Antoine Lavoisier: The Next Crucial Year

Antoine Lavoisier: The Next Crucial Year: Or, The Sources of His Quantitative Method in Chemistry

Frederic Lawrence Holmes
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 192
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    Antoine Lavoisier: The Next Crucial Year
    Book Description:

    Through his development of quantitative experimental methods, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) implemented a principle that many regard as the cornerstone of modern science: in every operation there is an equal quantity of material before and after the operation. The origin of Lavoisier's methods, however, has remained a missing piece in this remarkable episode of scientific history, perhaps because the talented young scientist himself was not prepared for the journey his discoveries would set before him. In this book, Frederic Holmes suggests that Lavoisier gradually came to understand the nature and power of his quantitative method during the year 1773, when he began to carry out a research program on the fixation and release of airs. Drawing upon Lavoisier's surviving laboratory notebooks, Holmes presents an engaging portrait of a scientist still seeking the way that would lead him to become the leader of one of the great upheavals in the history of science.

    Holmes follows Lavoisier day-by-day at work in his laboratory over a course of several months. The scientist's resourcefulness and imagination spring to life in this account, as does his propensity to make mistakes, which taught him as much as his successes. During the course of this odyssey, Lavoisier saw his early theory of combustion collapse under the weight of his own efforts to provide experimental evidence to support it. In compensation, he acquired a method and the hard-won experience on which he would later construct a more enduring theoretical structure.

    Originally published in 1997.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6465-2
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
    Frederic L. Holmes
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-6)

    The title and subtitle of this book signify two themes interwoven into the texture of its narrative. I began to write about the first months in the investigative program that Antoine Lavoisier initiated in February 1773, because I thought that the distinctive quantitative chemical method with which he is historically identified could be seen emerging during those months. The evidence could be found, I believed, in the first of the twelve volumes of laboratory notebooks of Lavoisier preserved in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. As I began to reconstruct the experimental activity recorded in that volume,...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Sources of Lavoisier’s Quantitative Method in Chemistry
    (pp. 7-11)

    Chemists, historians, and philosophers have long attributed to Antoine Lavoisier the introduction into chemistry of the quantitative methods characteristic of “modern” science. From an inconspicuous place in hisTraité élémentaire de chimiethey have extracted and made famous his statement that “nothing is created, either in the operations of art, or of nature, and one can state as a principle that in every operation there is an equal quantity of material before and after the operation.”¹ This principle, treated by present chemical textbooks as “the cornerstone of all chemistry,”² is generally acknowledged to be far older than Lavoisier; but he...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Consequences of the Crucial Year
    (pp. 12-17)

    When Lavoisier described his first experiments on the combustion of phosphorus in a closed vessel, in a memoir he drafted on October 20, 1772, he was uncertain about how much weight the substance had gained. “This augmentation of weight, of which it is not easy to confirm exactly the quantity [proportion],” he wrote, derives from the combination of the air which is fixed in that operation.”¹ Perrin has pointed out that the uncertainty arose from the rapidity with which the phosphoric acid absorbs water.² Lavoisier could not tell how much of the gain to ascribe to the water, and how...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Vision and Reality
    (pp. 18-29)

    The first experiments Lavoisier recorded in his notebook—“experiments to make fixed alkali caustic”—he dated February 23, or two days after writing out his research plans. He had probably started them, however, at the beginning of February. They were based directly on Joseph Black’s description of the action of lime on fixed alkali: “If quick-lime be mixed with a dissolved alkali, it likewise shews an attraction for fixed air superior to that of the alkali. It robs this salt of the air, and thereby becomes mild itself, while the alkali is consequently rendered more corrosive.”¹ Lavoisier chose not to...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Public Arena
    (pp. 30-40)

    It is a measure of both the audacity and the ambition of the young Academician, not yet quite thirty years old, that in the midst of this sea of troubles Lavoisier not only carried through his intention to present “something” to the public at the open Easter meeting of the Academy, but made it the occasion to announce in sweeping terms his new “theory.” In the paper he prepared, he aimed to embrace, even in the “brief time” allowed him in this prominent forum, both his own initial discoveries about combustion and calcination, and some of the broader range of...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Reflections
    (pp. 41-46)

    Even before he presented his paper at the Academy, Lavoisier wrote, on April 15, an “Essay on the Nature of Air,” which he intended to be a sequel to the first. In it he discussed some ideas about the three states of matter whose origin can be traced back, as J. B. Gough first pointed out in 1968, to a manuscript that the youthful Lavoisier had written in 1766. Then, after stating that when water has acquired a certain degree of heat it becomes a vapor, Lavoisier had asked himself, “Is air itself not a fluid in expansion?”¹ In August...

