Antoine Lavoisier - Creativity and Science
Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794)
French chemist (pictured right).
The founder of modern chemistry
Guillotined during the French Revolution.
His most famous book
Essays Physical and Chemical (1774).
Why was he so creative?
He revolutionized chemistry (like Isaac
Newton , pictured right, did in physics) by:
a) discovering elements and compounds
He was the first person to identify them and measure them precisely.
b) disproving the theory of phlogiston
(the basis of chemistry for 23 centuries).
This said that materials become lighter when burned in air
But Lavoisier proved they become heavier through combustion (i.e. their combination with
Their extra weight is the weight of the oxygen plus that of the burning material.
c) precise measurement
This gave him the edge over the English chemist, Joseph Priestley (pictured right), who:
- discovered oxygen (what Priestly called “dephlogisticated air”), but
- failed to arrive at Lavoisier’s conclusions about combustion.
2. Learning from other scientists
He learnt a lot from Joseph Priestley, but there was intense rivalry and even hatred between them, particularly
after Lavoisier claimed to have discovered oxygen first!
Priestly emigrated to America and became a friend of:
He was obsessed with the accuracy and excellence of his work.
4. Passionate about chemistry
Chemistry was his hobby, not his career.
- was a tax collector (which made him very wealthy but extremely unpopular).
- loved his one day a week of chemistry (which he called his day of happiness).
- pleaded for two more weeks to finish some chemistry (after being sentenced to death).
The judge’s famous reply was:
“The revolution does not need scientists”.
His wife, Maria (pictured right together in Jacques-Louis David's painting) , was:
- learned chemistry to help in his laboratory.
- loving and supportive (despite her affair with one of his friends).
6. Hard work
Before work, he got up at six to spend two hours on his experiments
He worked for another three hours when he got home.
7. Experiments and observation
His knowledge increased from his endless experiments, like his proofs that:
- water consisted of two elements (hydrogen and
- air consisted of two gases (oxygen and azote, later renamed
He always made a hypothesis first and then tried to prove it through:
- precisely measuring his observations.
His work aimed to improve people’s lives by increasing scientific knowledge.
In his last letter, he said that science and his family made him happier than anything else.
“I trust my passing will be remembered with some regret and perhaps some honour”, he wrote just
before his execution.
Key quotes on science and
We must trust to nothing but the facts.
We ought...never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.