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The Breath of History: How Gases Connect Us to Our Planet and Past

Evening Program with Book Signing

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1A0027

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The Montgolfier brothers launched the first piloted ascent of a hot air balloon in 1783

The story of Earth is the story of its gases. Their behavior and evolution reshaped our solid continents, transfigured our liquid oceans, and were critical in the emergence of complex life. Harnessing the raw physical power of gases suddenly made it possible to build steam engines and to blast through billion-year-old mountains in seconds with explosives. Learning to exploit the chemistry of gases led the way to making steel for skyscrapers, abolishing pain in surgery, and growing enough food to feed the world. And of course, air is the one gas we literally can’t live without

For author Sam Kean, every inhale and exhale we take directly connects us to our planet’s atmosphere—and to humanity’s past itself. Some of the molecules in your next breath, he says, might well be emissaries from 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or witnesses to World War I or the Star-Spangled Banner flying over Fort McHenry.

Drawing on his most recent book, Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us (Little, Brown and Company), Kean takes a closer look at the gases we breathe as he tells the story of their origins, their significance, and their context in history. As he leads a journey through the periodic table, learn about the ingenious refrigerator invented by Albert Einstein that used gases instead of a motor and electricity; how ozone created the “aliens” of Roswell; and the controversy Charles Dickens kicked up over spontaneous combustion. From Cleopatra’s perfumes to Nazi mustard gas to neon lights, the chemistry of gases offers Kean a fascinating perspective from which to illuminate the history we share—and still breathe every moment.

Kean’s books on science include The Disappearing Spoon, The Violinist’s Thumb, and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. Caesar’s Last Breath is available for purchase and signing.

Smithsonian Connections

Why did Henry Ford arrange to have his close friend Thomas Edison’s final breath captured in a paraffin-sealed test tube? reports on the reason.

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)