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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index L > Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier Quotes

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Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
(26 Aug 1743 - 8 May 1794)

French chemist.

Science Quotes by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (18 quotes)

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Dans les sciences physiques en général, on ait souvent supposé au lieu de conclure; que les suppositions transmises d’âge en âge, soient devenues de plus en plus imposantes par le poids des autorités qu'elles ont acquises , & qu'elles ayent enfin été adoptées & regardées comme des vérités fondamentales, même par de très-bons esprits.
In the science of physics in general, men have so often formed suppositions, instead of drawing conclusions. These suppositions, handed down from one age to another, acquire additional weight from the authorities by which they are supported, till at last they are received, even by men of genius, as fundamental truths.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From the original French in Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789, 1793), discours préliminaire, x; and from edition translated into English by Robert Kerr, as Elements of Chemistry (1790), Preface, xvi.
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L'imagination au contraire qui tend à nous porter continuellement au-delà du vrai, l'amour-propre et la confiance en nous-mêmes, qu'il sait si bien nous inspirer, nous sollicitent à tirer des conséquences qui ne dérivent pas immédiatement des faits.
Imagination, on the contrary, which is ever wandering beyond the bounds of truth, joined to self-love and that self-confidence we are so apt to indulge, prompt us to draw conclusions which are not immediately derived from facts.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From the original French in Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789, 1793), discours préliminaire, ix; and from edition translated into English by Robert Kerr, as Elements of Chemistry (1790), Preface, xvii.
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Les mathématiciens parviennent à la solution d’un problême par le simple arrangement des données, & en réduisant le raisonnement à des opérations si simples, à des jugemens si courts, qu’ils ne perdent jamais de vue l’évidence qui leur sert de guide.
Mathematicians come to the solution of a problem by the simple arrangement of the data, and reducing the reasoning to such simple operations, to judgments so brief, that they never lose sight of the evidence that serves as their guide.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From a paper read to the Académie Royales des Sciences (18 Apr 1787), printed in Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique (1787), 12. Translation from the French by Webmaster.
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Qui est de nous & qui seul peut nous égarer; à le mettre continuellement à épreuve de l'expérience; à ne conserver que les faits qui ne font que des données de la nature , & qui ne peuvent nous tromper; à ne chercher la vérité que dans l'enchaînement naturel des expériences & des observations
We must trust to nothing but facts: These are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From the original French in Traité élémentaire de chimie (1789, 1793), discours préliminaire, x; and from edition translated into English by Robert Kerr, as Elements of Chemistry (1790), Preface, xviii.
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About eight days ago I discovered that sulfur in burning, far from losing weight, on the contrary, gains it; it is the same with phosphorus; this increase of weight arises from a prodigious quantity of air that is fixed during combustion and combines with the vapors. This discovery, which I have established by experiments, that I regard as decisive, has led me to think that what is observed in the combustion of sulfur and phosphorus may well take place in the case of all substances that gain in weight by combustion and calcination; and I am persuaded that the increase in weight of metallic calxes is due to the same cause... This discovery seems to me one of the most interesting that has been made since Stahl and since it is difficult not to disclose something inadvertently in conversation with friends that could lead to the truth I have thought it necessary to make the present deposit to the Secretary of the Academy to await the time I make my experiments public.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Sealed note deposited with the Secretary of the French Academy 1 Nov 1772. Oeuvres de Lavoisier, Correspondance, Fasc. II. 1770-75 (1957), 389-90. Adapted from translation by A. N. Meldrum, The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Science (1930), 3.
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All that can be said upon the number and nature of elements is, in my opinion, confined to discussions entirely of a metaphysical nature. The subject only furnishes us with indefinite problems, which may be solved in a thousand different ways, not one of which, in all probability, is consistent with nature. I shall therefore only add upon this subject, that if, by the term elements, we mean to express those simple and indivisible atoms of which matter is composed, it is extremely probable we know nothing at all about them; but, if we apply the term elements, or principles of bodies, to express our idea of the last point which analysis is capable of reaching, we must admit, as elements, all the substances into which we are capable, by any means, to reduce bodies by decomposition.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry (1790), trans. R. Kerr, Preface, xxiv.
