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Archive for February, 2010

More about Lavoisier

Joy Hakim has two chapters about Lavoisier in her Story of Science, Newton at the Center. This is a critique of the second, chapter 26 of the book.

Antoine Lavoisier was a chemist of the first degree. He was also a tax collector at a time in French history when there was a great upheaval about taxes. In the end his head was cut off. What annoys me most about this chapter is that Hakim seems intent on entering into the political fray of Lavoisier’s times — and basically on the Jacobin side, which is the anti-Catholic and indeed the atheistic and anarchic side. It is true that changes were needed. It does not follow that anarchy was the right way to go about it, and this is relevant today. Many people were working for the needed changes, and a reflection on the possibility of peaceful social change is very important.

But it is not exactly relevant to the study of chemistry.

So then the question is, again, what does it mean to write a history of science? Does it mean: to write a history of scientists, their times and their politics? Or is it a history of ideas, enlivened by the lives of the men who first glimpsed them? It is not an easy undertaking, either way. But I would like to see more of the latter, and fewer of these side trips into highly charged issues about which Hakim invariably takes the anti-Catholic position and drops it as settled correctness on her largely unsuspecting students.

Page 266

The chapter begins with two quotations from Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry. The first one is about submitting reason to the test of experiment and never seeking truth in any other way.  I don’t know whether Lavoisier meant it for life or only for chemistry, but anyway, it’s certainly not good enough for all of life, as many aspects of life are not subject to experiment and must be received in trust, even on the human level. Furthermore, even within the natural sciences, the search for truth always involves an imaginative journey, especially a comparison of one pattern with another. That’s how we come up with hypotheses to test. The modern textbook emphasis on experiment as the only guide to truth is very destructive of human life and culture.

The second quotation from the Elements of Chemistry, in the lower right of the page, would make a great theme for a chapter on Lavoisier. That he should have seen how much biology is built from so few parts, chemically speaking, was really very exciting.

The text begins: Lavoisier’s parents wanted him to study law, but when he went to school, he found that he was interested in science.

Page 267

The upper left section of this page has an inexcusable cartoon of a peasant carrying a nobleman and an archbishop on his back, with the assertion that “it took the French Revolution to change that game.” This is a science text. Insulting remarks about the Church are not in order, and the French Revolution was extremely destructive, not only of the nobility and the Church, but of the poor as well. Class envy is never serviceable to anyone but the Communists and to the Jacobins, their intellectual forefathers; and they never help anyone but themselves. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is always fair game to shoot down in a public school setting, while the good the Church has done is considered “religion” and is not permitted in any text.

And this is being used as a textbook in California.

The text continues with a discussion of Lavoisier’s role in the tax collection system — which he thought onerous and whose effects he fought with his wealth. Since his wealth was partly taken from that system, Hakim offers her account in a manner suggesting that he was a hypocrite, complicit in its evils and possibly deserving of the hatred he later faced. In other words, she is preparing the students to accept  his beheading, coming up soon.

Not chemistry.

Page 268

Here is an account of many of Lavoisier’s friends and dinner guests, famous men, many whom you have heard of, since they were American patriots. The man who designed the guillotine was among them, hoping that his invention would be used to make beheading more merciful and quick, not that it would be used to make the streets of Paris run with blood.

Not chemistry.

Page 269

An inset on electrolysis ensures that this topic will not be understood.

Page 270

It’s all very well to be dramatic and say that Lavoisier demolished the earth, air, fire, and water theory of the ancient Greeks. But in fact, he just took the next step. Boyle and Cavendish had already isolated hydrogen and then made water by burning it, so the creation of water from “air” was already done, and the four elements of “earth, air, fire, and water” were no longer a functional part of scientific thinking. Yet, when Lavoisier’s made his list of chemical elements, light and “caloric” were included in the list, making it clear that the process of separating chemical elements from the deeper elements of physics was still far from complete. It was a slow process, going from earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence to: the Periodic Table on the one hand and the heat, light, and various energies of physics on the other.

Page 271

This is an inset about William and Caroline Herschel. Aside from Hakim’s usual condescending tone, it is a good enough piece. It has nothing to do with Lavoisier except to be contemporary with him. Of course they lived a lot longer.

Page 272

There’s a section here about conservation of mass. We already covered that; see page 264.

