Today, we destroy suddenly what we've built slowly.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In an odd essay, Stephen Jay
Gould contemplates the severed head of Antoine
Lavoisier. We know the chemist Lavoisier for
identifying oxygen. He did that and much more.
Lavoisier was an aristocrat. Yet he took part in
the French Revolution. He also worked as a
tax-collector. From within that hated business, he
worked to reform the corrupt French tax system. He
was a complete human being. He invested himself
fully in his world. He took part in it
intellectually, politically, and socially.
He belonged to the Academy of Science. When
Jean-Paul Marat tried to become a member, Lavoisier
pointed out that his writings were empty. Marat was
furious. As the Reign of Terror heated up, he used
the Revolution to attack Lavoisier.
Marat had done his damage before Charlotte Corday
stabbed him to death in his bath. The Revolution
finally arrested Lavoisier and sent him to the
Before the arrest, Lavoisier wrote to his friend
Ben Franklin. He wished Franklin's level head were
around to cool things down. From prison he wrote to
his cousin. These events would at least save him
the troubles of old age.
The mathematician LaGrange lamented the beheading.
It took them only an instant to cut off that
head,but France may not produce another like it in
Gould takes us to an address at the
Paris Museum a few years later. A noted naturalist
named Lacépède pretended to talk about
the Indian caste system. Actually, he echoed
Centuries are needed to nurture the tree of
science and make it grow, but one blow from the
hatchet of destruction cuts it down.
Of course the brutality of the
Revolution was on his mind more than caste systems.
Lavoisier's murder had shaken French science.
Lacépède grieved that loss. He also
offered a way to protect ourselves against one stupid
piece of savagery.
Never forget that we can only stave off that
fatal degradation if we unite the liberal arts,
which embody the sacred fire of sensibility, with
the sciences and useful arts.
For that's what Lavoisier had done. He
showed us how science should live in a real world --
live at risk.
Gould, Lacépède, and Lagrange were
all horrified by the asymmetry of slow creation
followed by sudden destruction. Yet that's not
where the story ends.
Lavoisier's accusers are long forgotten. His legacy
is very much alive. And we realize: We can damage
the house that reason and good will slowly and
carefully build, no doubt. But that dwelling is
much harder to destroy than we might think.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds