cover image Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

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

Sam Kean. Little, Brown, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-316-38164-2

Kean (The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons) pumps chemical and historical trivia into this tale about air and the gases of which it is composed. His style ranges from buoyant to jittery and he bounces ideas around as though they were ping-pong balls. Math buffs may enjoy determining how many calories it takes to vaporize a human body or how many oxygen molecules a human needs every 24 hours; other readers will content themselves with trying to decipher the chemical breakdown of their next breath. The air in that breath, Kean points out, is nearly as old as the Earth and includes not only traces of Caesar’s last exhalation but traces of every gas-emitting being or thing on the planet—including volcanoes, bombs, farms, and restaurant kitchens. While discussing the gases of which air is composed, Kean describes many relevant engineering feats, such as the steam engine, synthetic fertilizer, anesthesia, dynamite, steel production, the hot-air balloon, and more. He provides historical vignettes about such phenomena as spontaneous combustion and the first bank robbery done via blowtorch. Kean also considers how the relationship between humans and air has changed in the era of nuclear power, refrigeration, space exploration, and global warming. The result is a hodgepodge of ephemera that is lightweight and entertaining. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead & Assoc. (July)