Tag: Book Reviews

Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist by Jean-Pierre Poirier


Recently I read Vivian Grey’s biography of Lavoisier. Although a fine book, it left me wanting more Lavoisier, so I turned to Jean-Pierre Poirier’s more substantial biography: “Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist”. Related is my blog post on the French Académie des Sciences, of which Lavoisier was a long term member, and senior, member.

This is a much longer, denser book than that of Grey, with commonality of subject it’s unsurprising that the areas covered are similar. However, Poirier spends relatively more time discussing Lavoisier’s activities as a senior civil servant and as an economist.

The striking thing is the collection of roles that Lavoisier had: senior member of Ferme Générale (commissioned Paris wall), director of the Académie, director of the Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration, owner and manager of his own (agricultural) farms. It’s difficult to imagine a modern equivalent, the governor of the Bank of England running a research lab? Or perhaps an MP with a minor ministerial post, running a business and a research lab? In practical terms he did experimental work for a few hours each morning and evening (6-9am, 7-10pm) and on Saturdays – having a number of assistants working with him.

Lavoisier was wealthy, inheriting $1.8million* from relatives as an 11 year old he joined the Ferme Générale with an initial downpayment of about $3million. However, this provided an income of something like $2.4-4.8 million a year. On a trip to Strasbourg as a 24 year old, he spent $20,000 on books – which you have to respect. As the collector of taxes levied on the majority but not the nobility or clergy, the Ferme Générale was one of the institutions in the firing line when the Revolution came. Wealthy financiers, such as Lavoisier, bought stakes in these private companies, provided exclusive rights by the King, and made enormous rates of return (15-20%), at the same time serving the Kings needs rather poorly.

As for his activities in chemistry, Poirier provides a a good background to the developments going on at the time. Beyond what I have read before, it’s clear that Lavoisier does not make any of the first discoveries of for example, oxygen, carbon dioxide or nitrogen, nor of the understanding that combustion results in weight gain. But what he does do is build a coherent theory that brings all of these things together and overthrows the phlogiston theory of combustion. With Guyton de Morveau he develops a new, systematic, way of naming chemicals which is still used today and, as a side effect, embeds his ideas about combustion. It’s from this work that the first list of elements is produced. Furthermore, Lavoisier sees the applications of the idea of oxidation in explaining “chemical combustion” as entirely appropriate for understanding “biological combustion” or respiration. In a sense he sets the scheme for biochemistry which does not come to life for nearly 100 years, for want of better experimental methodology.

It’s interesting that gases are arguably the most difficult materials to work with yet it is their study, in particular understanding the components of air, which leads to an understanding of elements, and the “new chemistry”. Perhaps this is because gases are their own abstraction, there is nothing to see only things to measure.

The book also gives a useful insight into the French Revolution for someone who would not read the history for its own sake. The heart of the Revolution was a taxation system that exempted the nobility and the clergy from paying anything, and a large state debt from supporting the American War of Independence. Spending appears to have been decided by the nobility, or even just the King, with little regard as to how the money was raised. At one point Paris considered an aqueduct to bring in fresh water to all its citizens, but then decided that rebuilding the opera house was more important! The Revolution was a rather more drawn out than I appreciated with Lavoisier at the heart of the ongoing transformation at the time of his execution during the Terror, only to be lauded once again a couple of years later as Robbespierre fell from power and was executed in his turn.

On economics: Lavoisier was one of the directors of the French Discount Bank, during the Revolution he was involved in plans for a constitutional monarchy and amongst the ideas he brought forward was for what would essentially be an “Office for National Statistics”. The aim being to collect data on production and so forth across the economy in support of economic policy. This fits in with the mineral survey work he carried at the very beginning of his career and also on his work in “experimental farming”. Economic policy at the time alternating between protectionism (no wheat exports) and free-markets (wheat exports allowed), with many arguing that agriculture was the only economically productive activity.

