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

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  1,865 ratings  ·  303 reviews
The fascinating science and history of the air we breathe

It's invisible. It's ever-present. Without it, you would die in minutes. And it has an epic story to tell.

In Caesar's Last Breath, New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean takes us on a journey through the periodic table, around the globe, and across time to tell the story of the air we breathe, which, it turns o
Kindle Edition, 384 pages
Published July 18th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company
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4.21  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,865 ratings  ·  303 reviews

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Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽
ETA: I would just like to add that even though I have the ARC of this book in ebook form, I just paid retail price for the hardback as a Christmas gift for my teenage science nerd kid (shhh, don't tell him). Highly recommended if you or anyone you love enjoys non-fiction pop science books!

Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature (along with my co-reviewer Bill's 5 star review):

So much fun! Caesar’s Last Breath is certainly the most enjoyable, informative and accessible popular science bo
Sean Gibson
Sep 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In ninja-like fashion and with deadly and merciless scientific roundhouses, Sam Kean has become one of my favorite non-fiction writers, which means two things: 1) I’m going to gush about his latest offering; and 2) the other writers in that group should be wary (so watch your back, Joseph Ellis; maybe start sleeping with the lights on).

As with Kean’s previous books, Caesar’s Last Breath is a marvelous balancing act that mixes copious quantities of science with wit and humor without being boring
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Kean in his typical lighthearted style explores air. He discusses the earth’s early atmosphere ending with his thoughts on its future. In between he offers a collection of vignettes about the scientists and engineers who studied and manipulated all sorts of gases. We get the scientific concepts with entertaining stories making this an easy read.

Kean starts describing the formation of the earth’s atmosphere, much of it coming from volcanoes. He sidetracks to the story of the Mount Saint Helen’s
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I want to thank the publisher for providing a copy of this book for me to review, this book is a study of oxygen, what is composed of , what it is it's structure and how the study of it had affected our society, all along the book the author provides historical notes to provide a relief to all the science behind the book , and these are very welcome . It is amazing to know how much it is to know about this gas (oxygen) that we usually take for granted but without which we would not exist , life ...more
Tom Quinn
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
That's the goal of Caesar's Last Breath—to make these invisible stories of gases visible, so you can see them as clearly as you can see your breath on a crisp November morning. At various points in the book we'll swim with radioactive pigs in the ocean and hunt insects the size of dachshunds. We'll watch Albert Einstein struggle to invent a better refrigerator, and we'll ride shotgun with pilots unleashing top-secret "weather warfare" on Vietnam. We'll march with angry mobs, and be buried inside
Given that the two Sam Kean books I've read where I'm fairly well-acquainted with the subject have come off to me as popular science drivel (this one and The Disappearing Spoon ), I might have to retroactively lower my assessments of his other books (if I don't want to fall prey to the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia effect). To be fair, I don't remember anything that was actively wrong in this book, just a lot of bluster and puffing.

One thing I really don't like is Kean's attempt to "have his cake an
Thomas Edmund
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I received a free copy of Caesar's Last Breath for review, which I confess does make me a little positively biased , BUT Kean's non-fiction piece is really good. I'm not sure how he does it but Kean somehow takes an extremely broad topic: "the air" and structures the book in a way that makes sense. Balancing historic anecdotes, not just about scientists (for example Caesar), with science lessons the book was fun to digest even though their was a lot to absorb.

One thing I will say however is this
When I picked up Sam Kean's new book on air, I knew I was going to learn about the molecular structure of air and the permanence of these molecules in the history of our planet. What I didn't expect was a thorough study of everything that can possibly relate to the element. I learned about weather-making, atomic bomb testing, first balloon flights, radioactivity of bananas, Roswell incident, life on other planets, and much more. I'm a complete nerd for trivia, and now I'm just bursting to unleas ...more
Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I won this book in a goodreads drawing.

A wonderful book recounting the science surrounding the air around us, and how many of the gases and their properties were discovered, often by accident. Very entertaining stuff, and very educational at the same time.

Highly recommended.
Aug 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You can capture the entire history of the world in a single breath.

Accessible writing with some dry humor and a bit of snarkiness thrown in from time to time.
Broken down into three basic parts
-the first atmospheres, how our early atmosphere was formed.
-human discoveries of the workings of the atmosphere and various gasses.
-effects human inventions/discoveries had on the atmosphere.

