This was a book by Sam Kean I read on my iPad in December 2017. Although now more than a year ago, I made quotes back then so it’s still possible for me to create the same kind of blog post I started recently with Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.
To quote the introduction:
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.
It’s too late now for my detailed opinions about the book, but I did like it a lot at the time and also gave it four stars out of five on Goodreads.
The book has three major chapters, as well as plenty of footnotes.
I. Making Air: Our First Four Atmospheres
Kean mentions theories by astronomers on the existence of our unusually large moon, from forming independently or as a separate planet that was merely ensnared by our planet.
Others, taking up a suggestion by Charles Darwin’s son, astronomer George Darwin, argued that the moon somehow fissioned off from Earth in its not-quite-solid days, like a daughter cell budding off from a parent.
I still believe the popular theory today that a minor planet called Theia collided with Earth and that the turmoil of this gave birth to the moon we know today. The author also mentions this afterwards:
Astronomers call it the Big Thwack.
On the eruption of the volcano Mount Saint Helens in 1980:
Every tree within fifteen miles got flattened, as if someone had taken a giant comb and parted Mount Saint Helen’s hair.
About body vaporization:
The water content of humans actually changes as we age, dropping from 75 percent in squishy newborns to less than 60 percent in (somewhat literally) crusty old folk.
Which leads back to the fate of people close to another volcanic eruption; Mount Vesuvius in AD 79:
Some victims at Vesuvius had the tops of their heads blown off. The hot volcanic gases seem to have boiled their brains, and because the brain vapors had to escape somewhere, they erupted out the top of their skulls like a mini-Mount Saint Helens.
Few things outside of atom bombs can vaporize a human body between heartbeats, but volcanoes belong to this club.
Much later, a few words about oxygen on our planet:
Something like two-thirds of the 4500 minerals on Earth today can form only in the presence of oxygen. This includes several precious gems such as turquoise, azurite, and malachite – jewels we wouldn’t have without oxygen.
Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the scientist that blinked his eyes after having had his head cut off by the guillotine during the French Revolution, to prove how long he was conscious before passing out. That was the chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.
At some point while queuing up for the guillotine, Lavoisier supposedly asked a colleague to push as close as possible to the scaffold and help with one final experiment. Contrary to what you might expect, the guillotine doesn’t kill you instantly; the head lives on for several seconds after being severed. For obvious reasons, no one had ever tested exactly how long it lives, and Lavoisier decided that his own death provided a fine opportunity. So he informed his assistant that, as soon as he felt the whisper of the blade on his neck, he would begin blinking, and would continue blinking until his internal supply of oxygen ran low and he lost consciousness. All his assistant had to do was ignore the blood and the mob and his own revulsion, and keep count. Some sources claim Lavoisier snuck in eleven blinks, some fifteen.
II. Harnessing Air: The Human Relationship with Air
Moving on to another chemist, Humphry Davy, who discovered “laughing gas” (nitrous oxide) in 1799.
Fellow poet Robert Southey gushed in a letter to a friend, “Such a gas Davy has discovered! … It makes one strong. And so happy! So gloriously happy! O, excellent gas bag! I am sure the air in heaven must be [made of] this wonder-working gas of delight!” (Clearly, one symptom of a nitrous overdose is abusing exclamation points.)
His assistant, the physician Thomas Beddoes, had a theory about cow vapors having medicinal effects. However, his “cow-house therapy” ended up damaging Beddoes’ reputation.
At one point Davy had ordered frogs to experiment on, and when their crate cracked open and they escaped into town, rumors began to swirl that Beddoes had bought them to feed French spies hiding in his basement.
About nitrous oxide, chloroform and other types of anesthesia:
We know zilch about how these drugs work, since we don’t know how they affect the brain. That’s a little scary. We do know that anesthetic compounds dissolve preferentially into fatty brain tissue, and they obviously interfere with neuron function somehow. Beyond that, umm … The problem is that anesthesia disrupts consciousness—hits pause on it, essentially—and we have only a vague idea of how consciousness works in the first place.
