July 18, 2017

The history of an invisible world

By Sam Kean
Review by

Science writer Sam Kean entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

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Breathing: Most of us don’t even think about it as we go about our daily doings. Every day, 24 hours a day (and every four seconds), each of us 7.5 billion humans on planet Earth takes a breath in and then expels it. But what exactly are we breathing in and where does our breath go when released? And who cares?

Science writer Sam Kean cares, and, with fizzy (sometimes irreverent) humor and an exuberant enthusiasm for scientific ephemera, he entices us to explore the alchemy of air and atmosphere in Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

Kean kicks off the expedition with the intriguing thought of an intimate human interconnection—that “the ghosts of breaths past continue to flit around you every second . . . confronting you with every single yesterday.” He asks, “Is it possible that your next breath—this one, right here—might include some of the same air [molecules] that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died?”

Not content to limit his dissection to stories about breathing, Kean moves beyond the mere tracing of how air molecules travel and transform to “tell the full story of all the gases we inhale.” In three sections, each packed with three chapters, interspersed with historical vignettes, the author explicates the nature of gases (and why we should care about them), our human relationship with gases (from the first air balloon flights to the use of gases in World War I), and how our relationship with air has evolved in the past 30 years (read: atomic warfare). For good measure, Kean appends voluminous, quirky end notes to each chapter, ensuring that we are fully briefed on the competitive science around steam power and, in a nothing-is-sacred tell-all, the story of French entertainer Joseph Pujol, the “fartomaniac,” who flabbergasted audiences with his Moulin Rouge nightclub act in the 1890s.

Caesar’s Last Breath is a rollicking, zigzag romp through the science of air—one that gives us pause to consider our immortality beyond an earthly existence: “Some tiny bit of you—molecules that danced inside your body . . . could live on in a distant world.”

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Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath

By Sam Kean
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316381642

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