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

I’m a hardcore Sam Kean fan-girl, so you’ll be hard pressed to find any criticism in this latest installment of science-for-the-masses, this time about Air: or more accurately, the history of humans isolating gasses and using them as tools.

It’s just that he writes the scientists as utterly human, and that he sneaks in some snarky humor here and there, and then ends up with actually quite weighty observations about the relationship of humans to the natural world.

“Like Caesar’s last breath, that history surrounds you every second: every time the wind comes clattering through the trees, or a hot-air balloon soars overhead, or an unaccountable smell of lavender or peppermint or even flatulence wrinkles your nose, you’re awash in it. Put your hand in front of your mouth again and feel it: we can capture the world in a single breath.”

And Sam Kean does love breadth of history. He takes us through the creation of the earth’s atmosphere, atomic testing on bikini atoll, and the scientists who vied for isolating gasses.

Here’s a peek at the quiet humor in his description of Rayleigh and Ramsay discovering Argon:

“…so they exposed it to oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Nothing happened. They tried feistier compounds like sulfur, phosphorus, and potassium. All duds. They tried chlorine and acids and other horrors. It didn’t blink.”

But the weightiest conclusion, and politically timely as I write this in the first year of a presidency completely against environmental regulations and climate-change deniers to boot, is that in regards to human effect on climate change.

“For me, climate engineering– taking deliberate steps to cool our atmosphere– seems like the only realistic solution…given that laziness and shortsightedness have dominated our behavior in the past, I don’t see why they won’t dominate our behavior in the future as well. I don’t mean to sound gloomy about human beings– some of my best friends are people. But we have our flaws, and trying to deal with climate change exposes the worst of them. In contrast, coming up with a technological fix for the problem, while not easy, exploits what humans do well– rally around a cause when things get desperate, then start building shit.”

So for historical looks at the ways human societies– and individual scientist personalities– shape the way humans do science, coupled with some practical and humorous observations, you really can’t beat Sam Kean. This book is no exception. Open your eyes to the air and go read this book.

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