Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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 best-selling 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.
- One credit a month to pick any title from our entire premium selection to keep (you’ll use your first credit now).
- Unlimited listening on select audiobooks, Audible Originals, and podcasts.
- You will get an email reminder before your trial ends.
- $14.95 a month after 30 days. Cancel online anytime.
People who viewed this also viewed
People who bought this also bought
|Listening Length||10 hours and 33 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||July 18, 2017|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #37,129 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#19 in Chemistry (Audible Books & Originals)
#76 in History of Science (Audible Books & Originals)
#121 in General Chemistry
Top reviews from the United States
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
As the title will suggest to the careful reader, the central conceit in Kean's book is that "roughly one particle of [the last breath Julius Caesar took after he was stabbed] will appear in your next breath." Apparently, this "how-many-molecules-in-X's-last-breath exercise has become a classic thought experiment in physics and chemistry courses." Not in mine, though. I don't remember much about those courses, but I'm sure I would've remembered that.
In Caesar's Last Breath, Kean will take you on a fast ride through the 4.5-billion-year history of Earth's atmosphere and then through the more than one hundred different gases that comprise the atmosphere today. Yes, more than one hundred. Individual chapters—and "interludes" placed between them—tell tales about each of the major substances. Everybody knows about nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. But there's also carbon monoxide (CO), nitrous oxide (N2O, known as laughing gas), methanethiol (CH3SH), and all manner of others. However, this is no mind-numbing laundry list of unfamiliar substances. Kean uses each one as a lever into the history of atmospheric science. And along the way he strays—delightfully—into topics that may be only tangentially related to the air we breathe.
In fact, Caesar's Last Breath is as much about the scientists, famous and not, whose discoveries over the centuries have helped us understand the nature and the effects of each of the major gases in our atmosphere. If you're at all familiar with the history of science, you'll recognize the names Fritz Haber, Joseph Priestley, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, Humphry Davy, and so many others who have made the world around us easier to understand. Don't think for a minute, though, that Kean simply offers up the usual dry recitation of each scientist's discovery and how he made it. No. Instead, the author tells us things we never knew, or at least things that I never knew, about these fascinating people.
For example, Henry Cavendish, the man who discovered hydrogen, was autistic and "communicated with his domestic staff via notes." He was also filthy rich. "During his lifetime, Cavendish had more money in the Bank of England than any other British subject." Joseph Priestley, the co-discoverer of oxygen, was a Protestant minister whose investigations prompted a mob in Birmingham to burn down his church and his home, hoping (without success) to see him burn inside it. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who tried to take sole credit for the discovery of oxygen, was an aristocrat who went to his death on the guillotine in the French Revolution. Lavoisier had been a rapacious tax-collector, and if anybody deserved such a fate, he probably did. And Albert Einstein teamed up with fellow nuclear physicist Leo Szilard to invent a better refrigerator. (They actually invented several and made a pile of money from them.) You'll also meet people whose names you're highly unlikely to know but will probably never forget, including the man who proved why the sky is blue, "the worst poet who ever lived," and Le Pétomaine (the Fartomaniac), who became the highest-paid performer in France for his wildly popular act in which he sang and did impressions by passing gas.
Caesar's Last Breath is full of fascinating and sometimes hilarious sidelights such as these. For example, did you know that "[B]efore 1850 people routinely committed suicide rather than face surgery?" (I didn't, and I've read a bit about the history of medicine.) It was only in the mid-19th century that anesthetics—first nitrous oxide, then ether, and finally chloroform—finally started coming into use.
Sam Kean's writing style is informal, to say the least. (I don't think I've ever seen the word "catookus" in print anywhere else.) You can easily imagine him talking to you and laughing pretty much half the time. Given the aridity of so much of typical science histories, Caesar's Last Breath is a delight.
I cannot say Mr. Kean has done it again, because all of his explorations have revealed ever expanding powers of expression, and the development of his unique voice; a more personal, and refined lens through which we can view this magnificent place called life.
If Sam Kean is new to you, inhale Caesar’s Breath, and then rush back to the adventure of The Violinist Thumb, the mystery of The Disappearing Spoon, and the mind bending enjoyment of Dueling Neurosurgeons. If you have been there already, go back and start over. There is more every time you read this important author.
A galaxy of stars for this great addition to human understanding.
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.
Top reviews from other countries
I was surprised by the fact a science book uses Fahrenheit but to not put the Celcius value beside it is bizarre