It’s tempting to see Lavoisier’s scientific and economic programmes being linked via the idea of accounting: in chemistry the counting of amounts of material into and out of a reaction and in economics counting the cash into and out of the economy.

Definitely a book I would recommend! It’s remarkable just how busy Lavoisier was in a range of areas, and the book also provides a handy insight into the French Revolution for those more interested in science. I wondering whether Benjamin Franklin should be my next target.


*These are equivalences to 1996 dollars, provided in the book, they should be treated with caution.

Book Review: The Chemist Who Lost His Head by Vivian Grey


Following on from “The Measure of All Things” my interest in Antoine Lavoisier was roused, so I went off to get a biography: “The Chemist who lost his head: The Story of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier” by Vivian Grey. This turns out to be a slim volume for the younger reader, in fact my copy appears to arrive via the Jenks East Middle School in Tulsa. As a consequence I’ve read it’s 100 or so pages in under 24 hours – that said it seems to me a fine introduction.

Antoine Lavoisier lived 1743-1794. He came from a bourgeoisie family, the son of a lawyer, and originally training as a lawyer. Subsequently he took up an education in a range of sciences. As a young man, in 1768, he bought into the Ferme Générale which was to provide him with a good income but led to his demise during the French Revolution. The Ferme Générale was the system by which the French government collected tax, essentially outsourcing the process to a private company. Taxes were collected from the so-called “Third Estate”, those who were not landed gentry or clergy. Grey indicates that Lavoisier was a benign influence at the Ferme Generale, introducing a system of pensions for farmers and doing research into improved farming methods. Through the company he met his future wife, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulz, daughter to the director of the Ferme – Antoine and Marie married in 1771 when she was 14 and he 28.

Lavoisier started his scientific career with a geological survey of France, which he conducted as an assistant to Jean Etienne Guettard between 1763 and 1767. This work was to be terminated by the King, but was completed by Guettard with Antoine Grimoald Monnet although Lavoisier was not credited. There seems to be some parallel here with William Smith’s geological map of the UK produced in 1815.

Through his geological activities Lavoisier became familiar with the mineral gypsum, found in abundance around Paris. He undertook a detailed study of gypsum which sets the theme for his future chemical research: making careful measurements of the weight of material before and after heating or exposure to water. He discovered that gypsum is hydrated: when heated it gives off water, when the dehydrated powder (now called plaster of Paris) is re-hydrated it forms a hard plaster. He wrote this work up and presented it to the Académie des Sciences – the French equivalent of the Royal Society, on which I have written repeatedly.

He was to present several papers to the Académie before being elected a member of this very elite group at the age of twenty-five, half the age of the next youngest member. Once a member he contributed to many committees advising on things such as street lighting, fire hydrants and other areas of civic interest, the Académie was directly funded by the King and more explicitly tasked with advising the government than the Royal Society was. Lavoisier was also involved in the foundation of the new metric system of measurement, which was the subject of “The Measure of All Things”. Lavoisier became one of four commissioners of gunpowder – an important role at the time. During his life he would have had contact with Joseph Banks – a long term president of the Royal Society, and also Benjamin Franklin – scientist and also United States Ambassador to France.

From a purely scientific point of view Lavoisier is best known for his work in chemistry: his approach of stoichiometry – the precise measurement of the mass of reactants in chemical reactions led to his theory of combustion which ultimately replaced the phlogiston theory. It is this replacement of phlogiston theory with the idea of oxidization that forms the foundation of Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” idea, so Lavoisier has a lot to answer for!

The portrait of Antoine and Marie Laviosier at the top of the page is by Jacques-Louis David painted ca. 1788. It strikes me as quite an intimate portrait with Marie pressed against Antoine, looking directly at the viewer whilst her husband looks at her. Marie played a significant part in the work of Lavoisier, as well as recording experiments and drawing apparatus (something that takes good understanding to do well), and assisting with correspondence and translation  she was also responsible for publishing Mémoires de Chimie after his death. She was a skilled scientist in her own right. The equipment on the table and floor can be identified: on the floor is a portable hydrometer and a glass vessel for weighing gases. On the table are a mercury gasometer, and a glass vessel container mercury – likely illustrating the properties of oxygen and nitrogen in air.

