A man, like a mouse, should have more than one avenue of escape
Joris Hoefnagel (1542 – 1604)
Observations on Different Kinds of Air
. . . . I flatter myself that I have accidentally hit upon a method of restoring air which has been injured by the burning of candles, and that I have discovered at least one of the restoratives which nature employs for this purpose. It is vegetation. In what manner this process in nature operates, to produce so remarkable an effect, I do not pretend to have discovered; but a number of facts declare in favour of this hypothesis…
One might have imagined that, since common air is necessary to vegetable, as well as to animal life, both plants and animal had affected it in the same manner, and I own that I had that expectation, when I first put a sprig of mint into a glass-jar, standing inverted in a vessel of water; but when it had continued growing there for some months, I found that the air would neither extinguish a candle, nor was it at all inconvenient to a mouse, which I put into it.
…Accordingly, on the 17th of August 1771, I put a sprig of mint into a quantity of air, in which a wax candle had burned out, and found that, on the 27th of the same month, another candle burned perfectly well in it. This experiment I repeated, without least variation in the event, not less than eight or ten times in the remainder of the summer.
Joseph Priestley (24 March 1733 – 6 February 1804)
In 1771, about the time of the first stirrings of the industrial revolution and its appetite for fossil fuel, an English minister grasped key processes of the natural carbon cycle. In a series of ingenious experiments, Joseph Priestley found that flames and animals’ breath “injure” the air in a sealed jar, making it unwholesome to breathe. But a green sprig of mint, he found, could restore its goodness. Priestley could not name the gases responsible, but we know now that the fire and respiration used up oxygen and gave off carbon dioxide. The mint reversed both processes. Photosynthesis took up the carbon dioxide, converted it into plant tissue, and gave off oxygen as a by-product.
The world is just a bigger jar. Tens of billions of tons of carbon a year pass between land and the atmosphere: given off by living things as they breathe and decay and taken up by green plants, which produce oxygen. A similar traffic in carbon, between marine plants and animals, takes place within the waters of the ocean. And nearly a hundred billion tons of carbon diffuse back and forth between ocean and atmosphere.
In other words:
Alone in a sealed jar, a mouse would die from exhaled CO2. But as Priestley observed in 1771, adding a plant allows the mouse to thrive. In this proof of photosynthesis, the mint absorbed CO2, retained carbon for growth, and released oxygen