It also seems that anesthesia works differently from person to person:
Most victims of anesthesia awareness recall little about the experience afterward; it remains hazy and unreal. But a handful of people recall everything, including the pain, and they suffer from post-traumatic nightmares of being flayed alive. A few end up killing themselves. Personally, I can’t think of any worse torture than anesthesia awareness. (Had Dante known about it, he surely would have slipped it into “The Inferno.”)
Of course, you can’t have a book about air without mentioning farts.
Surprisingly, more than 99 percent of the gas in farts has no smell. Even methane, despite its bad reputation, has no odor.
He then mentions what does create the smell, but you’re going to have to read the book for that.
Both ends of the body have tubes that allow air to pass through. So why don’t we “speak” through our rear ends? There’s no a priori reason why not. The anus lacks vocal cords, of course, but those are nothing special, just flaps to help keep food and water out of our airways; the anal sphincter can buzz like a trumpeter’s mouth anyway, which is almost as good. A bigger problem is that our butts lack lips and tongues (thank goodness), the organs that mold emerging air currents into words. But really, we could get by with far less complicated oral equipment for basic communication. Overall then, evolution easily could have done a U-turn long ago and developed fancier folds around our anuses for rectal speaking. A few species of herring reportedly do communicate by farting.
This is such an important topic. A shame I don’t have more quotes from that chapter.
Moving on to air pressure in general:
For an average adult, twenty tons of force are pressing inward on your body at all times. The reason you don’t notice this crushing burden is that there’s another twenty tons of pressure pushing back from inside you.
Society members met one evening per month for raucous discussions of literature and philosophy, always gathering on the Monday nearest the full moon. Basing your meetings on the phases of the moon seems charming today, if not downright mystical, but the schedule actually had a prosaic explanation. Members needed moonlight to find their way home afterward.
Of course, talking about James Watt was about that steam engine of his:
He finally threw together a working steam engine in the mid-1770s – and if you’ll forgive a bit of editorializing, the end result strikes me as pretty ugly. I’m a sucker for mechanical simplicity, a quality that von Guericke’s air pump and even the Newcomen engine had. Watt’s engine lacked grace in comparison – it was a bunch of crap cobbled together. But I can’t argue with the results. However much clutter the separate condenser added—extra pipes, extra valves, extra pumps—there’s so much latent energy in steam that it was all worth it.
Kean then proceeds to talk about explosives. The Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered an alternative to gunpowder in 1846.
As a test, Sobrero put a single drop of nitroglycerin in a sealed test tube and held it over a flame. A moment later, he was picking shards of glass out of his face and hands.
Alfred Nobel then combined it with gunpowder to make it more safe. He designed a prototype bomb with a vial, a canister, and a fuse.
Nobel invited his brothers to watch him test the device in a drainage ditch near their St. Petersburg factory. He lit the fuse, plopped the bomb into the water, and ran. Kaboom! Sewage rained down on them, splashing their clothes. Nobel was thrilled.
However, a string of accidents (at home and abroad) hardened public opinion against him.
Nobel became a veritable public enemy. No one would sell him lab space anymore, so he had to convert a barge into a floating chemical laboratory and work on the water for a few years. The bangs and fumes wafting in from the harbor always gave him away, though, and he’d have to pull anchor and make a run for a new port, fleeing like a fugitive. Once or twice mobs even attacked the “Nobel death ship.”
Despite the lawsuits and nasty press, Nobel’s business boomed. It turns out that people generally cared a lot more about convenient train tunnels and canals than dead workers. The man once reduced to working on a boat soon commanded an empire of ninety-three factories in twenty-one countries, and he amassed a fortune equivalent to a quarter billion dollars today. Most telling of all, Dynamite dominated the explosives market to such a degree that it became dynamite, a generic, lowercase noun like thermos and zipper.
And he then later established the Nobel Prize.
Remember the quote about the concept of complexity being complex in the blog post about The Singularity is Near? I found a similar quote here by the supposedly worst poet in the English language:
Like most great men, I was born at a very early period of my existence.William Topaz McGonagall
Onwards to the story of human flight, starting with a balloon in 1783:
When launched, the balloon landed an incredible fifteen miles away in a field outside Paris. Peasants immediately attacked it with pitchforks and scythes, convinced that a monster had fallen from the sky.
