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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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caesar's last breath

A new book will change the way you think about the air you breathe

We talked to its author, Sam Kean, about what he discovered while writing Caesar’s Last Breath.

YOU DON’T ALWAYS notice when you take a breath. Unless you’ve consciously decided to take note of the process of breathing in and out, it just happens.

But even when you do notice your breath, you might not take time to think about what you’re breathing in and out – ‘oxygen in, carbon dioxide out’ is as far as it goes.

But a new book by US science writer Sam Kean aims to change how you think about breathing and the air around us. Caesar’s Last Breath looks at the air we breathe, and the many gases and molecules that make it up. Kean uses fascinating stories to bring us the science, educating us in a new way about the air around us.

Through his book we learn, for example, that the air we inhale now is not the same air our grandparents inhaled when they were young, and is different again from the air people inhaled 300 years ago.

And did you know that each time we breathe, we could be inhaling a trace of Caesar’s last breath? Provocative and intriguing, the book is crammed full of interesting facts and figures that will make you reassess how you see the world.

Appreciating the air

Asked about his motivation behind writing the book, the South Dakota-born Kean tells “Air is so very important – it shapes us in different ways, not only our biology but our society. Ever since the industrial revolution we have been exploiting the power of air and other gases but it’s something we barely think about, so it’s a combination of knowing there are a lot of fascinating stories out there about the air but also to wake people up almost, to appreciate and understand the air.”

Kean’s own interest in science began when he was young. “I was a very big reader when I was a kid and I just really enjoyed learning about how things worked. I don’t think it was restricted to science but I was really fascinated by how everything worked,” he recalls, saying that he was particularly enamoured with a set of children’s encyclopedias.

There began an interest that would lead him to write about the periodic table in The Disappearing Spoon, the brain in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, and our genetic code in The Violinist’s Thumb.

This latest book was also a way for Kean to show the connection between science and the humanities: “You can talk about war, art, music – pretty much anything you want in relation to the sciences. The overall point is to show people that science isn’t something separate in their lives, it connects to everything.”

Those of us who didn’t study science past our teens can sometimes feel the subject to be intimidating, but Kean is out to prove that it’s something for everyone.

“Science really is a very human topic and people get put off a little bit by something because it can get complicated if you really get into it, but you can get a lot out of it by reading science stories and looking into the lives of people who made these discoveries,” he assures. “There are lots of stories about villains, conflicts, drama – all the things that make a good story if you look deeper into it.”

Kean acknowledges that science can “seem intimidating sometimes” but that doesn’t have to be the case. “I think that children, younger people they are often fascinated by science and I think everyone out there had a memory of something science-y that they loved, that occurred this deep sense of wonder in it.”

One thing I try to do with all my books is make people understand that science is a human thing. You can laugh when reading about science, you can cry, be touched – it really runs the gamut of the full human emotions. Science is a part of human life, it is not removed and abstract: it is a rich and human thing.

Explosions and Einstein

shutterstock_559974829 Shutterstock / spatuletail Einstein, as pictured on an Italian stamp. Shutterstock / spatuletail / spatuletail

In the book, Kean writes about a fascinating range of people – from Caesar himself to a man who died in the Mount Helens explosion, to Einstein.

“I guess the two things I was looking at – first I wanted to make sure they did have a good, interesting story, something that would captivate people and also I wanted to cover the spectrum of gases in the air,” he explains.

One of Kean’s favourite stories in the book is about Albert Einstein’s obsession with refrigeration.

Einstein was sickened to read in the newspaper about a family who died when their refrigerator broke and let out toxic gases, and set out on a quest to make a less-deadly fridge.

“It’s a new look at someone we think we know really well,” says Kean. “I also enjoyed digging out people [and situations] you’ve never heard of, like the supposed alien invasion in Roswell in the US but connecting that to the ozone layer.”

And therein lies the joy of a book like Caesar’s Last Breath – it makes us reassess what we thought we knew about even the most fantastical real-life stories.

In his research, Kean looked at science journals, history books, people’s diaries and memoirs, letters and library archives.

What was the biggest thing he discovered? “I think it was the fact that there is so much variety in the air,” he says. “Seeing the real variety in the atmosphere. If we even think about it we think about this monolithic thing air that is there, we take it for granted.”

Climate change

shutterstock_368975408 Shutterstock / illustrissima Shutterstock / illustrissima / illustrissima

One of the many subjects touched on in the book is climate change. “It’s kind of impossible to write about a book air without mentioning it,” says Kean. “It was a bit of a balancing act – I didn’t want the whole book to be about that topic because it’s not supposed to be a book about the future, it’s a book about the present, what the air is, evoking people’s wonders about it. But it was a dereliction of duty if I didn’t talk about it to some degree.”

Kean says he wanted to get across to people that climate change is a serious problem – “”without leaving them a sense of doom and gloom”.

He also looks in the books at topics that he admits are debatable, like climate engineering.

He believes there should be debate about climate change, saying: “I think that’s the best way to decide what we are going to do about it.”

What does he think about the focus on public debate with climate change deniers, like US President Donald Trump? “At some points it gets futile if they are not going to do anything or if they are going to deny it, it’s futile to engage with them,” he says. “But at some point reality is going to catch up with them.”

What he wants is for is readers to feel somewhat changed after reading the book. “I wanted them to walk away and next time the wind blows and think ‘I understand what is going on there’ or think about their breathing, and what a miraculous thing it is.”

I did want people to appreciate more about the air and help them understand what it is and what’s going on around them – and actually stop and think about it a bit, instead of just passively moving through this ocean of air.

Caesar’s Last Breath is published by Doubleday and is out now.

Read: Al Gore: ‘Trump’s antics distract the US from the big challenges we face – like the climate crisis’>

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