In a side box, Hakim offers a slightly cynical title of “terrific textbook! (an oxymoron?)” Well, the irony is that she is engaged in writing a bad textbook herself. Lavoisier’s textbook was excellent.

Page 273

Love that drawing made by Marie Lavoisier.

The Marat story begins here.

Page 274

Marat was mad at Lavoisier because he was snubbed when he applied for membership in the French Academy. That was not an excuse for beheading Lavoisier, which he did when he got the chance, with Lavoisier’s involvement in taxation as his excuse.

Ordinarily, the American revolution is dated at 1776, and the French Revolution 13 years later.This is not “right after” and the French Revolution was about atheism, anti-clericalism, and class envy, not just taxes and freedom. Again, equating the French and the American Revolutions is the darling history project of the Jacobins, the Communists, the anarchists, and the anti-culturalists of whatever stripe. That’s because the American Revolution was good, and those who seek the destruction of America and of freedom know that they can advance their agenda by pretending that whatever they are doing is just like the American Revolution. I have no idea how much of this Hakim understands; she is repeating the standard textbook line.

As long as we’re on the topic, however, you should know that the atheists of the French Revolution said, when they beheaded Lavoisier, “The Revolution has no need of scientists.” Keep that firmly in mind when you hear about the Church being an enemy of science.

Pages 275, 276, 277

The last three pages discuss the introduction of the metric system. I suppose it is placed here because it came out of France and belongs to the time period of the French Revolution. It is not part of the general narrative on either chemistry or Lavoisier except indirectly. That is, his own and other men’s investigations of orders of magnitude that are so far beyond our eyesight made it essential to get an orderly set of decimal measures in place, one that would easily serve to describe things as large as galaxies (just coming into sight) or as small as molecules. Once the instruments were reaching into these realms, it was necessary to have words to express the measurements of those realms. The metric system can be used for all sizes of things. Obviously it would have been awkward to change from multiples of ten to multiples of 3 and twelve ((for feet in a yard and inches in a foot, etc).

At the same time, it is not necessary to be scornful — as Hakim occasionally is — of those who were – or are — slow to adopt new the measures. For a carpenter, the change from English to metric requires a completely new set of tools, and if he’s to repair anything old, the inch and foot measures — and their tools — are still essential; and that’s just a small example. Think of printing, of paper sizes and the machines that deal with that. Think of cooking and of changing all the cookbooks. Think of canning, and of health. Everything ever written about weight needs to be transposed when you decide to use kilos instead of pounds. The metric system is good, and is essential for science, but changes of measure are not so easy on the ground as they are for professionals dealing with things nobody has ever seen or sought to measure.

There are many practical reasons for being conservative, and the civilized person keeps this in mind.

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Spiritual form?

If you read yesterday’s dialogue, you will certainly want to know whether anyone really thought that spiritual things were made of atoms.

The answer is yes, and it generated a lot of confusion.

Keep in mind that up to the time of Galileo it was not clear that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars were governed by the same physical laws as grass and spoons and lobsters. It was a great and profound thought that earthly objects were governed by physical laws at all; that the celestial objects were governed by the same laws was beyond concept at least until they could be seen more clearly. Quintessence was thought to be naturally luminous – are not all the objects we see in the sky luminous? And God is light, right? “In him there is no darkness at all.” And all the celestial objects are also round, perfectly round as far as those men could see. Our moon has slight imperfections of luminosity, and this was thought possibly due to its relationship with the imperfect earth…

And so forth.

So spiritual things were thought to have their own atoms – at least that meant they had a physics — and earthly things had four kinds of atoms and some of them – people at least – might have some quintessence too.

A Greek idea?

My dialogue is written as if there had been a single “Greek” idea. Not at all! There were so many ideas over a long period of time! Ideas of Greeks, Romans, Islamic scholars, the schools of Europe… When ideas are not disciplined by facts, they meander all over the place, and at a time in history when atoms were just an idea, and the tools to check that idea were not available, the idea took many forms. One very important aspect of the atomic concept, from a historical point of view, was its long history of association with atheism.

Atheistic?

Atheism? How can a purely physical concept have an atheistic implication?

We ask that question because our own idea of atoms is just chemistry, or just physics, actually, and the more fundamental issue of deep causality – of creation – is, in our thinking, separate from the concept of an atom.

But for Democritus, the original Greek atomist, atoms and their random motions were the cause of everything. He was the first Darwinian, really. Random, accidental motions of non-descript minute scraps of reality are the total cause of everything in the universe – so he thought. And, by the way, he didn’t even believe in the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He just had these little pellets and their motions.

