Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors
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Politics and Activism

Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors

How old ideas can destroy progress.

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Did You Know?: Phlogisticated Air And Philosophers' Errors
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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.

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