instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen

"In the shared riddle of the 'pure air' that allowed enclosed mice to live and covered candles to flame high, Jackson locates the thread linking the lives of a Frenchman who lost his life because of his ties to the ancien regime and that of an Englishman who lost his home because of his support for new eccelesiastical and political liberties. Ironically, the English champion of new theological and political ideas stubbornly clung to an outmoded science in trying to explain the substance he had isolated, while it was the French aristocrat who formulated the revolutionary new concepts that explained that strange substance. Jackson deftly recounts both the scientific triumphs and political tragedies that define the lives of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier. Readers see--procedure by procedure--the experiments that turned a bit of mercuric oxide and one brilliant candle into a puzzling riddle for Priestley, and they witness the intellectual daring of Lavoisier in solving the riddle by repeating the British researcher's work with quantitative precision and a theoretically lucid new nomenclature. But readers also see the piquant personalities and turbulent social circumstances behind the science: a man so solicitous of his fellow creatures that he tries to revive suffocated mice is himself despoiled by mobs who regard him as a dangerous monster; a man who adheres to truth so assiduously that he measures it grain by painstaking grain falls victim to Jacobins who see in him a cheat and a liar. A probing composite portrait of two martyrs for science."
--Booklist, starred review

In the final decades of the 1700s, as the threat of revolution began to dim the radiance of the Enlightenment, two brilliant scientists simultaneously acheived a breakthrough that would alter the course of human thought and history: they discovered oxygen. The humble English dissenter Joseph Priestley and the French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier were unlikely competitors, but their fierce rivalry to solve the "riddle of the air" became a kind of eighteenth-century space race, a contest made all the more exciting by the tumult of their time.


In A WORLD ON FIRE, acclaimed writer Joe Jackson brings to life the seismic intellectual and political shifts that ushered in modern science. Set against the conflagrations of the American Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, and the Reign of Terror, Jackson's narrative deftly weaves together biography and history, scientific passion and political will. With their discoveries inside the laboratory--paving the way for the identification of the elements as well as modern atomic physics--and the tragedy of their downfalls, Priestley and Lavoisier epitomize the plight of the scientist in the modern age. With A WORLD ON FIRE, Jackson has transformed their story into a spellbinding work of narrative nonfiction.