Antoine Lavoisier was executed in 1794, for his part in the Ferme Générale. His execution is attributed, at least in part to the ire of Jean-Paul Marat, who Lavoisier had earlier blocked from membership of the Académie des Sciences. It seems Lavoisier had been warned by friends that his life was in danger but appeared to think his membership of the Académie des Sciences would protect him. Ironically Jacques-Louis David also painted “The Death of Marat”.

100 pages on Lavoisier was not enough for me, I’m going for “Lavoisier” by Jean-Pierre Poirier next – some fraction of which appears to be available online, but I’m going for a paper copy.

Book review: The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder

TheMeasureOfAllThingsThe Measure of All Things“ by Ken Alder tells the story of Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre’s efforts to survey the line of constant longitude (or meridian) between Dunkerque and Barcelona through Paris, starting amidst the French Revolution in 1792.

The survey of the meridian was part of a scheme to introduce a new, unified system of measures. The idea was to fix the length of the new unit, the metre, as 1/10,000,000th of the distance between the North Pole and the equator on a meridian passing through Paris.

At the time France used an estimated 250,000 different measures across the country with each parish having it’s own (uncalibrated) weights and measures with different measures for different types of material i.e. a “yard” of cotton was different from a “yard” of silk, and different if you were buying wholesale or selling to end users. These measures had evolved over time to suit local needs, but acted to supress trade between communities. Most nations found themselves in a similar situation.

Although the process of measuring the meridian started under the ancien regime, it continued in revolutionary France as a scheme that united the country. The names associated with the scheme: Laplace, Legrendre, Lavoisier, Cassini, Condorcet, leading lights of the Academie des Sciences, are still well known to scientists today.

Such surveying measurements are made by triangulation, a strip of triangles is surveyed along the line of interest. This involves precisely measuring the angles between each each vertex of the triangles in succession: given the three angles of a triangle and the length of one side of the triangle the lengths of the other two sides can be calculated. It’s actually only necessary to measure the length of one side on one triangle on the ground. Once you’ve done that you can use the previously determined lengths for successive triangles. All of France had been surveyed under the direction of César-François Cassini in 1740-80, the meridian survey used a subset of these sites measured at higher precision thanks to the newly invented Borda repeating circle. As well as this triangulation survey a measure of latitude was made at points along the meridian by examining the stars.
The book captures well the feeling of experimental measurement: the obsession with getting things to match up via different routes; the sick feeling when you realise you’ve made a mistake perhaps never to be reversed; the frustration at staring at pages of scribbles trying to find the mistake; the pleasure in things adding up.

Méchain and Delambre split up to measure the meridian in two sections: Delambre taking the northern section from Dunkerque to Rodez and Méchain the section from Rodez to Barcelona. Méchain delayed endlessly throughout the project, trusting little measurement to his accompanying team. Early on in the process, at Barcelona, he believed he had made a terrible error in measurement, but was unable to check whilst Spain and France were at war. He was wracked by doubt for the following years, only handing over doctored notes with great reluctance at the very end of the project. He was to die not long after the initial measurements were completed, leaving his original notes for Delambre to sift through.

At the time the measurements were originally made the understanding of experimental uncertainty, precision and accuracy were poorly developed. Driven in part by the meridian project and similar survey work by Gauss in Germany, statistical methods for handling experimental error more rigorously were developed not long afterwards. I wrote a little about this back here. Satellite surveying methods show that the error in the measurement by Méchain and Delambre is equivalent to 0.2 millimetres in a metre or 0.02%.