Overall an enjoyable book and I'll leave you with this thought from the author on climate change,

But as much as I b
Ross Blocher
Aug 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Meditation practice often begins with focus on breathing, and in that sense there is no deeper meditation than "Caesar's Last Breath" to inspire mindfulness of the air within you (and around you). With this treatise on gasses, Sam Kean has solidified himself as one of my favorite authors. He shares stories of fact and discovery with a pervasive sense of humor and humanity, a brilliant penchant for the "callback" that connects and reinforces disparate concepts, a keen sense of which details are i ...more
Jul 22, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Random, hodge-podge theory: the epitome of "all over the page".

This is one of those books I wish I could UN-read. We don't all breathe the same air as our ancient ancestors--including Caesar. We'd have to live in a dome and Earth isn't that kind of place.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th July

Sam Kean is an entertaining pop science writer in general, and though this isn’t as perfectly up my street as The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, it’s still fascinating and very readable. It starts by reminding us that we’re breathing the same air as everyone who has ever lived — including Caesar, hence the title — and that there’s a high chance we’re breathing in some of the same molecules that bounced around their lungs. Then it g
Like Sam Kean's previous books, this one is a fascinating look at chemistry. Its emphasis is on gaseous elements, but not exclusively. This is not a comprehensive treatise--it is what I would call "pop-chemistry" (as analogous to pop-psychology). Sam Kean writes in a popular, friendly style that borders on cutesy. Here are a few quotes as an example:
"boiled our frickin' oceans"
"To say that geologists didn't embrace Wegener's theory is a bit like saying that General Sherman didn't receive the wa
Payel Kundu
This book was a pretty interesting read. I was a little suspicious that I would find the subject too dry, but a couple of things prevented this. One is that Kean really writes this book from a human interest perspective. Each story is enriched with details about the lives and motivations of the people involved, often told in a humorous way. The other is that the subject matter is approached in a pretty broad way. The book isn’t a list of anecdotes about the discovery of various gasses through hi ...more
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: listened, science-ish

Good, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I have his previous books. Maybe those other topics – the elements, genetics, the human brain – are just more interesting to me than “gases.” “Air” is just such an … amorphous topic, and the organization here felt very random. As always, Kean tells the stories related to each gas in a lively, humorous way, and he skillfully connects the scientific ideas he's relating with historical incidents that illustrate their relevance. Air might not look like m
Scarlett Sims
Sam Kean does it again! In his typical conversational style, he makes science accessible and fun for the lay person, using odd occurrences from history to explain the gases that make up our atmosphere (and a few others). I really love his writing style because it is so much like how a person would talk and so non-technical. In some ways, I guess I like it because it's kind of how I would write? He takes a very human-interest sort of perspective, telling the stories of people who discovered eleme ...more
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
My copy courtesy Little, Brown - much thanks!
Cj Zawacki
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So we talk in it, see in it, we walk in it: and even bring it into our bodies. Sam Kean has written CAEAR'S LAST BREATH to explain what is in the air we breath in our lives. I could say this is a nerd's book on science, however, I found the story of what we are breathing to be extremely enjoyable with lots of side comments.
Kean takes us on an adventure into the discovery of all the gases we inhale and the history of their discovery. Each chapter has insights from the beginning of Earth to the S
May 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great look at the atmosphere

This is the third book of Sam Kean’s that I’ve read; the other two were “The Violinist's Thumb” and “The Disappearing Spoon”. I loved the latter two, so I had high expectations for “Caesar’s Last Breath”. I was not disappointed. Once again Kean does some great storytelling, this time about the atmosphere. There is some science involved since it is necessary to understand the behavior of gases in order to understand the atmosphere. Kean explains the science very simply
Brendan Monroe
I wish I had a better reason for not liking this book. Believe me, I'm trying to think of one ... too many numbers? Should have read it in print rather than listened to the audio?

I don't think either of those excuses really cuts it. So, to paraphrase the great George Costanza — or was it Jerry who first used this as an excuse? — it's not you, Sam Kean, it's me!

