The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

II
LAVOISIER: THE FLAME OF LIFE

ON A CLEAR summer day in 1772 when the sun shone bright in the noonday Paris sky, the great Tschirnhausen burning glass was hauled out into the Jardin de l'Infante. This was the formal garden that stretched from the Louvre to the banks of the Seine.

Members of the Académie Royale des Sciences who had come to witness some singular experiments gathered around the lumbering, top-heavy apparatus. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the experimenter, mounted the low, wheeled platform, put on dark glasses, and began to turn the big thirty-three-inch lens full to the sun. He set a smaller lens that shortened the focus and brought an immense heat to bear upon a hollowed-out Paris paving stone that held--a diamond.

The heat was intense. A few of the elegantly dressed spectators thought that they saw a tiny wisp of smoke. And then the diamond had disappeared. It was gone; the hard, brilliant stone, the miraculous gem of the Middle Ages, had "burned" or been "destroyed" by the heat as completely as though it had been a drop of pure water.

Formidable, formidable! It was a startling and incredible thing to happen before one's eyes, even when one was expecting it. The group was at least partly prepared for this dramatic opening of the experiment, for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in his studies of the curative "atmospheres" or "emanations" of precious stones had demonstrated this peculiarity of the diamond some years before.

But more was to come. Maillard the jeweler had argued be-

-7-

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