Before you laugh that off, however, let me remind you that the concept of an atom was the concept of an unbreakable part. The things we call atoms can be disassembled. If you think of protons and electrons, you are closer to the concept – the Democritus concept – of an atom. Nobody can break an electron. And though protons are said to have parts —  quarks and gluons — those “parts” are mathematical descriptions of how protons work. As far as I know, the proton has never been disassembled. To that extent, he would have been happy, I think.

The issue of atheism in relation to atoms was just this: are the things we see in the world, such as trees and lobsters, caused by and made of atoms? Or are they just made of atoms but designed and caused by some other agent? And then: if they are caused by another agent, is that agent physical – because then the causal agent would be made of atoms and we would have to ask about its cause. Yet if the lobsters and trees and things are made of atoms and designed and caused by a non-physical entity, then you have spiritual things causing physical things. How is that possible? Can your thought make a single blade of grass? No, indeed. It is silly to think of it.

So that was the problem, and there was a big split between those who thought that atoms and their motions were eternal and were the source of all causation, vs. those who thought that the atoms had a cause which was not physical, and motions which were somehow given to them from the beginning.

As you reflect on these things, consider again that an electron is never at rest. Whether a proton is at rest is no longer under discussion only because a proton is now considered only mathematically by most people. At the last juncture when it was generally considered to have a shape, it was thought to be in motion: a slender, twisting torus (doughnut) with an electric charge running around. Some people still view it that way. The idea of eternal motion in the unbreakable smallest parts is not so very far out of line with what we now know.

In sum, the atheists, Democritus, Lucretius, and various others over a long period of time, thought that the atoms and the forms that they accidentally produced were the whole of reality and had no need of cause or creation. The theists sometimes rejected atomism completely, but in any case asserted that the forms of real things — fishes, roses, oceans — must have a cause greater than the accidental collisions of mindless small parts.

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If we are to speak of the history of chemistry, we must begin, not with Lavoisier, but long ago, with the fundamental question the Greeks sought to answer: what are things really made of? Here is a dialogue, full of ridiculous anachronisms which begins with Walter de la Mare’s poem Miss T and seeks to show what the original concept of atoms was all about.

Dialong on Atoms:

Poet:

  • It’s a very odd thing
  • As odd as can be
  • That whatever Miss T. eats
  • Turns into Miss T

Simpleton: Well, when I was in the orchard, I saw a lot of little children with rosy cheeks, and I couldn’t help thinking that they had got the apples’ cheeks right into their own. Somehow, I think one does become what one eats. I like an apple myself, now and then.

Greek: Don’t be silly. Old ladies eat apples too, and so do pigs and birds for that matter, and none of them have rosy cheeks.

Poet: Porridge and apples,

Mince, muffins and mutton,

Simpleton: There you go! The old ladies have cheeks like porridge.

Poet: Not a rap, not a button it matters…

Greek: What I was thinking was that apples and mutton must both have very small parts that can turn around and become parts of people and birds and pigs. I wonder what those parts are like, and how small they are.

Poet: Very small indeed, I should think, for even if you grind flour ever so fine, it won’t make applesauce when you add the water back.

Greek: No indeed. The parts must be much smaller than the finest flour.

Simpleton: If you can’t see them, why should you talk about them? I would rather talk about bread than flour any day of the week. What say we have a bowl of chocolate pudding right about now. Why should we stand here talking about things we can’t see?

Greek: I just like to understand things. And think about it: you use the same words every day, but you always say slightly different things. I’m thinking there must be words or an alphabet that things are made of.

Poet: When I see my daughter’s hair in the wind, I always think she should be able to fly.

Simpleton: Yet however many ducks she eats, it never happens, does it? I should know: I eat only ducks and pigeons, and drink only the sap of trees whose seeds fly, such as the maple. Yet here I am, as much stuck on earth as ever.

Greek: Indeed, the matter cannot be so simple or we’d all be flying, to be sure. Yet since one thing changes to another, I must believe that everything is really, truly, at the bottom, made of just one kind of material, one kind of little pellet, too small to see. Sometimes it gloms together in balls, sometimes in strings, perhaps sometimes in wings. Different patterns for different things; but I’m sure everything can be broken down into these simple pellets and reconfigured.

