Joy Hakim has two chapters about Lavoisier in her Story of Science, Newton at the Center. This is a critique of the second, chapter 26 of the book.
Antoine Lavoisier was a chemist of the first degree. He was also a tax collector at a time in French history when there was a great upheaval about taxes. In the end his head was cut off. What annoys me most about this chapter is that Hakim seems intent on entering into the political fray of Lavoisier’s times — and basically on the Jacobin side, which is the anti-Catholic and indeed the atheistic and anarchic side. It is true that changes were needed. It does not follow that anarchy was the right way to go about it, and this is relevant today. Many people were working for the needed changes, and a reflection on the possibility of peaceful social change is very important.
But it is not exactly relevant to the study of chemistry.
So then the question is, again, what does it mean to write a history of science? Does it mean: to write a history of scientists, their times and their politics? Or is it a history of ideas, enlivened by the lives of the men who first glimpsed them? It is not an easy undertaking, either way. But I would like to see more of the latter, and fewer of these side trips into highly charged issues about which Hakim invariably takes the anti-Catholic position and drops it as settled correctness on her largely unsuspecting students.
The chapter begins with two quotations from Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry. The first one is about submitting reason to the test of experiment and never seeking truth in any other way. I don’t know whether Lavoisier meant it for life or only for chemistry, but anyway, it’s certainly not good enough for all of life, as many aspects of life are not subject to experiment and must be received in trust, even on the human level. Furthermore, even within the natural sciences, the search for truth always involves an imaginative journey, especially a comparison of one pattern with another. That’s how we come up with hypotheses to test. The modern textbook emphasis on experiment as the only guide to truth is very destructive of human life and culture.
The second quotation from the Elements of Chemistry, in the lower right of the page, would make a great theme for a chapter on Lavoisier. That he should have seen how much biology is built from so few parts, chemically speaking, was really very exciting.
The text begins: Lavoisier’s parents wanted him to study law, but when he went to school, he found that he was interested in science.
The upper left section of this page has an inexcusable cartoon of a peasant carrying a nobleman and an archbishop on his back, with the assertion that “it took the French Revolution to change that game.” This is a science text. Insulting remarks about the Church are not in order, and the French Revolution was extremely destructive, not only of the nobility and the Church, but of the poor as well. Class envy is never serviceable to anyone but the Communists and to the Jacobins, their intellectual forefathers; and they never help anyone but themselves. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is always fair game to shoot down in a public school setting, while the good the Church has done is considered “religion” and is not permitted in any text.
And this is being used as a textbook in California.
The text continues with a discussion of Lavoisier’s role in the tax collection system — which he thought onerous and whose effects he fought with his wealth. Since his wealth was partly taken from that system, Hakim offers her account in a manner suggesting that he was a hypocrite, complicit in its evils and possibly deserving of the hatred he later faced. In other words, she is preparing the students to accept his beheading, coming up soon.
Here is an account of many of Lavoisier’s friends and dinner guests, famous men, many whom you have heard of, since they were American patriots. The man who designed the guillotine was among them, hoping that his invention would be used to make beheading more merciful and quick, not that it would be used to make the streets of Paris run with blood.
An inset on electrolysis ensures that this topic will not be understood.
It’s all very well to be dramatic and say that Lavoisier demolished the earth, air, fire, and water theory of the ancient Greeks. But in fact, he just took the next step. Boyle and Cavendish had already isolated hydrogen and then made water by burning it, so the creation of water from “air” was already done, and the four elements of “earth, air, fire, and water” were no longer a functional part of scientific thinking. Yet, when Lavoisier’s made his list of chemical elements, light and “caloric” were included in the list, making it clear that the process of separating chemical elements from the deeper elements of physics was still far from complete. It was a slow process, going from earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence to: the Periodic Table on the one hand and the heat, light, and various energies of physics on the other.
This is an inset about William and Caroline Herschel. Aside from Hakim’s usual condescending tone, it is a good enough piece. It has nothing to do with Lavoisier except to be contemporary with him. Of course they lived a lot longer.
There’s a section here about conservation of mass. We already covered that; see page 264.
In a side box, Hakim offers a slightly cynical title of “terrific textbook! (an oxymoron?)” Well, the irony is that she is engaged in writing a bad textbook herself. Lavoisier’s textbook was excellent.
Love that drawing made by Marie Lavoisier.
The Marat story begins here.
Marat was mad at Lavoisier because he was snubbed when he applied for membership in the French Academy. That was not an excuse for beheading Lavoisier, which he did when he got the chance, with Lavoisier’s involvement in taxation as his excuse.
Ordinarily, the American revolution is dated at 1776, and the French Revolution 13 years later.This is not “right after” and the French Revolution was about atheism, anti-clericalism, and class envy, not just taxes and freedom. Again, equating the French and the American Revolutions is the darling history project of the Jacobins, the Communists, the anarchists, and the anti-culturalists of whatever stripe. That’s because the American Revolution was good, and those who seek the destruction of America and of freedom know that they can advance their agenda by pretending that whatever they are doing is just like the American Revolution. I have no idea how much of this Hakim understands; she is repeating the standard textbook line.
As long as we’re on the topic, however, you should know that the atheists of the French Revolution said, when they beheaded Lavoisier, “The Revolution has no need of scientists.” Keep that firmly in mind when you hear about the Church being an enemy of science.
Pages 275, 276, 277
The last three pages discuss the introduction of the metric system. I suppose it is placed here because it came out of France and belongs to the time period of the French Revolution. It is not part of the general narrative on either chemistry or Lavoisier except indirectly. That is, his own and other men’s investigations of orders of magnitude that are so far beyond our eyesight made it essential to get an orderly set of decimal measures in place, one that would easily serve to describe things as large as galaxies (just coming into sight) or as small as molecules. Once the instruments were reaching into these realms, it was necessary to have words to express the measurements of those realms. The metric system can be used for all sizes of things. Obviously it would have been awkward to change from multiples of ten to multiples of 3 and twelve ((for feet in a yard and inches in a foot, etc).
At the same time, it is not necessary to be scornful — as Hakim occasionally is — of those who were – or are — slow to adopt new the measures. For a carpenter, the change from English to metric requires a completely new set of tools, and if he’s to repair anything old, the inch and foot measures — and their tools — are still essential; and that’s just a small example. Think of printing, of paper sizes and the machines that deal with that. Think of cooking and of changing all the cookbooks. Think of canning, and of health. Everything ever written about weight needs to be transposed when you decide to use kilos instead of pounds. The metric system is good, and is essential for science, but changes of measure are not so easy on the ground as they are for professionals dealing with things nobody has ever seen or sought to measure.
There are many practical reasons for being conservative, and the civilized person keeps this in mind.