In the end the Earth turns out not to be a great object on which to base a measurement system: although it’s pretty uniform it isn’t really uniform and this limits the accuracy of your units. The alternative proposed at the time was to base the metre on a pendulum: it was to have the length necessary to produce a pendulum of period 2 seconds. This is also ultimately based on properties of the Earth since the second was defined as a certain fraction of the day (the time the Earth takes to rotate on its axis) and the local gravity which varies slightly from place to place, as Maskelyne demonstrated.

Following the Revolution, France adopted, for a short time, a decimal system of time as well as metric units but these soon lapsed. However, the new metric units were taken up across the world over the following years – often this was during unification following war and upheaval.

The definition of the basic units used in science is still an active area. The definition of the metre has not relied on a unique physical object since 1960, rather it is defined by a process: the distance light travels in a small moment of time. However, the kilogram is still defined by a physical object but this may end soon with some exquisitely crafted silicon spheres.

I must admit to being a bit wary of this book in the first instance, how interesting can it be to measure the length of a line? However, it turns out I like to read history through the medium of science and the book provides an insight into France at the Revolution. Furthermore measuring the length of a line is interesting, or it is to a physicist like me.

Thanks to @beckyfh for recommending it!

1. The full-text of the three volume “Base du système métrique décimal” written by Delambre is available online. The back of the second volume contains summary tables of all the triangles and a diagram showing their locations.
2. The author’s website.
3. Some locations in Google Maps.

Book review: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

TheAscentOfMoneyThis blog post is my review and notes on “The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World” by Niall Ferguson. It’s a thematic run through the key elements of our current global finance system which ends with subprime mortgages and the present day.

Money, tokens representing value, started with the clay tablets of Mesopotamia as “promissory notes” for goods some 4000 years ago. For a very long time the basis of all money was precious metals such as gold and silver, it’s only been in the last 40 years or so that the link to gold has been broken for major currencies. The Spanish were burnt by metal coin when they started extensive mining for silver in South America – devaluing the coin in Europe through excess supply.

Fibonacci helped to introduce Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe in 1202 through his book, Liber Abaci, which contained commercial calculations including currency and interest rates. Many of the early bankers were Jewish, they were legally restricted from taking part in many sorts of commerce and, through usury laws, the Christians were unable to lend but Jews could (their usury laws restricting lending to other Jews). Banking really took off with the Medici family during the 15th century, originally they dealt in foreign currency but diversified and, critically, became big. Size was important, because large size reduces risk.

Banking innovation then moved north from Italy with three innovations: the Amsterdam Exchange Bank (1609) introduced a standard currency, the Stockholm Banco (1657) started lending and then the Bank of England (1694) started issuing notes which meant there was no need for an account with the bank.

This is followed by the issuing of government bonds, these are essentially the way governments raise debt. Bonds have a face value – and an annual percentage return on their face value but the price at which they are sold in the market may vary. They were initially used by governments to raise money for wars. Rothschild bank made it’s money in this way in the early 19th century. Bonds are seen as very secure investments, but governments do default – most recently the Russia government in 1998.

The final innovation was the limited-liability company, a way by which individuals could band together to undertake longer term projects without risking everything (they only risked the value of their shares). The first of these was the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 – formed to conduct the spice trade with the Far East (a risky and expensive business). In theory the directors and shareholders hold the company to account but in practice the value of the company shares on the stock market is the real control.

The first great stock market bubble was the Mississippi Company in France and was led by a Scotsman, John Law. Along with with control of the company he also exerted considerable control over the Banque Royale – the French national bank. The result was a system of share sales which spiralled completely out of control with the central bank making almost daily changes in its rules to enable the sale of more shares in the Mississippi company or to support their price. Ultimately the whole system crashed in 1720; Ferguson argues that this led in part to the French Revolution since the whole performance put the French off exciting financial innovations which could have lead to a more stable system.

Ferguson identifies five stages to a speculative bubble:

  1. Displacement – something changes which leads to a new economic opportunity.
  2. Euphoria – prices start to spiral upwards.
  3. Mania – first time buyers rush in and fall prey to swindlers.
  4. Distress – insiders realise the game is up and start to leave.
  5. Revulsion – everyone else realises the game is up and try too leave too. The bubble bursts.