Poet: I cannot understand this. How could it know which way to regroup itself? I think you have given your pellets too many options for as orderly as the world really is. There must be more than one kind of pellet.

Greek: Well, then. How many do you want?

Simpleton: Certainly the pellets that make fire cannot be the same as those that make water for one would douse the other. I am quite sure of it, for I have tried many times to build a fire in the damp, and it will not do.

Poet: And I suppose those that make the wind and air cannot be the same as the heavy earth. I think my daughter must have more of the airy kind than I. And horses must have much more of the airy kind than pigs; that is why they move with such swiftness and grace.

Greek: So we might have four kinds of unbreakable pellets: earth and air for the heavy and light; fire, and water for the wet and dry. That’s a nice accounting. Each thing has different amounts of each and different configurations. What do you think?

Simpleton: I can’t say I much like the name pellets. Sounds like rabbit droppings.

Greek: Well, we could call them “atoms” because that means unbreakable ones.

Simpleton: Atoms. The unbreakable ones. Why didn’t I think of that? I believe I remember the word from my Greek studies, long ago. Atoms.

Poet: But what of the mind, the mind!? Minds also travel from one person to another and are reconfigured. I have several ideas that my mother says that I received from my great-grandfather, though I never met him. And I have often reconfigured your thoughts, also, Greek.

Simpleton: My thoughts are always completely new. I don’t need pellets or atoms for them.

Greek: Perhaps your thoughts are new, perhaps not; I had not noticed any. The words you use, however, are old, or we would not understand you. Words – or perhaps letters – are the atoms of thought.

Poet: Letters, I think. Indeed, my task is to change the meanings of words, making them richer with every verse, but the letters do not change. Yes, it is the letters that are like atoms. Alone, they have no meaning, and the same letters can mean rose or sore, just as the same atoms could be in acorns or in pigs.

Simpleton: Do we need not an atom for metal? Surely metal is different from earth?

Greek: You will be having a thousand atoms, if we let you go on. Did you never see a rusted sword? Metals return to the earth from which they are born.

Simpleton: I had not thought of rust. You are right. You are entirely right. As always!

Poet: But the soul, the soul! Clearly the soul needs its own atoms. A very fine atom which can slip in among the earthly atoms of the human body.

Greek: Yes. We must have a fifth element for the parts of the soul. We will call it quintessence – quint because it is the fifth type of atom, and essence because it is the most important of all the atoms.

Simpleton: Quintessence. The fifth. I have never seen that. It must be very clear, clearer than water. Perhaps I have seen it once.

Poet: It is not likely that you have seen it, for I have not.

Greek: So that is settled: we have five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence. All things are made of these and these alone.

Poet: It is settled with me and here’s the proof of it:

  • Earth and air
  • Water and fire
  • And essence of quint
  • Is all we desire.

Simpleton: And the dove has more airy atoms than the pig. I will keep trying to fly. It must be possible. I know it must!

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Shelves of drifting snow

We have had the most amazing snowdrifts. Large, for one thing, as this shoveled sidewalk attests:

Deep drifts require long shoveling

Snowdrifts

After the sidewalk was dug out, another snow came, and then the wind and the drifting. The drifting snow came up from the left side of the walk, out of the west, skimmed over the top of the snow-wall and flew away to the southeast. As it topped the wall, however, some of it clung to the wall and formed a drift which gradually reached out in a surprising overhang. The top of this overhang was wavy, as if the wind rippled in flight (we know it often does; we see it so in the patterns of clouds.) I planned on taking a photograph after breakfast.

Wavy shelves of snowdrift

As the snow drifted, it formed shelves that overhung the sidewalk

It was not to be! The overhang became so top-heavy that it fell and brought down a whole avalanche onto the sidewalk. It gave me a new idea of how an avalanche could start, because just the breaking of that light shelf had de-stabilized the whole side of the wall.

I had to wait for more shelves to form, and they did, though none so large as the first.

Here you can see the snow blowing off the top of a very dramatic little shelf. Click on the image so you can see how the snow is skating up and away from the top of it.

Drifting snow forms a shelf

As the snow blew in from the west, it formed shelves.

