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No. 728:
Death of Lavoisier

Today, we destroy suddenly what we've built slowly. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In an odd essay, Stephen Jay Gould contemplates the severed head of Antoine Lavoisier. We know the chemist Lavoisier for identifying oxygen. He did that and much more.

Lavoisier was an aristocrat. Yet he took part in the French Revolution. He also worked as a tax-collector. From within that hated business, he worked to reform the corrupt French tax system. He was a complete human being. He invested himself fully in his world. He took part in it intellectually, politically, and socially.

He belonged to the Academy of Science. When Jean-Paul Marat tried to become a member, Lavoisier pointed out that his writings were empty. Marat was furious. As the Reign of Terror heated up, he used the Revolution to attack Lavoisier.

Marat had done his damage before Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in his bath. The Revolution finally arrested Lavoisier and sent him to the guillotine.

Before the arrest, Lavoisier wrote to his friend Ben Franklin. He wished Franklin's level head were around to cool things down. From prison he wrote to his cousin. These events would at least save him the troubles of old age.

The mathematician LaGrange lamented the beheading. He said,

It took them only an instant to cut off that head,but France may not produce another like it in a century.

Gould takes us to an address at the Paris Museum a few years later. A noted naturalist named Lacépède pretended to talk about the Indian caste system. Actually, he echoed Lagrange.

Centuries are needed to nurture the tree of science and make it grow, but one blow from the hatchet of destruction cuts it down.

Of course the brutality of the Revolution was on his mind more than caste systems. Lavoisier's murder had shaken French science. Lacépède grieved that loss. He also offered a way to protect ourselves against one stupid piece of savagery.

Never forget that we can only stave off that fatal degradation if we unite the liberal arts, which embody the sacred fire of sensibility, with the sciences and useful arts.

For that's what Lavoisier had done. He showed us how science should live in a real world -- live at risk.

Gould, Lacépède, and Lagrange were all horrified by the asymmetry of slow creation followed by sudden destruction. Yet that's not where the story ends.

Lavoisier's accusers are long forgotten. His legacy is very much alive. And we realize: We can damage the house that reason and good will slowly and carefully build, no doubt. But that dwelling is much harder to destroy than we might think.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, Chapter 24.