The depressing thing is that people have been dutifully following these five steps for nearly 300 years!

Next up is insurance, and scientific developments in statistics make an appearance. Ferguson focuses on the Scottish Widows insurance scheme, set up in 1744, to pay pensions to the widows of Scottish clergymen. Although he introduces a wide range of statistical developments including work by Pascal, Bernoulli’s (Jacob and Daniel), de Moivre and Bayes it seems to me the key development were the mortality tables compiled by John Graunt in 1662.

The presence of numerate scientists should not be seen as a panacea though, the Black-Scholes equation for pricing options looks like a piece of thermodynamics: Merton and Scholes won a Nobel Prize for it (Black missed out having died) nevertheless over-enthusiastic application of this equation lead to a fairly serious crash.

Ferguson comments that we are currently in a second round of globalisation, prior to the First World War financial markets were already fairly globalised although quite often under circumstances of colonisation. The outbreak of war necessitated a substantial increase in government support and intervention in the markets and after the war difficult economic circumstances made it easy to continue with this.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of the property owning democracy grew out of the New Deal in the US in the 1930’s prior to that time only 40% of householders in the US were homeowners – the figure now approaches 70%. The same has happened in the UK, although somewhat later with fewer than half of people homeowners in 1970 and a level of approximately 70% now. In a sense the subprime mortgage lending that led to the recent recession is the final playing out of this policy. Ferguson is clearly not too enamoured of the property-owning democracy – seeing it as an over-concentration on a single asset class.

I found this a nice background to understanding economics, it shows how various financial innovations were introduced and how they can contribute to a successful economy. It also highlights how the misuse of such innovations can lead to financial disaster, and does so with depressing frequency. The chronology through the book is not very clear, I suspect he expands on particular instances that best illustrate his point rather focusing on first introduction. Although it has extensive notes and indexes, it could do with a glossary.

Book review: Doomsday Men by P.D. Smith

DoomsdayMenMy next book review is on Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P.D. Smith. I arrived at this book via the comments on my earlier post about the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. I also wrote about science fiction, which is relevant to this book too.

Doomsday Men brings context to the Manhattan Project, it shows the early imagining of what radioactivity could bring in terms of weapons of war, it shows science fiction writers foreseeing the applications, politicians considering the practical use of weapons of mass destruction and scientists working towards them. Alongside atomic weapons the potential for war from the air had been well considered before it was implemented.

The book starts with the conception of a genuine doomsday superweapon, that’s to say one that would wipe out all life on earth. This had been a theme of science fiction in the past, but in the early 1950’s it became plausible. Essentially the trick is to set off a fusion explosion in the presence of a large quantity of a particular element, cobalt, which would pick up neutrons becoming intensely radioactive whilst being vapourised and cast up into the atmosphere to settle the world over providing a lethal dose of radiation. The amount of cobalt required is about 10,000 tonnes which is only a cube with sides 10 metres long. There’s an open question as to whether the dust would be distributed uniformly enough to wipe out all life.

Leo Szilard is a central character through the book, along with fellow Hungarians John Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, known collectively as the Hungarian Quartet. They arrived in the US, fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and were to play an important part in the development of nuclear weapons. It’s very striking the number of European Jews who migrated to the US in the period after the First World War, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. In the first instance many of them were keen to help in the development of nuclear weapons as a response to Hitler’s rise in Germany: a state they believed had both the technical ability to make such weapons and, with Hitler, the will to use them in war. Towards the end of the Second World War many of them felt less enthusiastic about their use against the Japanese, despite Japan’s hideous development and use of biological weapons against the Chinese in the 1930’s. Following the war, Von Neumann and particularly Teller continued to be involved in further developments now driven by anti-Communism sentiments.

