Caesar's Last Breath Decoding the secrets of the air around us

Caesar's Last Breath
Decoding the secrets of the air around us 

by Sam Kean, 2017, 373 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978-0-316-38164-2  CAD$36.50

Reviewed by Lyle Sadavoy, Toronto, Ontario 

Caesar's Last Breath is an absolutely delightful book of science, of history, of humour and of fantasy. Kean provides the reader with his trademark humorous and irreverent style of writing, making this book, like his others, engaging and so very enjoyable.

Caesar surrounded by clouds

His new book is divided into three sections about our atmosphere: 

  • the Earth's early atmospheres, 
  • how our learning was shaped by our present one, and 
  • how our activities are now affecting it. 

Each section is divided into chapters focused on one or two gases, and are cleverly bridged by “interludes”. These interludes tie chapters together with fascinating stories of events or inventions.  

Please do not be tempted to skip the introduction! It will literally hook you into the book. It is a riveting, perhaps fanciful, look at Caesar's last day and the statistics of the fate of the molecules we inhale and exhale. If there is any detraction, it is that not being a scientist, Kean defaults to using the vernacular "American" units. For readers who have grown up with the metric system, this can appear strange. It may however provide your students with an excellent conversion exercise.

In a section called Notes and Miscellanea, Kean expands on concepts or historical events, providing additional details. 
I suggest a separate bookmark so that you can easily flip to the back to catch these extremely interesting nuances.

Kean starts with Making Air, describing how the Earth's atmosphere evolved. He recounts the enthralling Mount St. Helens volcano story and uses the science of volcanic eruptions to illustrate the formation of Earth's early atmosphere. Kean then follows with the development of nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The nitrogen chapter uses ammonia to advance the histories of Haber and Bosch. Using every colour on his historical palette, Kean paints both of these men, and does not mince words. His chapter on oxygen delves into the intersecting lives of Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier and gives an interesting account of phlogiston. Surprisingly, as Kean notes, early oxygen was toxic to life. The three engaging interludes in this section include the story of the lake that "belched" carbon dioxide, the discovery of how to cut iron by burning it and the mystery of spontaneous combustion. 

Section two, Harnessing Air, begins with nitrous oxide as the vehicle for Kean to describe the life of Humphrey Davy. Every chemistry teacher will know about Sir Humphrey Davy but likely very few will have learned anything about his early life and his start in gases. His story is captivating as is the advent of anaesthesia. From nitrous oxide we move to vacuums and how the "void" led to many inventions, including the steam engine, replete with the story of James Watt, and the not-so-pretty life and times of Alfred Nobel. This section’s last instalment uses hot air ballooning to delve into gas laws and the discovery of the noble gases by Rayleigh and Ramsay.

Kean is at his funniest in this section’s interludes. One cannot read the interlude on flatulence without seeing Kean as a stand-up comic! The other two involve steel making using carbon monoxide and the advent of coal gas to light up the night, both engrossing in their own right.

The final section is devoted to the effects of mankind on the atmosphere. The first chapter details the US nuclear bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll, with stories involving secretiveness, near misses, agonizing radiation deaths and problems of fallout in the atmosphere. It is a frightening legacy, full of mistakes, politics, fear, ignorance and carelessness. The next chapter involves our futile attempts to control the weather and the stories around Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir. The interludes include Einstein's foray into producing a better refrigeration system and a flying saucer story with links to weather and spying.

Kean is at his sarcastic and fanciful best in the last chapter as he considers the atmospheres on other planets, specifically our neighbours and the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. Kean muses about colonizing another planet should the Earth become uninhabitable. While the tone is fantasy, the message is clear.

On its own, Caesar's Last Breath is an absolute pleasure to read, making an excellent gift or student award. For a science teacher, specifically those teaching chemistry, the book is a colourful history and science of gases. Opportunities abound for mole and unit conversions with the concentration of each gas given in either molecules per breath or parts per million. As well, teachers can incorporate plenty of applications of science and technology, such as volcanoes, anaesthesiology, nuclear fallout, hurricane seeding or global warming. This book has plenty for everyone. 

[Sam Kean is a plenary speaker at BCCE 2018 this summer.]