Truth be told, I guess I just don't care enough about air. I mean, sure, a few facts and I'm all ears, but an entire book on the subjec
Feb 28, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook, science
I know this rating is not fair. This should have been the ideal book for me and in reality, should have been a 4-star book, but was one of the rare instances in which I had to take it down one because it was an audiobook. Don’t get me wrong, it has nothing to do with Ben Sullivan’s outstanding 5-star narration. In fact, I’m heading to Audible to look for others he has narrated it was that good.

It was fantastically filled with numbers and stats that I love. The problem was there was just too muc
Tamara Cassinat
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars.

I loved this - mostly. My favorite parts about Sam Keans novels are learning the history of chemistry and how things we discovered and researched. I find that fascinating. Plus, knowing the history of some chemicals and early research actually helps to deepen my understanding of chemistry in general.

I loved the first two parts of this book because they covered the history of gas and how gas shaped our Earth. The discovery of Nobel gases, steam engines, laughing gas, TNT, and up to the
Jul 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
I was so excited when I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley and Little, Brown & Company. I'm always looking for good books that I can share with my High School science students, but it's rare to find a chemistry related book that fits the bill -- Especially one as entertaining and engaging as this one. This examines how the gasses around us, often unnoticed, have shaped the world around us and been shaped by us. Kean uses historical events, discoveries, and anecdotes to illustrate ho ...more
Sep 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pop-science
Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy in exchange for a fair review.

I probably got the review copy because I loved an earlier Sam Kean book, The Violinist's Thumb. In that book, Kean did a deep dive (for laymen) into our genetic code, with each chapter organized around an amusing story that tied into the theme of that chapter. It was deeply researched, very entertaining, and quite informative.

Here, he tries the same formula...only it never quite gels.

So this one is about gases. Just that--gases
May 24, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I received an Advanced Reader Copy from a Goodreads giveaway and the book is full of interesting scientific stories and tidbits, related to the air we breathe and the atmosphere around us. My only complaint about the book is that it seems a bit unfocused. The topics are all over the place and only slightly cohere around a theme. This doesn't stop the book from being interesting. It simply makes the topics seem random.
Mal Warwick
Aug 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Ever heard of dichlorodifluoromethane? (That's CCl2F2 to you chemistry students.) Well, guess what? You inhale seven trillion molecules of the stuff every time you breathe. Yes, it's in the air we breathe. That's just one of the lesser revelations in Sam Kean's eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable new survey, Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us. 

As the title will suggest to the careful reader, the central conceit in Kean's book is that "roughly one particle of [the la
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
We all get annoyed when someone doesn’t cover their mouth when they cough for fear that we will inhale whatever they are spewing into the air around us. But, according to Sam Kean, when we breathe, we not only inhale the air of those near us right now but, in fact, every breath we take connects us with the breath of everyone who has ever lived including, as the title of his latest book suggests, Caesar’s last breath. As it says on the cover blurb

[w]ith every breath, you literally inhale the his
Ben Zimmerman
Feb 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Caesar’s Last Breath is a lot of fun to read. I just finished reading On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor, and I can’t help making the comparison between the two books. Caesar’s Last Breath meanders through the history, science, and applications of gases as well as making some profound observations about our relationship with the gases on Earth and the future.

I loved On Trails, which also has a meandering style, approaching this topic and that. I loved this book even more, probably because
Jun 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a book about air, specifically the chemistry of air. That might sound like a dull topic to many, but Sam Kean is a master at infusing the science with stories that bring the discoveries and their impacts to life. I've read a lot of popular science books and expected to be revisiting many familiar stories, but I was delighted to find that most of what's here was new to me. I listened to the audiobook read in small part by the author but largely by Ben Sullivan, who does an excellent job a ...more
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Sam Kean is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, The Believer, Air & Space, Science, and The New Scientist. He is currently working as a reporter at Science magazine and as a 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.


(Un)Official Bio:
Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dak
“the navy brought an ark’s worth of animals to Bikini and distributed them among the target ships, to test the biological effects of atomic bombs. After this was announced, several thousand angry letters poured into U.S. government offices. Ninety people even volunteered to take the animals’ places, including the writer E. B. White and a prisoner in San Quentin who said he wanted to do society some good for a change.” 1 likes
“Every molecule in our bodies started off life as a gas, and long after our demise, when the big red bloated sun swallows everything around us, all those atoms will return to a gaseous state.” 0 likes
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