REVIEW: Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean
The fascinating science and history of the air we breathe
It’s invisible. It’s ever-present. Without it, you would die in minutes. And it has an epic story to tell.
In Caesar’s Last Breath, New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean takes us on a journey through the periodic table, around the globe, and across time to tell the story of the air we breathe, which, it turns out, is also the story of earth and our existence on it.
With every breath, you literally inhale the history of the world. On the ides of March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar died of stab wounds on the Senate floor, but the story of his last breath is still unfolding; in fact, you’re probably inhaling some of it now. Of the sextillions of molecules entering or leaving your lungs at this moment, some might well bear traces of Cleopatra’s perfumes, German mustard gas, particles exhaled by dinosaurs or emitted by atomic bombs, even remnants of stardust from the universe’s creation.
Tracing the origins and ingredients of our atmosphere, Kean reveals how the alchemy of air reshaped our continents, steered human progress, powered revolutions, and continues to influence everything we do. Along the way, we’ll swim with radioactive pigs, witness the most important chemical reactions humans have discovered, and join the crowd at the Moulin Rouge for some of the crudest performance art of all time. Lively, witty, and filled with the astounding science of ordinary life, Caesar’s Last Breath illuminates the science stories swirling around us every second.
Dear Mr. Kean,
You are yet another author on my list to try – I think I already have all your other books purchased. And who hasn’t heard this old chestnut about Caesar’s breath? Eager to see what you’d do with it, I asked to review this book.
I’ve often seen your name listed along side that of Mary Roach in “if you like X author then you might like Y author” lists so I sort of knew what to expect: a little humor, a little more science, a little wandering down pathways of knowledge I’d not ever walked before.
There is a lot of chemistry here. I remember most of it from high school classes and you take us gently into it but I can see some readers not being interested enough to plow through those bits. Luckily there is enough other cool stuff included. I enjoyed the anecdotes about scientists and some of the hijinks they got up to during their explorations and experiments. They were only human and could be as petty, weird, cruel, boring or fascinating as the rest of us.
Information is conveyed easily and as if I’m talking to an especially learned friend who is excited to “tell me all about it.” Some things are hilarious as well as gross such as the idea of breathing in secondhand breath. Imagining sharing molecules with Caesar is the title but taking that a step further and contemplating doing it with bacteria or blue whales was neat. Some information such as what might have actually happened during the last moments of those who died in the Mount St Helen’s eruption made me squirm but hey, we’re all going to die sometime. Harry Truman’s (no, not that Harry Truman) language needs to come with a cuss word warning though.
I’m a sucker for documentaries and have watched quite a few about the history of our planet so I knew a bit about how our atmosphere has varied over the existence of Earth and that going too far back in a time machine might leave us gasping for air – or air we can survive breathing. I’ll pass on the giant spiders and millipedes of the days of 35% oxygen. I still wouldn’t want to live near a volcano but agree that they’ve certainly made life here possible. Guano grabs – who knew there were laws about this or that half the world couldn’t eat without the inventions made because we were running out of ammonia.
Anesthesia, why the sky is blue, the funny and slightly insulting names given to the noble gases, how the Montgolfiers got human kind airborne, the ideal gas law, how the industrial revolution and atomic bombs have changed the air we breath, knowing how many bananas I’d have to eat to kill myself from their natural radiation, Albert Einstein’s brief foray into building a better kitchen appliance, why tasting snowflakes on your tongue could be a disgusting practice, the mind numbing number crunching behind the chaos theory, the truth behind Roswell – really? – our hardwired fear about our air supply and what scientists look for to try and determine which planets might be habitable – all this and more is here.
One of the highest callings of the human mind is scientific discovery: to look at the booming, buzzing confusion of the world around us and distill some sort of unchanging essence.
Thanks for helping me learn more of “the joy of discovering things about the natural world.” B+