Eiffel Tower Scientists - Focus on: Antoine & Marie-Anne Lavoisier

Just because our headquarters are in the San Francisco now doesn’t mean we’re forgetting our Parisian roots. In fact, we were in the City of Lights until 2015, and some of our team still rests right beside Bastille, the location of the prison where the French Revolution began (oh la la!). To honor our heritage, we want to take a closer look at some details of a famed landmark which many Parisians don’t know exist: the names inscribed under the first balcony on the Eiffel Tower.

These names were written on all sides of the tower, all chosen by Gustave Eiffel himself, to commemorate some of the greatest French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in an attempt to combat the protest that the French people had against erecting the monument. This, unfortunately for Mr. Eiffel, did not have the desired effect: the names were painted over until 1986 when the Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE) wanted to return the tower to its intended design.

72 people were selected for this “invocation of science,” and sadly, not a single one is a woman. So, though we want to recognize the great STEM folk of France, I will also talk about some of today’s current, brilliant STEM femmes--one per inscribed name. If you know of any of today’s or history’s French ladies that you would like us to recognize, send me an e-mail here, otherwise, enjoy the crème de la crème of our scientific past.

Antoine Lavoisier

To introduce this article collection, I selected Antoine Lavoisier--my chemistry background makes me a bit impartial in this case. Nevertheless though, he indeed earned his name as the “father of modern chemistry,” after all, he animated a great deal of what is now used by convention in chemistry: the metric system, the method of nomenclature, the law of the conservation of mass, just to name a few. Let’s talk about some of his most notable contributions that landed him a place among 72 other brilliant scientists on one of the most recognizable monuments on the Earth.  

  1. The Metric System

Lavoisier was a major contributor to the construction of the metric system, particularly in the selection of the base use of mass, a gram, which he defined with René Just Haüy in 1793. This amount is equal to the value of the weight of one cubic centimeter of pure water at its melting point.

  1. The Law of the Conservation of Mass 

The implementation of the metric system and the definition of the gram became wildly useful as Lavoisier was developing the Law of the Conservation of Mass. Generally speaking, Lavoisier’s research featured some of the first quantitative elements in chemistry, a major evolution towards objective and defined sciences rather than purely qualitative observations. He famously said, “Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme,” which means, “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, all is transformed.” Essentially, the total mass that exists at the beginning of a chemical change is exactly the same at the conclusion of the chemical change, despite the matter possibly looking completely new.

  1. The Oxygen Theory of Combustion

Before Lavoisier worked on combustion, the commonly accepted explanation for fire was the Phlogiston Theory. The scientist who developed this, J. J. Becher, claimed that all matter that is combustible contains an element called phlogiston, which is then released during combustion. In the 1780s, Lavoisier challenged this theory when he explained that gas is required in combustion reactions via demonstrations of combustion reactions within closed vessels.

In short, I think those of us in the science community, and those who have benefited from scientific advancements (so literally everyone) can offer Lavoisier a grand thank you for is highly practical contributions to all fields of science. BUT, let us not forget, he could not have done it alone.

Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier

Madame Paulze, the wife of our dear Lavoisier, was also a chemist an unquestionably contributed to his work in the laboratory. In fact, most of the experimental work that Lavoisier conducted was in conjunction with his wife who is not, sadly, remembered as the lab assistant. She helped her husband not only in the lab, but also via the translation of English chemical documents into French.

After his premature demise during the Reign of Terror, all of the couple’s scientific work was collected by the new government, but thankfully, Paulze still had in her possession her husbands final work which was a compilation of all this new chemistry developed with him, her, and their colleagues. She had this published which secured his legacy and the recognition of his accomplishments.

Without Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, not only would Lavoisier not be able to understand recent chemical publications presented in English or effectively and efficiently conducted his experiments to develop these new chemical laws and conventions, but also his name would have been forgotten in the fury of the people on the French Revolution.