On Balance — Antoine Lavoisier

A statue of Lavoisier in Paris (now gone) featured his laboratory balance, which he used to revolutionize the science of chemistry (source: http://paris1900.lartnouveau.com/paris08/places/place_madeleine/cpa/stat_lav1.htm)

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier brought accounting to science through the principle of conservation of mass. At the end of the 18th century, Lavoisier was a highly regarded member of the scientific community in Paris. But in his day job Lavoisier worked as a private contractor overseeing the collection of taxes for the French monarchy, and he used the tools of accounting to revolutionized the science of chemistry. Lavoisier made exacting measurements of mass and volume of reactants and products an integral part of his chemical experiments. This allowed him to reveal the chemical composition of air and water, understand the nature of combustion and respiration, and provide insights into the metabolism of plants and animals. Lavoisier’s experiments mark the birth of chemistry as a modern science and launched the scientific community of Paris to the forefront of science at the beginning of the 19th century.

However, at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Lavoisier found himself in the precarious position of literally sitting on gun powder. Lavoisier had a side-gig as superintendent of the government’s powder works, and he lived at the Petit Arsenal where gunpowder was manufactured and stored. Lavoisier nearly lost his life at the hands of a suspicious mob who dragged him out of his house demanding to know why gun powder was being loaded onto boats for shipment out of Paris. A more potent danger arose several years later, when the revolution veered from its democratic aims into the persecution of elites, driven by ignorance and jealousy. Journalist-turned-provocateur Jean-Paul Marat waged a campaign against members of the Royal Academy of Science, which had frustrated his earlier scientific ambitions. Marat singled out Lavoisier as a particular target for his attacks.

Describing one of his experiment, Lavoisier wrote that in the balance, “Nothing is lost, everything transforms; mass is neither created nor destroyed.” This insight sums up his lasting contribution to science, and it was perhaps Lavoisier’s guiding faith in life as well. Lavoisier was executed by guillotine on May 8, 1794, at age 50. He spent his last weeks in prison updating financial records so that the government would have an accurate account of taxes collected under his supervision. Lavoisier’s final request that his death sentence be delayed by a few weeks, so that he could complete a set of ongoing scientific experiments, was met by a judge’s curt reply, “The Republic has no need for scientists; justice cannot be delayed.” But, his colleagues knew, and the rest would soon discover, that Lavoisier’s scientific legacy would not be destroyed by politics, even when politics is dressed up as legal opinion.

Antoine Lavoisier is one of the 72 scientists and engineers named on the Eiffel Tower.

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