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As ideas are preserved and communicated by means of words, it necessarily follows that we cannot improve the language of any science, without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry (1790), trans. R. Kerr, Preface, xiv-v.
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Chemistry affords two general methods of determining the constituent principles of bodies, the method of analysis, and that of synthesis. When, for instance, by combining water with alkohol, we form the species of liquor called, in commercial language, brandy or spirit of wine, we certainly have a right to conclude, that brandy, or spirit of wine, is composed of alkohol combined with water. We can produce the same result by the analytical method; and in general it ought to be considered as a principle in chemical science, never to rest satisfied without both these species of proofs. We have this advantage in the analysis of atmospherical air, being able both to decompound it, and to form it a new in the most satisfactory manner.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry (1790), trans. R. Kerr, 33.
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Chemists have made of phlogiston a vague principle which is not at all rigorously defined, and which, in consequence, adapts itself to all explanations in which it is wished it shall enter; sometimes it is free fire, sometimes it is fire combined with the earthy element; sometimes it passes through the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it; it explains both the causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, colours and absence of colours. It is a veritable Proteus which changes its form every instant. It is time to conduct chemistry to a more rigorous mode of reasoning ... to distinguish fact and observation from what is systematic and hypothetical.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
'Réflexions sur le phlogistique', Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1783, 505-38. Reprinted in Oeuvres de Lavoisier (1864), Vol. 2, 640, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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I have had a fairly long life, above all a very happy one, and I think that I shall be remembered with some regrets and perhaps leave some reputation behind me. What more could I ask? The events in which I am involved will probably save me from the troubles of old age. I shall die in full possession of my faculties, and that is another advantage that I should count among those that I have enjoyed. If I have any distressing thoughts, it is of not having done more for my family; to be unable to give either to them or to you any token of my affection and my gratitude is to be poor indeed.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Letter to Augez de Villiers, undated. Quoted in D. McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (1952), 303.
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If everything in chemistry is explained in a satisfactory manner without the help of phlogiston, it is by that reason alone infinitely probable that the principle does not exist; that it is a hypothetical body, a gratuitous supposition; indeed, it is in the principles of good logic, not to multiply bodies without necessity.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
'Reflexions sur le phlogistique', Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1783, 505-38. Reprinted in Oeuvres de Lavoisier (1864), Vol. 2, 623, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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In every combustion there is disengagement of the matter of fire or of light. A body can burn only in pure air [oxygen]. There is no destruction or decomposition of pure air and the increase in weight of the body burnt is exactly equal to the weight of air destroyed or decomposed. The body burnt changes into an acid by addition of the substance that increases its weight. Pure air is a compound of the matter of fire or of light with a base. In combustion the burning body removes the base, which it attracts more strongly than does the matter of heat, which appears as flame, heat and light.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
'Memoire sur la combustion en général', Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1777, 592. Reprinted in Oeuvres de Lavoisier (1864), Vol. 2, 225-33, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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Perhaps... some day the precision of the data will be brought so far that the mathematician will be able to calculate at his desk the outcome of any chemical combination, in the same way, so to speak, as he calculates the motions of celestial bodies.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Oeuvres (1862), Vol. 2, 550-1. Trans. John Heilbron, Weighing Imponderables and Other Quantitative Science around 1800 (1993), 14.
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The impossibility of separating the nomenclature of a science from the science itself, is owing to this, that every branch of physical science must consist of three things; the series of facts which are the objects of the science, the ideas which represent these facts, and the words by which these ideas are expressed. Like three impressions of the same seal, the word ought to produce the idea, and the idea to be a picture of the fact.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry (1790), trans. R. Kerr, Preface, xiv.
