Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Cause De- H2O, The Metric System, and 6-degrees of history

Sometimes it is truly intriguing to see how history is woven together. This can seem very contrived in fiction at times, and yet, there is an interlocking nature to people, events, and ideas of the same period.

In 1777 Antoine Lavoisier (pictured to the left with his wife), published a paper titled "Sur la Combustion en General" (On Combustion, Generally) in which he posited that hydrogen, when combined with oxygen, which he named, formed water. This may seem obvious to us, but at the time it was radical. He also later put forward the Theory of Conservation of Mass, in which he said that the mass of matter is the same even after it undergoes a chemical change, such as burning or being dissolved in water. He later summed up these and many other discoveries and theories in what would come to be regarded as the first modern chemistry textbook, "Traite Elementaire de Chimie".

Surely the Enlightenment darlings, the philosophers, politicans, movers and shakers loved him! Not so. Though he had tried to reform the tax system to use uniform weights and measures, by helping to develop the metric system, he did so as a member of the much-hated Ferme Generale, the powerful tax farmers of France. He also stood up to the revolutionaries and attained freedom for foreign scientists and mathematicians who were threatened with imprisonment for being simply foreign, a deed that ultimately cost him his head in 1794.

So why 6-degrees of history? Olympe's story is ultimately a fiction, but there is truth woven into it that has a way of popping up now and again.
- Lavoisier was part of the Ferme Generale, as was his father-in-law, the same company that Thierry works for in a much lowlier position.
- As discussed previously one of the problems plaguing the Ferme was the evasion of taxes on salt and tobacco, and it was partly for "selling watered down tobacco" that Lavoisier was accused and executed at the instigation of the famous revolutionary, Marat, whom he had snubbed some years earlier.
- Perhaps the most famous image of Marat is of him in his bathtub, by David; the same painter responsible for the portrait of Lavoisier and his wife above.
- Finally, the tax farm from whence the Ferme grew was set up by the Duc de Sully in 1598; the same Sully who gave his name to the residence at which Olympe currently resides when in Paris.

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