Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors
Start writing a post
Politics and Activism

Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors

How old ideas can destroy progress.

26
Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors
Public Domain Images

Before we start this out, we have to travel back to the times of ancient Greece, where many thinkers were grappling with a new social dynamic in the western world, that of having leisure and liberty to voice opinions in high quantities. So, while Plato was talking about how we hide from the light of pure knowledge in the shadows of amusing misperceptions, some other wise guys were manufacturing ideas on one of the simplest chemical processes: combustion. A third grader of our age with a slight inclination for science will be able to tell you that oxygen combines with some hydrocarbon, or hydrogen, to make carbon dioxide and water.

From some ideas of Greek philosophers, many of the chemists of the 18th century believed in the idea of phlogiston; a substance that existed in all flammable substances and leaps into the air with the addition of heat. This was a pleasing shadow that would cloud the minds of scientists until Lavoisier made a formal definition for oxygen in 1777, redefining this simple reaction forever. You can learn more about this here.

I first heard about this from Stephen Johnson’s "The Invention Of Air". The formal reaction proposal for Phlogiston Combustion was proposed at the beginning of the 1700s by Georg Stahl, which almost takes into account carbon dioxide as a product, but excludes something that was otherwise invisible to the scientists of the day. Trapped air from burned materials always seemed to weigh more and the burned substances always seemed to weigh less; it was not a completely ridiculous notion to believe that the air was extracting something from charcoal briquettes and candles. The reason candles would no longer burn in sealed jars after less than a minute under this theory was not that the oxygen was expended but that the air had been fully saturated with phlogiston.

When Joseph Priestley discovered that heating mercury calx (a type of oxide) allowed candles to burn more quickly, he clung to the idea of phlogiston and erred. He proposed that the mercury calx was pulling phlogiston from the air, rather than the oxide becoming the pure metal and oxygen. With hindsight, we could think that he should have paid more attention to how the metal changed as well and compared it to metallic mercury, but that is the thing about paradigms in thought. They can be poisonous.

Think about this for a moment, dear reader, of all the stories about ridiculous notions that people of bygone ages believed in with their whole heart: bleeding people cured them, roots had little mouths that ate dirt, the world is flat, the Atlantic Ocean held purgatory, Earth was the center of the universe and so many more fallacies. Now we might not easily recognize such fallacies within our own lives because our own era and surrounding culture will cloud our judgements, but we must, as a collective, be receptive to new ideas. And I know that sounds really simple. That’s something we’ve all heard since kindergarten, but its implementation is not so.

How many people, without full comprehension, would be concerned over the idea of consuming grapes treated with hormones? A lot. The answer is a lot. If these people knew that every strawberry or grape they ate had these hormones, they might consider the concept of additional hormone treatment less of a danger. My point is that there is still so much to know both as individuals and a society. We should never shun novel ideas, but we should also not cling to any idea because they seem to explain a few phenomenon or because they’re new ones.

Report this Content
This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
the beatles
Wikipedia Commons

For as long as I can remember, I have been listening to The Beatles. Every year, my mom would appropriately blast “Birthday” on anyone’s birthday. I knew all of the words to “Back In The U.S.S.R” by the time I was 5 (Even though I had no idea what or where the U.S.S.R was). I grew up with John, Paul, George, and Ringo instead Justin, JC, Joey, Chris and Lance (I had to google N*SYNC to remember their names). The highlight of my short life was Paul McCartney in concert twice. I’m not someone to “fangirl” but those days I fangirled hard. The music of The Beatles has gotten me through everything. Their songs have brought me more joy, peace, and comfort. I can listen to them in any situation and find what I need. Here are the best lyrics from The Beatles for every and any occasion.

Keep Reading...Show less
Being Invisible The Best Super Power

The best superpower ever? Being invisible of course. Imagine just being able to go from seen to unseen on a dime. Who wouldn't want to have the opportunity to be invisible? Superman and Batman have nothing on being invisible with their superhero abilities. Here are some things that you could do while being invisible, because being invisible can benefit your social life too.

Keep Reading...Show less
Featured

19 Lessons I'll Never Forget from Growing Up In a Small Town

There have been many lessons learned.

52986
houses under green sky
Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Small towns certainly have their pros and cons. Many people who grow up in small towns find themselves counting the days until they get to escape their roots and plant new ones in bigger, "better" places. And that's fine. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought those same thoughts before too. We all have, but they say it's important to remember where you came from. When I think about where I come from, I can't help having an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for my roots. Being from a small town has taught me so many important lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Keep Reading...Show less
​a woman sitting at a table having a coffee
nappy.co

I can't say "thank you" enough to express how grateful I am for you coming into my life. You have made such a huge impact on my life. I would not be the person I am today without you and I know that you will keep inspiring me to become an even better version of myself.

Keep Reading...Show less
Student Life

Waitlisted for a College Class? Here's What to Do!

Dealing with the inevitable realities of college life.

124124
college students waiting in a long line in the hallway
StableDiffusion

Course registration at college can be a big hassle and is almost never talked about. Classes you want to take fill up before you get a chance to register. You might change your mind about a class you want to take and must struggle to find another class to fit in the same time period. You also have to make sure no classes clash by time. Like I said, it's a big hassle.

This semester, I was waitlisted for two classes. Most people in this situation, especially first years, freak out because they don't know what to do. Here is what you should do when this happens.

Keep Reading...Show less

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Facebook Comments