British minister, and Antoine Lavoisier, a French aristocrat, worked independent of each other, and often fed off (or directly challenged) each other's work to drive forward in the search for the components of breathable and combustable air. Lavoisier's work sparked the Chemical Revolution even as Priestley fought stidently for a theory ('phlogiston') that quickly began to lose favor with chemists.This book is not deep with science, though there are a few very basic formulas and descriptions of methodology. The narrative instead focuses largely on the setting and context of the discoveries made by the two men. Revolution in France and America, as well as the madness of King George in Britain and the fall of the monarchy in France led to a unique atmosphere in which this scientific story progressed.As a history of scientists, this book is an easy read and one that is both enlightening and enjoyable. My primary complaint, and the reason for a 3/5 star review, is the author's insistence in placing his own speculation into the story. Many instances of 'One might imagine...' or 'It isn't hard to believe...' or 'Perhaps he saw...'. This is a major turn off for me in book on history. This doesn't greatly detract from the value of the book and its story, but it does make the reader wonder which facts are documented and which the author has chosen to include despite flimsy or non-existent evidence.
seabear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
All over the place! (A bad thing)
veblen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great book. Captures the excitement of scientific discovery. Maybe could have been a little shorter, but definitely worth the time an trouble.
lorax on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This dual biography of Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier, who both independently discovered oxygen nearly simultaneously but interpreted their findings very differently, gets off to a strong start with its description of the chemists' scientific work. The last third or so of the book, focusing on the political turmoils of the time (the insistence on a parallel structure, juxtaposing riots in Birmingham with the French Revolution, perhaps overemphasizes the former), was nearly unreadably dull, however, and filled with overly-"clever" references to the incendiary nature of oxygen; any time flames are mentioned, Jackson insists on pointing out the supposed irony of a discoverer of oxygen being affected by fire.
Meggo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fascinating book about the quest to discover - consciously discover - oxygen. Taking place in the late 1700s, this is the story of Joseph Priestly, an English Dissenter, and Antoine Lavoisier, a French aristocrat, who both discovered the element. But, since Priestly saw his discovery through the prism of an outdated principle, and since Lavoisier named it, I suppose Lavoisier "won". Except that he lost his head in the Terror, so if he won anything, it was a Pyhrric victory. Well worth reading, because this was a fascinating time of discovery, full of larger-than-life personalities.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago