Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

Little, Brown. Jul. 2017. 384p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780316381642. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780316381635. SCI
Kean (The Disappearing Spoon), purveyor of narrative popular science, grasps at the chemical makeup of what we breathe. Divided into three sections—how our atmosphere came to be, how gases have shaped humanity, and how humans have harnessed gases over time—this book opens with the riveting and macabre story of the 1980 eruption of Washington State's Mount St. Helens, whose volcanic heat vaporized a curmudgeonly innkeeper who refused to evacuate. Kean also profiles the German chemists whose discovery of ammonia led to World War I's devastating chemical warfare and the lifesaving development of gaseous anesthetics for surgeries, and—no joke—a 19th-century French "fartiste" with a prodigious ability to produce musical flatulence. Kean has a knack for distilling chemistry to its essential elements, using stories and humor to soften a subject that might otherwise trigger unpleasant flashbacks to high school lab class.
VERDICT For anyone interested in the invisible forces that sustain life, this is a dose of fresh air. [Prepub Alert, 1/23/17.]
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