Caesar’s Last Breath

It’s closer than your next breath, and without it you will have ‘passed’ (as people euphemistically say, these days, for being dead). It’s the air you breathe every minute and this book is the story of the atmosphere that organisms suck in all the time.

The book starts with the natural history of the atmosphere at the Earth’s formation four thousand five hundred million years ago, moves on to the way people have used gases for industrial and other purposes over the last few centuries, and finishes with the impact of human activity on the atmosphere itself, from climate change to nuclear fallout.


Sam Kean ( packs Caesar’s Last Breath with personalities and human interest to accompany the hard chemistry and physics. Though most of the notables will be well known to anyone familiar with the history of science — Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, Humphry Davy, Carl Bosch, Fritz Haber, James Watt, Alfred Nobel and many others — he includes more fascinating detail about our dependence on, and relationship with, gases.  Amid a wealth of scientific information he notes the asphyxiating 1986 eruption of carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos, Cameroon, when ‘there weren’t even flies around to snack on the dead bodies’, to horrific descriptions of gas warfare victims. There are gruesome details of Lavoisier’s guillotining to a dynamite explosion in which ‘a severed human arm smacked a third-storey window down the street’.


Consider the following. With every breath, you literally inhale the history of the world. You’re statistically likely to be breathing the same gas as Julius Caesar (died on the Ides of March, 44 BC on the Senate floor in Rome). Of the sextillions of molecules entering and 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. The past is not ‘gone’. It co-mingles with the present. Now there’s a thought to put yer gas at a peep.


Check if this excellent new popular science book is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at


384 pages in Doubleday

First published 2017

ISBN 978-0857525123


Sam Kean

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