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Our next topic will be the history of chemistry, and Joy Hakim has several relevant chapters in her book, The Story of Science: Newton at the Center, including two chapters on Lavoisier. As my long-time students will remember, Hakim’s text is full of errors of various kinds — philosophic, historical, and scientific, mostly of a casual nature because she is a journalist, not a scientist, but worth noting as a kind of lesson in what kinds of errors are out there all the time. It is very difficult to write a text, as I well know; errors creep in all the time. Still, it seems that if the Smithsonian is behind this book, they could come up with a better proofing job. Regardless, here is my suggested proofing. I’ve tried to write it so it’s interesting and useful even if you don’t have her book. Fact is that these are the things lots of people get wrong.

Hakim critique, chapter 25 on Lavoisier

As usual, Hakim chooses an important scientist – Lavoisier — and she covers the themes that go with him, but her writing is full of errors of various kinds.

Page 260

Since the topic is Lavoisier, probably the most important thing is to get a good definition of chemistry going, but it’s hard because you sort of have to know a lot about chemistry to define it well. That’s why she opts for a definition that calls it the study of the “stuff” of which the universe is made.

Yes, chemistry is the study of matter, as are all the natural sciences, and it’s the branch which goes to the bottom of what is familiar, things like gold and silver, wood, water, and air, just before matter dissolves into electrical charges and we turn from chemistry to physics. In terms of ooms, (if you don’t know what that is, try the given link or ask me in class) chemistry deals with #10, and then with #9, and maybe #8, though I don’t know if there are any molecules in the #8 other than from living creatures – so that’s really biochemistry.

Hakim places Lavoisier’s research in the context of the American Revolution by mentioning George Washington and several other contemporaries who, she says, followed his work and were in touch with him about their own doings. Certainly Benjamin Franklin was a revolutionary hero with an international scientific reputation. The relevance of this association is a little clearer on the next page. Not much.

But first, Hakim has to emphasize the exactitude of Lavoisier’s records. Exactitude is important; the natural sciences are studies of the material world, and they do require disciplined observation, though I will say that, as presently taught, the business of keeping records can be a fetish that obscures science instead of revealing its nature.

Page 261

Here we have an image and description of the distillation process. Hakim says it is a matter of boiling water (or any liquid) then capturing and cooling it. Of course what you have to do is move or position the captured vapor into some space such that when it cools and condenses, it drips into a new container. The pelican-shaped container in the upper left corner of the illustration does just this — water vapor goes up the neck because it naturally rises. But the neck also conducts the vapor off to the side so that when it reaches the top and cools, it drops into a different bucket.

…and Gnosticism

Having asserted the importance of exact measurement, Hakim has a disclaimer in the margin, to the effect that no measurement is exact. Well, lots of measurements are exact, because lots of measurements deal with integers, but even those that involve long and irrational decimals are of scientific value if they are exact enough to answer the question at hand. It’s a little gnostic to go around saying that “there’s no such thing as an exact measurement.”

What do I mean by that? Gnostic ideas are roundabout ways of being snobbish about how perfectly you recognize that knowledge is impossible, and how much right you have to look down on people who think they know something. Gnostics have a sense that neither God nor the world can be known; but this is opposed to our faith as children of a Father Creator, with our minds made in his image. What happens when people become gnostic is that they stop studying because they are discouraged and think it is useless. So gnosticism (spelled with a capital when it’s religious: Gnosticism) is bad for culture.

Finally, there’s this description of a famous experiment in which Lavoisier was able to show that water had not become earth but had simply broken off bits of glass. My, my! What was he boiling that would break off bits of glass? I must presume that his vessels were something a little more like clay or a poor grade of ceramic!

Page 262

It was Cavendish who discovered hydrogen, and who discovered that burning hydrogen caused it to combine with oxygen and form water. It was well done for Lavoisier to repeat the experiment and draw the conclusion that water was not an element, and that this had implications for the whole concept of elements; and he did get the privilege of naming hydrogen.

Oxygen notes: Yes, oxygen is the most common element in the crust of the earth. Most of the sands of the world are quartz, which is SiO2, a silicate with two oxygen atoms for each atom of silicon. Much of the remaining rock is an aluminum silicate (feldspar) which has some aluminum and some other things and then about 2 oxygen atoms for each one of the other elements. That’s why oxygen is so common in the crust of the earth, more common than in the air — though you can’t breathe it!

Ozone is not relevant to this chapter, but anyway, it’s a molecule with three oxygen atoms, and, the molecule not being very happy about the extra oxygen, it’s always ready to offload one. It is, therefore, very reactive and that’s why it can oxidise/burn/damage stuff.

