BOOK REVIEW: Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around UsCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


A book about air and the gas molecules that float about in it may not sound gripping. However, Sam Kean has a gift for finding interesting little stories to make talk of nitrogen-fixing, the discovery of oxygen, and the improvement of the steam engine fascinating. Such stories include that of a vaporized resident of Mount St. Helens, a gas-belching lake that suffocated families in their sleep (not a horror movie plot—a documented event), the scientist who both made millions of new lives possible through his nitrogen-fixing process and then took killing to its most despicable with poison gas, the pig who survived nuclear fallout, and, of course, how the last breath of a Roman Emperor came to be his last–and how likely it is that you’re breathing some of it right now. Along the way you’ll learn about farts, about the use of nitrous oxide for fun and surgery, about Einstein’s venture into refrigerator design, about lighter-than-air air travel, and about what air might look like on another planet.

The book is divided into three parts and nine chapters. There are also eight “interludes” that each takes up an intriguing subject that is chemically or topically related to the preceding chapter. The first part, and its three chapters, addresses the components of air and where they come from. The three chapters explore sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide as molecules released by geological processes (e.g. volcanoes,) the abundant but—without great effort—useless element of nitrogen, and oxygen—useful for breathing and setting the world on fire.

The middle part deals with how humans have used components of air for our own purposes. These three chapters discuss nitrous oxide’s invention, the exploitation of steam to power the Industrial Revolution, and the use of lighter-than-air elements for air travel.

The final part both describes ways in which humanity has changed the air, and looks at what we might have to contend with if we need to go to another planet to live. The seventh chapter explores nuclear testing and the radioactive isotopes that have been spread by it. The penultimate chapter examines the ways in which humans have tried to make weather more predictable by engineering it—usually with little to no effect. The last chapter is about what air might look like on other planets, be they planets on which we’d have to make air or ones that already have their own atmospheres.

There are a number of graphics, including molecule diagrams, photos, and artworks. There are also notes and a works cited section.

I’d highly recommend this book. I found it to be fun to read and fascinating. If you’re into science, you’ll love it, and—if you’re not—you may change your mind.

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