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The whole art of making experiments in chemistry is founded on the principle: we must always suppose an exact equality or equation between the principles of the body examined and those of the products of its analysis.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (1789), 140. Translation as given in James Riddick Partington, A Short History of Chemistry (1960), 124. This is an alternate translation of part of the same passage on this page that begins “We may lay it down as an incontestible axiom…”
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This pure species of air [oxygen] has the property of combining with the blood and … this combination constitutes its red colour.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
From 'Expériences sur la respiration des animaux, et sur les changemens qui arrivent à l’air en passant par leur poumon', Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences for 1777 (1780) as translated by Thomas Henry in 'Experiments on the Respiration of Animals on the Changes effected on the Air passing through their Lungs', Essays, on the Effects Produced by Various Processes on Atmospheric Air, etc. (1783), 13-14. Also in John F. Fulton, Selected Readings in the History of Physiology (1930), 125.
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This theory [the oxygen theory] is not as I have heard it described, that of the French chemists, it is mine (elle est la mienne); it is a property which I claim from my contemporaries and from posterity.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Memoires de Chimie (1805), Vol. 2, 87, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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We may lay it down as an incontestible axiom, that, in all the operations of art and nature, nothing is created; an equal quantity of matter exists both before and after the experiment; the quality and quantity of the elements remain precisely the same; and nothing takes place beyond changes and modifications in the combination of these elements. Upon this principle the whole art of performing chemical experiments depends: We must always suppose an exact equality between the elements of the body examined and those of the products of its analysis.
— Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry trans. Robert. Kerr, (1790, 5th Ed. 1802), Vol. 1, 226.
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Quotes by others about Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (13)

We all teach ... the chemistry of Lavoisier and Gay-Lussac.
Comment made in 1877. Cited in Maurice Crosland, Gay-Lussac, Scientist and Bourgeois (1972), 248.
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Science would not be what it is if there had not been a Galileo, a Newton or a Lavoisier, any more than music would be what it is if Bach, Beethoven and Wagner had never lived. The world as we know it is the product of its geniuses—and there may be evil as well as beneficent genius—and to deny that fact, is to stultify all history, whether it be that of the intellectual or the economic world.
What is Science? (1921), 73.
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In science, attempts at formulating hierarchies are always doomed to eventual failure. A Newton will always be followed by an Einstein, a Stahl by a Lavoisier; and who can say who will come after us? What the human mind has fabricated must be subject to all the changes—which are not progress—that the human mind must undergo. The 'last words' of the sciences are often replaced, more often forgotten. Science is a relentlessly dialectical process, though it suffers continuously under the necessary relativation of equally indispensable absolutes. It is, however, possible that the ever-growing intellectual and moral pollution of our scientific atmosphere will bring this process to a standstill. The immense library of ancient Alexandria was both symptom and cause of the ossification of the Greek intellect. Even now I know of some who feel that we know too much about the wrong things.
Voices in the Labyrinth: Nature, Man, and Science (1979), 46.
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The attempt of Lavoisier to reform chemical nomenclature is premature. One single experiment may destroy the whole filiation of his terms; and his string of sulphates, sulphites, and sulphures, may have served no end than to have retarded the progress of science by a jargon, from the confusion of which time will be requisite to extricate us.
Letter to Rev. James Madison (Paris, 1788). In Thomas Jefferson and John P. Foley (ed.), The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia (1900), 135. From H.A. Washington, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853-54). Vol 2, 432.
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You have heard of the new chemical nomenclature endeavored to be introduced by Lavoisier, Fourcroy, &c. Other chemists of this country, of equal note, reject it, and prove in my opinion that it is premature, insufficient and false. These latter are joined by the British chemists; and upon the whole, I think the new nomenclature will be rejected, after doing more harm than good. There are some good publications in it, which must be translated into the ordinary chemical language before they will be useful.
Letter to Dr. Currie (Paris, 1788). In Thomas Jefferson and John P. Foley (ed.), The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia (1900), 135. From H.A. Washington, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853-54). Vol 2, 544.
