Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
Informative, witty, vivid, often compelling, sometimes juvenile, knowledgeable, clear, and written throughout with verve and panache via what feels like a wholly singular voice, Sam Kean’s Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us (2017) is what every non-fiction book should aspire to. It’s been a while since I’ve so enjoyed a work of non-fiction so thoroughly and consistently.
Kean divides his exploration of air into three large sections, the first dealing with the origin of our current atmosphere, one of many our planet (if not humanity) has seen. The second explains how various natural philosophers/scientists discovered the gases that make up the air surrounding us, and also how those gases were harnessed to do various types of work, such as ballooning or as anesthesia. The last section discusses how humans have actually changed the air around us (via nuclear fallout for instance) and then skips outside our personal realm to look at atmospheres elsewhere in the solar system and even beyond, discussing for instance how we might ascertain the atmospheric makeup of an exoplanet and what that information may reveal about the possibility of life there. As well, Kean offers up several “interludes,” which wander down a variety of paths — Roswell, spontaneous combustion, several personal human-interest stories, etc.
One of my measurements of how successful a non-fiction work was for me is how much of it I highlighted, either to retain/take note of information I didn’t know already or because of particularly well-written lines/sections. Believe me, there’s an insane amount of yellow in my iBooks copy of Caesar’s Last Breath. We’re talking Charlotte Perkins Gilman level, as demonstrated by how I have to flick my finger down the side to set it scrolling at super-speed, wait for it to slow, then repeat several times before I get to the end. And a look at where those highlights are also shows just how damn good Kean is: pg. 48, pg. 49. Pg. 50, pg. 50, pg. 51, pg. 51, pg. 51, pg. 51 (clearly a very good page), pg. 52, pg. 52. I have to scroll some time before I get to even a page I didn’t highlight anything on (poor page 75 — overshadowed by pages 74 and 76). The next such gap doesn’t appear until page 174, which apparently didn’t match up to the page just before and just after. Clearly Kean was really off his game at this point, as I somehow didn’t highlight anything on pages 178-182. Slacker!
Everything here is laid out incredibly clearly and concisely. But it’s not merely an efficient conciseness, one that neglects style in favor of simply conveying information. It’s all great fun even as one soaks up knowledge. And there doesn’t seem to be any topic Kean can’t handle with ease and aplomb: the periodic table, the shift to gas lighting, A-bomb testing, refrigeration, fertilizer, guano, weather forecasting and control, climate change, steel making, chemical warfare, primordial Earth, steam engines, astrobiology, and farting.
Yes, farting. Since, as Kean tells us, “Now don’t act like you didn’t see this coming. This is a book about gases in all their variety, and there’s no gas we think about more often than the gas we pass.” And thus he leads into the incredible story of Joseph Pujol, otherwise known as Le Petomane (the Fartomaniac). And when I say “otherwise known,” I mean “known,” for as Kean informs us, Pujol was “the highest-paid performer in France, earning … more than double what the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt did.” And yes, his performance was made up of exactly what you might think with that stage name. I’ll leave the details to Kean’s book.
Silly as it is, Pujol’s story is an example of one of the many strengths of Kean’s book, which is that as informative as it is, as filled with science and data and experiment summaries as it is, he never loses sight of the human in all this. Whether it’s bringing us in for an up-close look at a famous scientist like Lavoisier or a stubborn old man who refused to evacuate before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens (“the greatest geology lesson in American history”), we never stray too far from the human experience. Some of it humorous, some inspiring, some tragic. This holds true even in the “notes and miscellanea” section at the end, which is as interesting and vivid as the main book and absolutely should not be skipped.
Caesar’s Last Breath is an absolute joy, a jewel of non-fiction, a book that manages to deftly employ an engagingly breezy tone even as it looks seriously and deeply at science and nature. Beyond my obvious heartfelt recommendation that you pick up a copy, I’d also strongly suggest considering it as a gift for anyone with a sense of curiosity about the world around them. That includes young readers. It’s not a young adult book, and sure, they might be lost here and there, but Kean’s writing is so clear and accessible that I wouldn’t hesitate at all to hand this book to a kid over the age of ten or so. I’m handing it to my own fifteen-year-old myself. And buying Kean’s other books.
So much fun! Caesar’s Last Breath is certainly the most enjoyable, informative and accessible popular science book I’ve read, and is gunning for the title of my favorite non-fiction book ever. Sam Kean takes the general topic of gases, shakes it around, and turns it upside down and inside out, examining it from multiple different angles ― some of them quite unexpected. The development of our earth’s atmosphere from the days our earth was formed, volcanoes, explosives from gunpowder to nuclear bombs, a farting genius, the vital role of ammonia in fertilizer (which development led to the use of chlorine in gas warfare), and many more gaseous topics are explored in this delightful book.
Kean has a vivid and engaging style of writing, with a wry sense of humor, which elevates Caesar’s Last Breath far above most pop science books. Gas molecules are described as feral, oxygen as a madman, our moon as an albatross (as compared to the gnats that circle most other mooned planets), and gravity as “that eternal meddler” that won’t abide two planets in the same neighborhood. I learned about the Big Thwack (when a hypothetical planet called Theia smashed into our earth, vaporizing itself and eventually reforming into our moon), the Oxygen Catastrophe of 2,000,000,000 BC, and the mushroom cloud-shaped cakes baked during the heady days of the late 1940s when nuclear blasts didn’t really seem all that dangerous.
Almost every topic Kean tackles is also given a human element. Some particularly memorable ones: Harry Randall Truman, the gutsy old coot who wouldn’t leave Mount Saint Helens, is juxtaposed with David Johnston, a geologist who volunteered for extra shifts in the closest observation towers on Saint Helens, believing that as a fit young marathon runner he had a better chance of escaping when the foreseeable eruption came than his older co-workers (he didn’t). The victims of Vesuvius who had the tops of their heads blown off like a mini-volcano eruption ― when your brain boils, the vapors need to escape somewhere! Louis Slotin, the nuclear scientist who had the eventually fatal habit of balancing a beryllium shell over a plutonium sphere and using an ordinary screwdriver to jiggle the sphere up and down, yo-yoing toward a nuclear chain reaction. Slotin rolled his eyes when Enrico Fermi warned him that he’d be dead within a year if he didn’t cut it out.
While I didn’t reach the stratospheric levels of Bill’s highlighting, I did highlight 56 different passages in Caesar’s Last Breath (I counted), far above my normal level. I also spent several minutes telling my teenage children about some of the particularly interesting facts and stories in this book, pinning them down at breakfast where they couldn’t escape me. Not that they wanted to! Caesar’s Last Breath would be an excellent gift for readers of all ages, even those who aren’t particularly science-minded. I’m already planning it as one of my 15 year old son’s Christmas gifts.
By the way, if Julius Caesar expelled one liter of air with his final breath, that breath contained approximately 25 sextillion molecules of air. Even though that’s a miniscule percentage of the air in our atmosphere, chances are that at least one molecule of Caesar’s last breath is in the very next breath you take.