I’m not sure at what point in my adult life I decided I love science, but if I had been able to read books by Sam Kean when I was in school, I might have come to this conclusion at a much younger age. Then again, I think the interest has always been there (at one point I thought I would be a zoologist, because I liked animals), but the knowledge didn’t seem accessible to me. Whether it was because I was a girl and thought I just couldn’t “do science,” or because I excelled at literature, I went in another direction.
Now when I pick up a book by Sam Kean, I wonder what I was ever afraid of. In Kean’s hands, science is both intelligble and mind blowing. Thanks to him, I now know that science is more than complicated chemical formulas: your 6CO2 + 6H2O —> C6H12O6 + 6O2 is all well and good, but who knew that scientific study also comprises outrageously named theories like The Big Thwack (which describes the origins of our moon) or characters like Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who once mummified a colleague as part of an experiment on breathing and was later executed during the French Revolution (as far as I know, those two points are not closely related).
Kean’s latest book, Caesar’s Last Breath, is about air. That’s right, air. Three hundred seventy-two pages worth of air. You might wonder, how much can one say about oxygen–tut, tut, that’s your first mistake! We’re not talking only about oxygen here, we’re talking about everything that makes up the air we breathe, no matter how small the quantity: hydrogen sulfide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen. In grade school, we learned a simple formula: oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. But when has science ever been that simple? To put it in perspective, even though ammonia is only .00001 parts per million in the air, we inhale 100 billion molecules of it every time we breathe. All at once Kean’s observations open up worlds and simplify them.
Kean bounces from topic to topic with glee. As I was reading Caesar’s Last Breath, I was reminded of the old BBC documentary series Connections with James Burke. Like Connections, this book takes us on a delightful journey through history, where the introduction of William McGonagall, arguably the worst poet of all time, leads to a discussion of carbon monoxide, subjects that are connected through the collapse of the Tay Bridge in Scotland. The bridge collapse was the result of a lack of carbon monoxide in the production of the bridge’s iron towers; McGonagall wrote a truly horrendous poem about the disaster (it happened on the “last Sabbath day of 1879,/Which will be remember’d for a very long time.” Man why didn’t my 10th grade biology teacher throw in some bad poetry to hold my attention?). And if Kean hadn’t already won me over, he sealed the deal in his interlude on ethanol by citing one of the most memorable passages in English literature: the famous spontaneous combustion scene from Dickens’ Bleak House. Of course Kean couldn’t pass up an opportunity to relate the ongoing disagreement between Dickens and scientist George Lewes, who was angry at the author for perpetuating such hogwash. Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is indeed a section on flatulence, because this is a book about gases, so really how could you avoid that and who would want to?
Of course not everything in this book is as lighthearted and fun as spontaneous combustion and bad poetry. Kean chronicles such disasters as the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and the mass deaths in Cameroon in 1986 when Lake Nyos spewed a cloud of carbon dioxide that settled over a nearby village, killing over 1700 people and 6000 cattle. Other dark characters from history make appearances, including Fritz Haber, the chemist I previously mentioned in my review of The Disappearing Spoon. Haber, a Nobel-prize winning chemist, helped make huge strides in the area of fertilization but also helped the Germans perfect chemical weapons. Sadly, those weapons would eventually be turned on Haber’s own people in concentration camps. Mass weaponry takes an even darker turn when Kean discusses radiation and the Manhattan Project. Atmospheric bomb testing between 1950 and 1963 doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the air. This addition of more than a trillion pounds of carbon-14 won’t drop back to normal for thousands of years. As a result, your chances of getting cancer are greater than they would have been otherwise, even if you were born after the test-ban treaty. Thanks for the new nightmares, Sam!
Kean’s writing is by turns hilarious and poetic. His strength is in making connections and conveying the big picture among all the little stories. How fitting that a passage from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” introduces the book:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I look forward to more new worlds and grains of sands in Kean’s next book, whatever the topic may be.