If you look at the timeline in the lower corner of this page, you will note that Lavoisier and Herschel were born just one year apart. Herschel lived much longer, of course, since he didn’t get his head cut off in the French Revolution. He lived in England, for one thing.

If you didn’t look at the timeline, let that be a lesson to you. Timelines are useless when they have too much information on them, but if you trust the author, you will stop and notice some of the people who were contemporary with your latest hero, or who may have contributed to his insights.

Use the timeline. And make useful ones when it’s your turn.

Page 263

Hakim indicates that Lavoisier distinguished elements, compounds, and mixtures. This is a very important insight: Some materials cannot be divided into other materials; these are elements: gold is elemental. Others can be divided into elements very different from the compound, as shells, which are calcium carbonate, can be divided into oxygen, carbon, and calcium, none of which, on its own, looks or behaves like a shell. Still other things can be sorted, rather than cut or divided into their parts – for example, air can be sorted into oxygen and nitrogen and a few other things; it’s a mixture of various gases.

…Corroded metals

Hakim’s picture of corroded metallic objects is very pretty in its own way, but the surrounding textbox is a mess.

1.     About brown-bruised apples: Oxygen combining with acid does not make anything brown. Apples have some iron-containing proteins in them which react with oxygen in the apple and turn brown; it’s really rust. When apples have a cut surface, this reaction can be stopped by an acid, such as lemon juice. Odd to think of this, since lemon juice alone would cause elemental iron to rust, but the iron is part of a protein here and it needs the enzymes in the apple to help it take up the oxygen.

2.     Rot in food usually refers to the action of bacteria or molds. Rancidity is a particular kind of food damage. It is the spoiling of oils, due to – yes – a reaction with oxygen.

3.     I’m trying to think whether there is any source of energy in all the universe other than oxidation. Nuclear fission and fusion, of course… Anyway, the burning of an ordinary fire is one form of oxidation. An explosion is fast oxidation while the combustion in your car is a controlled explosion. Metabolism is a carefully controlled form of oxidation, in which carbon compounds are changed to water and carbon dioxide with the release of energy. Most metabolism involves such complex materials and mixtures of material that it sounds odd to call them chemicals, though, of course, everything in the world is ultimately a chemical.

4.     The last paragraph explaining oxidation is correct, but here Hakim is up against one of the great difficulties of science writing – which is that what is most correct may be least clear to the elementary reader. This paragraph cannot be clear to her audience – what it says can only be clear to someone who already knows it.

  • Finally, in the actual caption for the picture in the box, she says “To the naked eye, a nail looks shiny.” Then she goes on to talk about how a nail looks when it’s rusty and under a microscope. Well, just to be clear about it: if a nail is very shiny to the naked eye, it will be shiny under a microscope also.
  • She continues, saying that “during oxidation, seen under a high-power microscope (left) the surface is covered with a corrosive oxide layer known as rust.” There are three mistakes here:
  1. First, it is after oxidation that you see rust. There’s no point saying “during oxidation” as if it would become invisible once the oxidation was complete.
  2. Second, any cheap magnifying glass will show rust, as will the naked eye, though it’s much more dramatic under a stronger magnification.
  3. Third, the layer is corroded iron, not corrosive oxide. Rust is not corrosive, a word which refers to things likely to produce corrosion. Rust is a product of corrosion, not a cause. Acids which encourage rust are corrosive.
  • Therefore, if a nail is even slightly rusty to the naked eye, the microscope will reveal the rusting with a lot more texture. Things which are seriously corroded, like the objects in her picture (which must be more than a nail) may be very pretty indeed under the ‘scope.

Page 264

We need to say a little about mass, primarily in response to the third margin note on this page in which we are told that mass and energy and interchangeable. Hmmm.

The mass of an object is closely related to its weight — the more mass there is, the more weight. But mass isn’t the same as weight for two reasons: first, because mass doesn’t change when you’re on the Moon: it’s the real muchness of a physical object and second…

Oooh. Wait a minute. This one is harder.

Think about jumping on your bathroom scales — bouncing on them, that is. Obviously they would show a greater weight. What you may not have thought about is that even if you average the down and the up parts of your jump, that average will still be greater than your weight. Bouncing disturbs the scales, and it’s always going to look like a gain in weight.

