Friends, in today’s VERITAS we will recall the story of one of the greatest Chemists- Antoine Lavoisier. Lavoisier is also known as the father of chemistry. We will remember his life, his works and his tragic death.
Lavoisier was born rich. He was the son of a rich and famous lawer. He was born in Paris, 26th Aug 1743. His father died when he was just five years old. Young Lavoisier was cared for by his aunt who gave him a very strong education. He studied chemistry, biology, astronomy, mathematics and law in college which he attended from 1754 to 1761. In 1771 he married 13 year old Marie-Annie. His first paper in Chemistry appeared in 1764. In 1767 he worked on a geological survey of Alsace-Lorraine.
When he was 25 Lavoisier was elected to the French Academy of Sciences. Here he was burdened with responsibilities. He had to prepare scientific reports on several different fields: respiration in plants, temperature and nature of volcanic lava, stink in Paris sewers, hygene in hospitals etc etc.
But Lavoisier never forgot that his real interest was in Chemistry.
The chemists of that day believed that every substance had something which they called phlogiston. This substance phlogiston was released whenever something burnt. Lavoisier was dissatisfied by this theory. He read the works of Priestley and Cavendish and came up with a new theory of burning.
According to this theory burning is possibe by taking something from the air around the burning substance. So burning was not a release of phlogiston but an intake of something from air around the substance. Lavoisier showed that a burning metal increases in weight and the air around it decreases in weight.
Lavoisier explained that the decrease in weight of the air equals the increase in weight of the metal. So in one master stroke Lavoisier not only explained combustion but also proposed the law of conservation of matter! He named the substance which was used in combustion Oxygen.
Having stated the law of conservation of matter he applied it to all chamical reactions. All chemical reactions must balance!!
This created a revolution in chemmistry. All chemical reactions were weighed before and after the event and missing masses /chemicals were found.
Lavoisier also explained the formation of acids and salts.
He developed gas analysis and calorimetry. He studied organic compounds and created a system of chemical nomenclature.
He wrote the Elementary Treatise of Chemistry. This is considered as the equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica for Chemistry. For the first time in history Chemistry was treated as a science. facts were put before imagination. Known elements were differentiated from compounds. Lavoisier listed
33 elements from which compounds could be made. That was the first time that elements were recognized. Before this the “elements” that chemists recognized were Air, Water, Earth and Fire!!!!
His wife was his companion in his research. She translated his works into english and maintained records.
Lavoisier’s life outside science was equally colorful.
He was one of the richest and most respected people in the french society. He had a huge number of friends from different professions. Lavoisier became an institution of learning.
But to maintain his lifestyle and perform costly experiments he needed money. To achieve this objective he became a fermier-general( tax collector). His income increased manifold. He headed several public commissions.
But he always made sure that he spent 6 hours a day in his lab: 6 tp 9 in the morning and 7 to 10 at night.
But then came his downfall during the french revolution.
In 1794 27 fermier-generals were impriosoned. The revolutionaries hated the old system and its officials. The judge said ” The Republic has no need of scientists”. Lavoisier and his former colleagues were given the death sentence.
According to a story Lavoisier performed his last experiment in his death. He wanted someone to record how long the head stays alive after a beheading. So he told the “student” that he would keep blinking after his beheading and the student should record the time. Lavoisier wa beheaded on 8th May 1794. He kept blinking for about 15 seconds after his head was cut off. A scientist in life and a scientist in death.
The mathematician Lagrange lamented the beheading by saying “It took only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century”
Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;