  10. CHAPTER SIX In the Shadow of Black
    (pp. 47-59)

    After making his theory of calcination and combustion public at the Easter meeting, Lavoisier was free to pursue his research program in a somewhat less stressful manner. For the moment he put aside the frantic effort to make the calcination experiments work, and explored some of the other questions that had arisen both in his own investigation and in his study of the work of others. He also had time again to indulge in his penchant for designing special apparatus suitable to his needs. Probably the first step he took (although it is not recorded in his laboratory register), was...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Caution and Consolidation
    (pp. 60-81)

    On may 19, the day after performing the experiments modeled on those of Black, Lavoisier was at the Academy of Sciences, continuing to read portions of his history of experiments on fixed air. The next day he was busy again in his laboratory. Although he had modified Black’s experiments by employing nitrous air in place of marine acid, and had applied his results to calculate quantitative proportions beyond those reported by Black, he had not moved significantly beyond the methodology Black had applied to the problem. Like his predecessor, Lavoisier had traced the transfers of fixed air only indirectly, through...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT The Long Summer Campaign
    (pp. 82-103)

    On june 27, Lavoisier went back, for the first time since he had deposited the sealed note in November 1772, to the experiment that had first inspired his program to study the fixation and release of airs: the combustion of phosphorus. Although he appears to have regarded the phenomenon of weight gain that he had observed then as the most secure foundation of his theory, he probably wanted now to determine the proportions of phosphorus and air combined in the resulting phosphorous acid. (The experiment in a vessel saturated with water vapor that had convinced him that the gain derived...

  13. CHAPTER NINE The End of the Beginning
    (pp. 104-124)

    In the memoir that he read to the Academy on July 17, Lavoisier remarked, as he made the transition from the first half of his paper on the elastic fluid contained in alkalis, to the second half on metallic precipitations:

    Perhaps this would be the moment to report the experiments that I have made on the nature of the elastic fluid disengaged from saline alkalis and alkaline earths; nevertheless, other considerations oblige me to occupy myself first with the combination of this same fluid with metallic substances.¹

    There is a poignancy in the way this eager young scientist approached, and...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Mopping-Up Operations
    (pp. 125-139)

    The commissioners assigned to examine Lavoisier’s treatise decided to verify his results by asking him to repeat in their presence the most important of his experiments. For this purpose Trudaine de Montigny and Pierre Joseph Macquer were added to the commission. Witnessing experiments they were called upon to evaluate was a common procedure in the Academy, but if Lavoisier were as anxious to make his results public as his rush to finish his treatise suggests, he may not have welcomed the delay.

    Trudaine, Le Roy, Macquer, and Cadet assembled in Lavoisier’s laboratory on Saturday, September 25, for the “Verification of...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Conclusion
    (pp. 140-144)

    To twentieth-century readers, theOpuscules physiques et chymiqueshas seemed paradoxical. Viewed as the first move toward the revolution Lavoisier later led to completion, it appears hesitant, mild, and unfocused. Andrew Meldrum wrote in 1930 that “theOpuscules,at the first reading, is a disappointing work. One expects great things of Lavoisier.”¹ Its lack of the militant tones one expects of the opening attack on the bastions of an establishment have led some historians to infer that Lavoisier was keeping his true intentions secret. Maurice Daumas wrote in 1941 that “theOpusculesis not a work of combat. It contains...

    (pp. 145-152)

    The preceding chapters have provided a concentrated narrative about one crucial year in the scientific life of a man whose total life was richly multifaceted. I have tried to present this episode as a story that is meaningful within its own boundaries, but that also offers new perspectives on what came before and after. It is time now to reflect tentatively on how this story can be connected with the broader pictures of Lavoisier that have emerged from a long tradition of historical scholarship, and with some of the recent trends in the historiography of the history of science.


    (pp. 153-156)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 157-180)
  19. Index
    (pp. 181-184)