A World On Fire tells the story of Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestly. Both men, one an aristocrat and the other a heretic, raced to discover oxygen. It was the middle of the eighteenth century and an incredible number of changes were on the horizon. The last half of the century would see anarchy, war, and multiple revolutions – both scientific and political. Jackson brings this era to life for the reader.
These two scientists are a study in contrast. Priestley was a poor theologian and a Unitarian pastor who studied science, while Lavoisier was a rich atheistic aristocrat who devoted most of his life to science. Priestley studied science to understand God’s grand designs and Lavoisier searched to explain the world without God’s help. Lavoisier schemed and connived in an effort to boost the acceptance of his research and continuously plagiarized other scientists. Priestley sought to give credit to others and did not particularly care about the fame. Priestley followed traditional thought and procedures; Lavoisier overturned the ideas of the past in an effort to make a name for himself.
The most intriguing contrast was in their approach to scientific investigation. Priestley followed Newton’s approach, which dictated that a scientist should gather all of the data and watch for patterns to emerge. Lavoisier approached science from the more modern idea of hypothesis testing. Together, their two methods clashed and intertwined simultaneously to create the chemical revolution. Priestley discovered and isolated oxygen without really comprehending what he had done. After sharing the experiments with Lavoisier, Lavoisier took the next step and quantified the discovery of oxygen. These two bitter rivals needed each other: one to spark the discovery and the other to finish it.
The lives of Lavoisier and Priestley mirrored their times. The world was in upheaval and revolutions were the thing to do. The USA was formed, France revolted, Britain almost revolted over religious oppression and the rest of Europe was filled with massacres and revolts as monarchies toppled throughout the world. Men realized that they could be free with rights and liberties. Priestley and Lavoisier both ended up on the wrong side of revolutions. Lavoisier was executed during the Great Terror and Priestley was forced to flee Britain to avoid an ignominious death at the hands of riotous mobs. Ironically, Priestley fled England the day before Lavoisier was executed at the guillotine.
While Joe Jackson is an unabashed evolutionist, he treats the religious ideologies and teachings with fairness. More interesting than even the two main characters was Jackson’s portrayal of the world in which they lived. If for no other reason, I recommend that you read this book for that alone. At one point in his life, Priestley was to travel from northern Britain to London. He traveled by boat to avoid the highways as it was safer. Shortly before the French Revolution, Lavoisier built a wall around Paris to prevent smuggling of untaxed goods into the city. Britain was a land of drunks: gin was the most common drink. Paris dabbled in every sort of pseudo-science. Jackson paints a lively picture of science and culture at the formation of the chemical revolution.