Antoine Lavoisier: Misguided Rationalism of the French Revolution


On 8 May 1794, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) died in Paris, France. An early modern chemist and public servant (who studied street lighting arrangements), he was detained by a mob organized during the Reign of Terror, which had accused him of financial crimes, and sentenced to be guillotined.

Through his critical research on calcination of metals and the phlogiston theory of combustion, Lavoisier was able to demonstrate that these reactions obeyed the law of conservation of mass. He further provided evidence for the existence of elements, which he enumerated in his textbook Elements of Chemistry/ Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (1789). These substances were considered to be indivisible and the “last point which analysis is capable of reaching,” though he acknowledged that more elements beyond his preliminary list could also be discovered by his successors. With Claude Bertholet (1748–1822) and Antoine Fourcroy (1755–1809), he also worked to establish a new nomenclature system based on Latin and Greek roots.

Several paragraphs from Lavoisier’s Mémoires de chimie had suggested that ancient philosophical concepts about a creator-God are still useful in teaching principles of chemistry for the study of both living and non-living matter.

Respiration is nothing but a slow combustion of carbon and hydrogen, which is entirely similar to that which occurs in a lighted lamp or candle, and that, from this point of view, animals that respire are true combustible bodies that burn and consume themselves…One may say that this analogy between combustion and respiration has not escaped the notice of the poets, or rather the philosophers of antiquity, and which they had expounded and interpreted. This fire stolen from heaven, this torch of Prometheus, does not only represent an ingenious and poetic idea, it is a faithful picture of the operations of nature…In reviewing an illustration so happy, we are almost tempted to believe, that the ancients had, in fact, penetrated more deeply than is generally imagined into the sanctuary of the sciences, and that their fables, as some writers have maintained, are but allegories under which they have concealed important truths in general physics and in medicine…The result of all that we have to say in this moment on the respiration, is only the development of the element of the principal idea which we have just enunciated…The traveler is less liable to go astray, when he sees before him the term to which he proposes to arrive.” // “La respiration n’est qu’une combustion lente de carbone et d’hydrogene, qui est semblable en tout a celle qui s’opére dans une lampe ou dans une bougie allumée, et que, sous ce point de vue, les animaux qui respirent sont de véritables corps combustibles qui brülent et se consument… On dirait que cette analogie… n’avait point échappé aux poëtes, ou plutôt aux philosophes de l’antiquité, dont ils étaient les interprètes et les organes. Ce feu dérobé du ciel, ce flambeau de Prométhée, ne présente pas seulement une idée ingénieuse et poétique; c’est la peinture fidelle des opérations de la nature… En considérant des rapports si heureux, on seroit quelquefois tenté de croire, qu’en effet les anciens avoient pénétré plus avant que nous ne le pensons daris le sanctuaire des connoissances, et que la fable, comme quelques auteurs l’ont pensé, n’est qu’une allégorie sous laquelle ils cachoient les grandes vérités de la médecine et de la physique…La suite de Tout ce que nous avons à dire en ce moment sur la respiration, n’est que le dévelop•équence de pement de l’idée principale que nous venons d’énoncer… Le voyageur est moins sujet à s’égarer, lorsqu’il voit devant lui le terme auquel il se propose d’arriver.”

Scratch, Lydia S. “Lavoisier, Antoine.” Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. © The Gale Group, 2004.
Baumé, Antoine. Chymie expérimentale et raisonnée, Vol. 1 (1773), preface x.
Lavoisier, Antoine-Laurent. Mémoires de chimie, Vol. 2. (1805) pp. 59-60.
Images: Photograph online at Pinterest; Lavoisier Chemistry Laboratory by Robert Thom (© FineArtAmerica).


Pope Francis: Finding truth and joy in research


On 11 June 2016, Pope Francis said to the summer course participants at the Vatican Observatory:

“God’s creation, and our own place in it, is shared by men and women of very diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. All of us dwell under the same sky. All of us are moved by the beauty revealed in the cosmos and reflected in the study of the heavenly bodies and substances. In this sense, we are united by the desire to discover the truth about how this marvellous universe operates; and in this, we draw ever closer to the Creator.

He also mentioned hardship and joy that we can find in  the daily work as scientists:

“Dear brothers and sisters, scientific research demands great commitment, yet can sometimes prove lengthy and tiresome.  At the same time, it can, and should be, a source of deep joy.  I pray that you will be able to cultivate that interior joy and allow it to inspire your work.  Share it with your friends, your families and your nations, as well as with the international community of scientists with whom you work.  May you always find joy in your research and share the fruit of your studies with humility and fraternity.”

2016-06-11 P Francis

read more here: Radio Vatican: Pope Francis speaks to participants of Vatican Observatory summer course