Well, here’s the odd fact: Part of the mass of things is their motion, not their muchness. Not their large motion, like jumping on a scale, but the infinitesimal motions within their atoms. It’s not a very large part, and it doesn’t affect anything you are dealing with in your daily life, so you can forget it until you start your physics degree, but it is a fact and it’s one that Einstein and everyone who did deep physics in the 20th century had to learn to consider.

Now, it happens that you can sometimes separate out the jumping from the muchness and make it go somewhere else. When you do this, we say that you have converted mass into energy because the thing that jumps less loses mass. But it is a mistake to say that mass and energy are interchangeable, just like that, as if protons could become light. Everyone says it, not just Hakim — almost everyone — but it’s not true. The muchness can’t be converted to energy, only the jumpiness. I learned this when I read a book called Questioning Einstein.

In any case, Hakim has not thought this all the way through. She gives the standard law of conservation of mass — that mass is never lost no matter how many times it changes form. She already got into this with the piece on the pelican flask; and for Lavoisier’s time, that was enough. But if mass (some mass) can be be converted to energy, as Einstein learned, then it is not conserved, is it? Only the total, the sum of mass-plus-energy is conserved. This is the correct way to teach this concept once you bring up Einstein. It’s not necessary to mention Einstein in a chapter about Lavoisier, but if you decide to mention later discoveries, this is the correct way.

Page 265

Here is a text box about various revolutions — the American Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution, and then, introducing the French Revolution, Hakim continues, “Meanwhile, in France, another freedom revolution was brewing.” Another “freedom revolution”? Although she does eventually say that this last revolution got “out of hand,” this is just inexcusable, lumping the American and French Revolutions. The French Revolution was about anarchy and hatred, and this was so from the start, not just after it “got out of hand.” No study of history can be useful if the American and French revolutions are casually compared.

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History of Science

Quick 0verview: an uncertain road

When we look at the broad picture of the history of science, we are immediately struck by the long periods of time when, it seems, nothing happened.

First, we have Greek science, which has Aristotle and Archimedes a whole list of other people who were, by comparison with what we now know, tinkerers and philosophers. That is, we have their ideas which often seem peculiar, and we have their inventions, which are clever and which show that they could think clearly about the physical world and manipulate it. But somehow, their ideas about the composition of the world seem so disconnected from their tinkering that it is difficult not to laugh right out or just shake your head.

In any case, Greece seems to evaporate, and Roman science is again, some thoughts, and some inventions but nothing which builds towards a unified vision of the physical world.

Then there are the medieval Christians, whose scientific work is barely mentioned,  (you wonder if there was any) but anyway, they’re gone too.

And suddenly (how did it happen so suddenly?) the moderns — Newton and those around him, and right up to our own day, a more and more unified sense of the physical world. Amazing!

What took so long? What happened between?

Greece, Rome, Europe

Well, one reason we know the thought of the Greeks is that some of their thinkers started schools where men could gather to share their thoughts.  It makes a difference even if you don’t go to the academy, because you meet others who went, and you get the latest from them, not just their own personal latest, but the latest of everyone who has any contact with the Academy. It changes everything to have a school.

In time, Greece was overwhelmed (politically and militarily) by Rome, and though it made its own cultural conquest of Rome, the center of gravity — of scientific accomplishment shifted westwards. Even so, some of the great Roman scientists were Greeks. Ptolemy, Galen.

The Romans were practical, and their own genius is revealed by their amazing roads and aqueducts, and their ability to supply a far-flung army. Obviously they were smart, but they never formulated the grand physical laws, such as our law of gravity. Their doings always seem local by comparison. In time, Rome declined, and the project of understanding the physical world faltered.

When Rome fell, the next task of civilization was to convert the barbarians to an orderly way of life, a task that fell to Christianity, the only really energetic survivor of the Roman collapse. This task took about 500 years, from about 400 AD to about 900 or more AD. It took a lot of brains, and it was an interesting time, and the Benedictines made a lot of advances in agriculture as they supported civilization’s trip across Europe, but really, you don’t do much theoretical science when you are fighting for your life and your granary.

The New Academies

By about 1000 AD, the barbarians were mostly converted, and then what? We’ve still got 600 years to go to Galileo? What was going on?

Well, the next task was the building of universities, and I’m going to list a bunch, probably not all, but enough to give you an idea. If Thomas maps them, I’ll post the map.