A later audience for a manned balloon race had Benjamin Franklin among the throng.
When a cynical spectator asked Franklin that day, “What use is a balloon?,” Franklin murmured, “What use is a newborn baby?”
Kean then goes on about the key principle going back the Archimedes.
Archimedes was lowering himself into a bath one day when he noticed the water level in the tub rising as he did so. An experiment flashed before his eyes, and moments later, Greek mothers were covering their children’s eyes in the street.
Much later, the topic is about why the sky is blue. Kean describes how the blue light is getting scattered and diverted than of any other color being redirected.
Those of you who know your color theory might be ready to throw the bullshit flag here. After all, purple light has an even shorter wavelength than blue light. So by the reasoning [in the previous paragraph in the book], the sky should be periwinkle! That’s true so far it goes, but it overlooks other factors. The sun happens to emit more blue than purple light, so there’s more blue light to scatter. Furthermore, the cones in our retinas can’t detect purple light all that well. A full explanation of the blue sky, then, takes into account not only [Lord] Rayleigh’s scattering but the sun’s spectrum and the circuitry of our eyes.
On to gases creating light:
Human being had artificial lighting before 1800, of course – wood fires, candles, oil lamps. But however romantic bonfires and candlelit dinners seem nowadays, those are actually terrible sources of light. Candles especially throw off a sickly, feeble glow that, as a one historian joked, did little but “make darkness visible.” (A French saying from the time captured the sentiment in a different way: “By candlelight, a goat is ladylike.”)
III. Frontiers: The New Heavens
After starting out with the Manhattan Project that lead to the first atomic bomb, Kean soon moves on to liquefying gases:
Especially beautiful was liquid oxygen, which glowed faintly blue, like liquid sky.
The book later continues with the chaos theory and weather predictions.
We can predict eclipses decades in advance, but when it comes to the weather there are simply too many pockets of air colliding with too many bumps on Earth’s surface to track them all – too many butterflies flapping their wings and kicking up tornadoes.
And about exploring the atmospheres of other planets:
In the 1970s NASA launched two Viking probes to search for life on Mars, and before takeoff, Carl Sagan gathered a gaggle of reporters around a model Viking lander and began parading snakes, chameleons, and tortoises past its cameras, to show everyone what he expected to find on the Red Planet. “There’s no reason to exclude from Mars organisms ranging in size from ants to polar bears,” he declared. No rust-colored polar bears ever turned up.
So… Mr. Sagan was human after all. 😐
By the way, Mars has an atmosphere with an air pressure two hundred times less than that on Earth.
Incidentally, it’s a myth that your head would explode if you took off your space helmet in a low-pressure environment like on Mars, or in outer space generally. Your skull is strong enough to withstand that. That said, you wouldn’t last long. Given the minuscule pressure, all the water in your mouth and eyes would boil away in seconds. Your body would also shut down as the intense cold turned your brain into a block of ice. Welcome to space, where you can boil and freeze simultaneously.
On the topic of life on Earth being able to thrive in pretty harsh places:
The bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans can even survive in nuclear waste dumps, at radiation levels three thousand times beyond what would fell a human being. (How? By reparing its DNA very, very quickly. D. radiodurans didn’t evolve to live in nuclear waste, of course, since nuclear waste dumps don’t exist in nature. It evolved to live in extremely dry places, and the DNA damage caused by radioactivity happens to resemble that of extreme dehydration. So if you want to know which species would survive a nuclear holocaust, look to the desert.)
And greenhouse gases:
Similar to radioactivity, it’s important to know that greenhouse gases per se aren’t evil. Think of them like cholesterol. Your body actually needs some cholesterol to sheathe your brain cells and manufacture certain vitamins and hormones; it’s only when cholesterol levels rise too high that the trouble starts. Same with greenhouse gases.
This goes on in the book with an explanation of greenhouse gases in detail.