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A schism has taken place among the chemists. A particular set of them in France have undertaken to remodel all the terms of the science, and to give every substance a new name, the composition, and especially the termination of which, shall define the relation in which it stands to other substances of the same family, But the science seems too much in its infancy as yet, for this reformation; because in fact, the reformation of this year must be reformed again the next year, and so on, changing the names of substances as often as new experiments develop properties in them undiscovered before. The new nomenclature has, accordingly, been already proved to need numerous and important reformations. ... It is espoused by the minority here, and by the very few, indeed, of the foreign chemists. It is particularly rejected in England.
Letter to Dr. Willard (Paris, 1788). In Thomas Jefferson and John P. Foley (ed.), The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia (1900), 135. From H.A. Washington, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853-54). Vol 3, 15.
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The science of genetics is in a transition period, becoming an exact science just as the chemistry in the times of Lavoisier, who made the balance an indispensable implement in chemical research.
The Genotype Conception of Heredity', The American Naturalist (1911), 45, 131.
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To Monsieur Lavoisier by appointment. Madame Lavoisier, a lively, sensible, scientific lady, had prepared a dejuné Anglois of tea and coffee, but her conversation on Mr. Kirwan's Essay on Phlogiston, which she is translating from the English, and on other subjects, which a woman of understanding, that works with her husband in his laboratory, knows how to adorn, was the best repast.
Entry for 16 Oct 1787. In Arthur Young, Travels in France During the Years, 1787, 1788 and 1789 (1792), 64.
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I have witnessed a most remarkable drama here, one which to me as a German was very unexpected, and quite shocking. I saw the famous M. Lavoisier hold a ceremonial auto-da-fe of phlogiston in the Arsenal. His wife... served as the sacrificial priestess, and Stahl appeared as the advocatus diaboli to defend phlogiston. In the end, poor phlogiston was burned on the accusation of oxygen. Do you not think I have made a droll discovery? Everything is literally true. I will not say whether the cause of phlogiston is now irretrievably lost, or what I think about the issue. But I am glad that this spectacle was not presented in my fatherland.
Letter to Chemische Annalen, 1789, 1, 519. Quoted (in English translation) in K. Hufbauer, The Formation of the German Chemical Community (1982), 96.
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I denounce to you the Coryphaeus—the leader of the chorus—of charlatans, Sieur Lavoisier, son of a land-grabber, apprentice-chemist, pupil of the Genevan stock-jobber [Necker], a Farmer-General, Commisioner for Gunpowder and Saltpetre, Governor of the Discount Bank, Secretary to the King, Member of the Academy of Sciences.
Marat's denunciation of 1791
L' Ami du Peuple, 27 January 1791. Trans. D. McKie, Antoine Lavoisier, Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (1952), 242.
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Le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant.
The wall surrounding Paris is making Paris grumble.
Parisian saying after the Farmers-General of taxes, acting on a proposal by Lavoisier, erected a customs wall around Paris.
Quoted in D. McKie, Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (1952), 136.
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[Recalling Professor Ira Remsen's remarks (1895) to a group of his graduate students about to go out with their degrees into the world beyond the university:]
He talked to us for an hour on what was ahead of us; cautioned us against giving up the desire to push ahead by continued study and work. He warned us against allowing our present accomplishments to be the high spot in our lives. He urged us not to wait for a brilliant idea before beginning independent research, and emphasized the fact the Lavoisier's first contribution to chemistry was the analysis of a sample of gypsum. He told us that the fields in which the great masters had worked were still fruitful; the ground had only been scratched and the gleaner could be sure of ample reward.
Quoted in Frederick Hutton Getman, The Life of Ira Remsen (1980), 73.
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The reputation of science which ought to be the most lasting, as synonymous with truth, is often the least so. One discovery supersedes another; and the progress of light throws the past into obscurity. What is become of the Blacks, the Lavoisiers, the Priestleys, in chemistry? … When any set of men think theirs the only science worth studying, and themselves the only infallible persons in it, it is a sign how frail the traces are of past excellence in it.
Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault's Maxims (1837), 148-149.
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See also:
  • 26 Aug - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Lavoisier's birth.
  • Torch and Crucible: The Life and Death of Antoine Lavoisier, by Sidney J. French. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Antoine Lavoisier.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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