Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

Journalist and frequent NPR guest Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon) has made a living out of deciphering science and making clever and entertaining what is often dry drudgery. In Caesar's Last Breath, he takes on the science of gases in his trademark effervescent, loopy style--kicking it off with the emergence of Earth from a fiery, uninhabitable atmosphere, a "dragon's breath of volcanoes."

From the planet's hellish beginnings, Kean works his way through the evolution of the atmospheric building blocks of life: oxygen and nitrogen. Biology, chemistry and geology turn quickly into comedic stories, wordplay and metaphors. The search molecularly to combine nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia ("the gateway to fertilizer") leads him to the eccentric 20th-century German scientist Fritz Haber and his engineer countryman Carl Bosch. The two succeeded at producing commercial quantities of ammonia and supplied the world with its agricultural bounty, but they also became the fathers of German chemical warfare in World War I and developed synthetic gasoline to fuel Hitler's war engine.

In a similar vein, Kean highlights the other key elements of Earth's atmosphere and the unusual and downright freaky stories behind their discovery. If he occasionally gets a bit corny in his search for colloquial humor, Kean can also put a metaphor right on the money--such as his description of the birth of the Earth's volatile moon as "glowing like a blackened, bloodshot eye." Irreverent, lightly scientific, Caesar's Last Breath is nonetheless a lively, rewarding journey through the evolution of Earth's gaseous atmosphere. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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