Antoine Lavoisier

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Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), French scientist and philosophe (intellectual) who was a key founder of modern chemistry. A theorist and systematizer, he discovered no new chemicals. His great achievement was to synthesized chemical knowledge and laboratory methods in his revolutionary textbook Elements of Chemistry (1789). It swept the scientific world by basing chemistry on the modern concept of chemical elements and made extensive use of the concept of the conservation of mass in chemical reactions. Formerly, chemistry was poorly understood, focused on three or four elements, and utilized false ideas such as negative mass.

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Career

Born in Paris to a very wealthy family, he studied under eminent scientists, won early recognition, and was elected to the highly prestigious Academy of Sciences in 1768. To fund his researches and his scientific assistants and collaborators he accepted the highly lucrative post of collector ("farmer-general") of taxes in 1769.

In applied science he made improvements in manufacturing gunpowder, discovered the composition of the air and the nature of oxygen, applied the principles of chemistry to agriculture, and indicated the presence and action of these principles in various other domains of scientific inquiry. He helped establish the modern metric system of grams and meters.

Lavoisier demonstrated experimentally that oxygen is involved in combustion, rusting, and respiration, thereby disproving the "phlogiston theory." He invented the basic notation like H2O that have been used ever since. He was a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin, and did experiments in electricity.

He collaborated closely with the young mathematician Pierre de Laplace (1749–1827) during 1777-84 on experiments on the physics of heat, temperature, and combustion. The collaboration helped Lavoisier understand the physical aspects of chemical problems. Laplace's assistance enabled Lavoisier to complete his case for the rejection of phlogiston theory.

Long interested in public affairs, he studied French finances and agricultureand drafted a scheme for reforming the educational system.

Executed

During the French Revolution Lavoisier was a moderate constitutionalist who came under heavy attack from the far left, especially Jean Paul Marat. His work with the unpopular Ferme Generale led to his trial during the Reign of Terror. Called to account for his actions as farmer-general, one in particular "putting water in the tobacco," and condemned to the guillotine; he in vain begged for a fortnight's respite to finish some experiments.

Further reading

  • Beretta, Marco, ed. Lavoisier in Perspective (2005) technical studies
  • Donovan, Arthur. Antoine Lavoisier: science, administration, and revolution‎ (1996) 351 pages
  • French, Sidney J. Torch & Crucible: The Life and Death of Antoine Lavoisier (1941) online edition.


References

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