  1. There was a School of Salerno which was originally a Benedictine Monastery (794) and became famous for its medical school in 1070.
  2. There were at least two universities founded in the 12th century: Bologna in 1119 and Paris in around 1160.
  3. Seven more were started in the 13th century: the Universities of Sienna in 1203, Vicenza in 1204, Salamanca in 1217, Padua in 1222, Toulouse in 1229, Montpelier in 1289, and Lisbon in 1290.
  4. In the 14th century, eight more came along as well as several colleges in Oxford and Cambridge which should be at least counted as two more universities: the University of Rome in 1303, the University of Orleans 1309, Oriel college in Oxford and Clare college in Cambridge in 1326, the University of Pisa 1338, the University of Grenoble 1339. and then Queen’s College in Oxford, 1340; in 1348 we have Prague Univeristy and also Gonville and Caius College (one place) in Cambridge; the University of Cracow in 1364, followed by Vienna University in 1365, New college in Oxford in 1379, the University of Heidelburg in 1386, and finally (for this century) the University of Cologne in 1388.
  5. In the 15th century, Leipzig University; in 1411, St. Andrew’s University in Edinburgh; in 1426, Louvain University; in 1427, Lincoln college in Oxford; in 1431, both the University of Caen and the University of Poitiers; in 1437, All Souls College in Oxford; in 1441, Eton College and King’s College in Oxford; in 1479 the University of Copenhagen.
  6. In the 16th century, no universities were founded; the funds seemed to be going into exploration and into various scientific societies.

All these universities came along well over a thousand years after the Schools of Athens. It had been that long since scholars joined in substantial numbers, just to be scholars. But this is a few dozen universities, scattered all over Europe. Furthermore, the scholars all spoke Latin, so they could share their ideas freely across national boundaries. And finally, this scholarly conversation included all of Europe, Jewish and Islamic scientists participating as well.

Thus, the stage was set for the revolution in the sciences, two final elements being needed, each one, in its different way, dependent on the universities.

A Philosophy of Reason

First of all, there needed to be a philosophy that was friendly to natural science. There had to be an idea that the world is orderly and that investigations will yield the truth. This actually came from the study of scripture which teaches that God is both the Creator of the universe and our Father. As sons of the almighty Father, we could know that the universe was made in a manner appropriate to our minds, and even know that the study of the universe would show the glory of God in new ways.

This certainty gradually built up, from certain encouraging words of St. Augustine to the famous declaration of St. Albertus Magnus concerning the value of experimentation in physical investigations, to a long meditation on the words of the Book of Wisdom, 11:20, (which says, “He hath made everything by measure and by weight and by number.”)

In 1351, the fundamental concept of inertia was first made explicit by Buridan in the School of Paris. It was, according to Fr. Stanley Jaki, based on Book of Genesis. So the intellectual foundations were laid.

But even philosophy is not enough. Natural science needed tools to progress.

Tools, Tools, Tools

Natural science is about observation of the material world, and new tools were needed to extend human observation; new insight into the physical world required the possibility of seeing the finer structure of small things and the larger context of large things.

We have often talked about orders of magnitude. We can see things, just using our own eyes, from a few miles across down through about one tenth of a millimeter; that’s all. No cells were visible, no bacteria or viruses, no molecules or atoms. Well, we can barely see atoms now, but we actually do know their sizes and have finally achieved some images. Anyway, nothing from the 5th smaller order of magnitude downwards was yet within view.

And not much was available above the 5th or 6th order of magnitude (oom) upwards in size. The size of the Earth, which is #7 up, was uncertain until well after Columbus, and only in two dimensions then; there was no understanding of the composition or character of the depth of Earth, nor any way to explore it. And looking out, there was no understanding of the nature of the Moon or of the stars. Remember that Galileo was the first to clearly understand that the Moon was made of the same stuff as Earth. So that was not known, and that meant that chemistry was still about earth, air, fire and water — and quintessence, the presumed physics of heavenly objects. It was not known that the planets were essentially different from the stars, which were essentially similar to the sun. All these things were missing in all the studies of the physical world prior to about 1600.

Galileo made his telescope in 1609, and though it was not the first of all telescopes, we can consider this is as a marker for the age of those more exact tools of observation which carried modern science into its amazing reaches. Remember, of course, that the telescope, turned over, is the microscope. Galileo himself used it that way, just for fun, and others used it soon enough.

So that’s a glance at the broad history of science up to the scientific revolution that began around 1600.

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