The route to the doomsday weapon started with the discovery of radioactivity towards the end of the 19th century, and in particular the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie at the turn of the century. Around 1902 Frederick Soddy and Sir William Crookes both highlighted the huge amounts of energy was bound up in matter. Crookes saying: “one gram could raise the entire fleet of the British Navy several thousand fleet in the sky”. By 1913 H.G. Wells had very explicitly written about a nuclear weapon in “A World Set Free”. The use of chemical weapons, tanks and aeroplanes in war had all been imagined well before they were used too. Clearly there are big technical issues to address in going from a science fiction idea to a real system in battle, but the point here is that these ideas had serious public currency well before they were realised: there could be no “we’ll keep this quiet and no-one will think of it”. In a sense the key theme of the book is the interweaving of fiction with fact through the first half of the 20th century.

It was during the First World War that “scientific” superweapons started to be used, and the importance of science in waging war started to be recognised explicitly. Fritz Haber, a chemist, Nobel prize-winner for his commercial synthesis of ammonia, contemporary of Einstein, was instrumental in bringing chemical weapons to war, he was a German nationalist and felt the development of such weapons a duty to his country. He seemed quite enthusiastic about his work, writing:

“Chlorine: easy to liquefy, disastrous to the human organism, very cheap, mind you! Phosgene: ten times as strong as chlorine. Mustard gas: the best fighting gas of all”.

Once the Germans had used chemical weapons the British and French quickly developed their own. Research and manufacture of chemical weapons was to involve up to 75,000 people by the end of the war – this is about half the number involved in the Manhattan Project. A minority of scientists considered chemical warfare as a blessing compared to the conventional equivalent, for many others it was utterly abhorrent. The military had mixed feelings. Chemical weapons were banned by a variety of treaties, practically they seemed something of a double-edged sword with the first British use of chlorine at Loos causing 2000 casualties on their own side which perhaps explains why they’ve been so rarely used since. With the rise of Nazism Haber, a Jew, was to flee Germany and die shortly thereafter.

The First World War also saw the foundation of the British Board of Invention and Research in 1916, tasked with finding science to fight wars – it sought ideas from the public, one of the which was to train cormorants to peck out the mortar between bricks!

Biological weapons were to be developed by the Japanese whilst at war in China during the 1930’s and the Second World War, in an effort led by Shiro Ishii. During this period thousands were to die through his work, many in a range of human experiments to match those carried out by the Nazi doctors. Following the Second World War Ishii was given immunity from prosecution in order that the US could obtain information on biological weapons from him.

So chemistry and biology produced rather unpleasant weapons but they could not be described as decisive: for that you need physicists.

Szilard was first to realise (in 1933) that an atomic bomb might be made via a chain reaction: the fission of an atomic nucleus producing two or more neutrons which would drive further fission. He made some effort to keep the idea secret, at least from the Germans, via a patent held by the British Admirality. This was a very unusual move for a scientist in an area of pure science. In 1939 he was to visit Roosevelt with Einstein to warn him of the potential for an atomic bomb and the possibility that the Germans would make one. Ultimately this contact led to the Manhattan Project and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: killing at least 200,000 people.

One of the recurring themes in fiction was the idea of a scientist discovering the doomsday weapon and then holding the world to ransom for peace with the new “system of the world”: a world government led by scientists and technocrats. This sort of idea is better described as left-wing rather than right-wing. And I can say, as a scientist, that it has a certain appeal! Perhaps this explains something of why scientists are more often perceived as left-wing rather than right-wing.

Doomsday Men ends with the story of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr Strangelove: or How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb”. The title character appears to have been based on a combination of Teller, von Neumann and perhaps Werner von Braun – the German rocket scientist captured by the Americans who went on to found the US space programme.

Overall a rather good read: providing good context to the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, and the importance of science fiction in seeing into the future.

Footnote: one of the drawbacks of reading on a Kindle: I reached the end rather unexpectedly since the footnotes, bibliography, and index take up a third of the book!