The reason gas attacks stir up so much terror is that…
…they threaten our basic biology in a way that machine guns and nuclear warheads cannot. I think a quick digression will help make the point clear. In my previous book, on neuroscience, I discussed a woman named S.M. who, because of brain damage, seemed incapable of feeling fear. Scientists drove her to exotic pet stores to handle snakes and tarantulas, and she didn’t bat an eye. They ran her through haunted houses and showed her slasher films, and she shrugged. She even came close to dying several times—a mugger once held a knife to her throat in a park—and she remained unperturbed throughout. No pounding heart, no jolt of panic, no nothing. Scientists eventually concluded that she couldn’t feel fear for anything.
It turns out that wasn’t quite true. Just to see what would happen, S.M.’s doctors filled a tank with carbon dioxide-enriched air one day and asked S.M. to inhale it through a mask. Now, when you’re held underwater, it’s not the lack of oxygen that panics you, it’s the buildup of CO2. But given her lack of fear in every other context, her doctors suspected that S.M. would remain calm here. To their shock, she began hollering after a few hits of air and clawing at her mask, trying to tear it off her face. This one thing, a gas, could still frighten her. Scientists concluded from this and related work that human beings have a second, independent fear system lurking within the brain, one that closely monitors our air supply.
About anesthesia working on other animals:
Given our similar lungs and nervous systems, I wasn’t surprised to hear that anesthesia works on other animals. But it boggled my mind to learn that anesthesia works on some plants as well. You can put Venus flytraps under, for instance, and they won’t snap their jaws shut when bugs land. This fact has sparked all sort of philosophical disputes among botanists about whether plants have some sort of slow-motion consciousness or intelligence.
About the bubbles in the bottle whooshing out:
If you’ve ever dropped a can of pop or beer, someone might have advised you to tap the top or sides before opening it, to prevent the beverage from whooshing out. Here’s why. When you jostle a carbonated beverage, carbon dioxide bubbles gather on the inner surface of the metal. Tapping the can knocks these bubbles loose and causes them to rise within the container and gather near the top. So when you open the can a moment later, the bubbles—because they’re no longer submerged in the liquid—won’t drag any liquid with them when they rush out. The beverage might taste flatter, but you’ll keep your hand dry and the floor clean.
Because I know you’re curious, Einstein ate fried or scrambled eggs most mornings for breakfast, along with toast or rolls. As for his other culinary habits, he reportedly ate so much honey that his domestic staff purchased it by the bucket. Other favorites at the Einstein table included egg drop soup, salmon, mayonnaise, cold cuts, asparagus, pork with sweet chestnuts, and strawberry meringue. He liked his meat quite well done. “I am not a tiger,” he once told his cook.
Sensible choice about the meat. I also prefer it that way.
On his deathbed, in 1976, the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg supposedly announced that when he met God, he was going to ask Him two questions: Why does relativity govern the large-scale structure of the universe? And why do fluids like air and water turn turbulent when they flow? “I really think,” Heisenberg whispered, “He may have an answer to the first question.”
About space farts:
The doctors on the Apollo space program spent a great deal of effort monitoring the flatulence of astronauts. They did so partly out of curiosity, since they didn’t know how zero gravity would affect digestion, and partly out of fear, since they didn’t know whether internal pockets of gas would tear holes in the astronaut’s abdomens in the low-pressure environment of space. Turns out they didn’t need to worry. People who live in lower air pressure—including mountainous regions on Earth—do fart more readily. (Mountaineers sometimes speak of encounters with “Rocky Mountain barking spiders.”) But they won’t fart with nearly enough violence to harm themselves.
About giving Mars or the moon an environmental makeover:
You might think that we could colonize Mars or the moon by erecting a big geodesic dome and living inside it. Well, in the early 1990s eight scientists sealed themselves inside a biosphere in the Arizona to test this idea. It didn’t go well. They made it for a few years, but over that time span the oxygen inside the dome dropped from normal Earth concentrations (21 percent) to just 17 percent, the point at which human beings struggle to breathe. Somehow, 60,000 pounds of oxygen went missing, probably into the maws of bacteria in the soil. Carbon dioxide levels also fluctuated, since concrete structures within the dome tended to absorb CO2. The overall lesson was that gases are pretty hard to hold on to even inside sealed containers. Importing comets might actually be the easier solution!
On my iPad Air 2 in portrait mode, the book has about 318 pages.
You can buy the book on Amazon. I bought mine on Apple Books for my iPad.