Heroes of Science Part 2

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And once more. "Take our two serpents, which are to be found everywhere on the face of the earth: tie them in a love-knot and shut them up in the Arabian _caraha_. This is the first labour; but the next is more difficult.

Thou must encamp against them with the fire of nature, and be sure thou dost bring thy line round about. Circle them in and stop all avenues that they find no relief. Continue this siege patiently, and they turn into an ugly venomous black toad, which will be transformed to a horrible devouring dragon, creeping and weltering in the bottom of her cave without wings.

Touch her not by any means, for there is not on earth such a vehement transcending poison. As thou hast begun so proceed, and this dragon will turn into a swan. Henceforth I will show thee how to fortify thy fire till the phoenix appear: it is a red bird of a most deep colour, with a s.h.i.+ning fiery hue. Feed this bird with the fire of his father and the ether of his mother: for the first is meat and the second is drink, and without this last he attains not to his full glory. Be sure to understand this secret," etc., etc.

The alchemists spoke of twelve gates through which he who would attain to the palace of true art must pa.s.s: these twelve gates were to be unlocked by twelve keys, descriptions of which, couched in strange and symbolical language, were given in alchemical treatises. Thus in "Ripley reviv'd"[2]

we read that Canon Ripley, of Bridlington, who lived in the time of Edward IV., sang thus of the first gate, which was "Calcination:"--

"The battle's fought, the conquest won, The Lyon dead reviv'd; The eagle's dead which did him slay, And both of sense depriv'd.

The showers cease, the dews which fell For six weeks do not rise; The ugly toad that did so swell With swelling bursts and dies."

And of the third gate, or "Conjunction," we find the Canon saying--

"He was a king, yet dead as dead could be; His sister a queen, Who when her brother she did breathless see, The like was never seen, She cryes Until her eyes With over-weeping were waxed dim-- So long till her tears Reach'd up to her ears: The queen sunk, but the king did swim."

In some books these gates and keys are symbolically represented in drawings, _e.g._ in a pamphlet by Paracelsus, called "Tripus Aureus, hoc est Tres Tractates chymici selectissimi." (Frankfurt, 1618.)

It is evident that a method of studying Nature which resulted in such dim and hazy explanations as these was eminently fitted to produce many who pretended to possess secrets by the use of which they could bring about startling results beyond the power of ordinary men; and, at the same time, the almost universal acceptance of such statements as those I have quoted implied the existence in men generally of a wondrous readiness to believe anything and everything. Granted that a man by "sweating whole days and nights by his furnaces" can acquire knowledge which gives him great power over his fellows, it necessarily follows that many will be found ready to undergo these days and nights of toil. And when we find that this supposed knowledge is hidden under a mask of strange and mystical signs and language, we may confidently a.s.sert that there will be many who learn to repeat these strange terms and use these mystical signs without attempting to penetrate to the truths which lie behind--without, indeed, believing that the mystical machinery which they use has any real meaning at all.

We find, as a matter of fact, that the age of the alchemists produced many deceivers, who, by mumbling incantations and performing a few tricks, which any common conjuror would now despise, were able to make crowds of men believe that they possessed a supernatural power to control natural actions, and, under this belief, to make them part with their money and their substance.

One respectable physician of the Hague, who entertained a peripatetic alchemist, complains that the man entered his "best-furnished room without wiping his shoes, although they were full of snow and dirt." However, the physician was rewarded, as the stranger gave him, "out of his philosophical commiseration, as much as a turnip seed in size" of the much-wished-for stone of wisdom.

That the alchemist of popular belief was a man who used a jargon of strange and high-sounding words, that he might the better deceive those whom he pretended to help, is evident from the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the play of the "Alchymist" Ben Jonson draws the character of Subtle as that of a complete scoundrel, whose aim is to get money from the pockets of those who are stupid enough to trust him, and who never hesitates to use the basest means for this end. From the speeches of Subtle we may learn the kind of jargon employed by the men who pretended that they could cure diseases and change all baser metals into gold.

"_Subtle._ Name the vexations and the martyrizations of metals in the work.

_Face._ Sir, putrefaction, Solution, ablution, sublimation, Cohobation, calcination, ceration, and Fixation.

_Sub._ And when comes vivification?

_Face._ After mortification.

_Sub._ What's cohobation?

_Face._ 'Tis the pouring on Your aqua regis, and then drawing him off, To the trine circle of the seven spheres.

_Sub._ And what's your mercury?

_Face._ A very fugitive; he will be gone, sir.

_Sub._ How know you him?

_Pace._ By his viscosity, His oleosity, and his suscitability."

Even in the fourteenth century, Chaucer (in the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale") depicts the alchemist as a mere cunning knave. A priest is prevailed on to give the alchemist money, and is told that he will be shown the change of base metal into gold. The alchemist busies himself with preparations, and sends the priest to fetch coals.

"And whil he besy was, this feendly wrecche, This false chanoun (the foule feende him fecche) Out of his bosom took a bechen cole In which ful subtilly was maad an hole, And therein put was of silver lymayle An unce, and stopped was withoute fayle The hole with wex, to keep the lymayle in.

And understondith, that this false gyn Was not maad there, but it was maad before."

This "false gyn" having been put in the crucible and burned with the rest of the ingredients, duly let out its "silver lymayle" (filings), which appeared in the shape of a small b.u.t.ton of silver, and so accomplished the "false chanoun's" end of deceiving his victim.

The alchemists acc.u.mulated many facts: they gained not a little knowledge concerning the appearances of Nature, but they were dominated by a single idea. Living in the midst of an extremely complex order of things, surrounded by a strange and apparently capricious succession of phenomena, they were convinced that the human intelligence, directed and aided by the teachings of the Church, would guide them through the labyrinth. And so they entered on the study of Nature with preconceived notions and foregone conclusions: enthusiastic and determined to know although many of them were, they nevertheless failed because they refused to tread the only path which leads to true advances in natural science--the path of unprejudiced accurate experiment, and of careful reasoning on experimentally determined facts.

And even when they had become convinced that their aims were visionary, they could not break free from the vicious system which bound them.

"... I am broken and trained To my old habits: they are part of me.

I know, and none so well, my darling ends Are proved impossible: no less, no less, Even now what humours me, fond fool, as when Their faint ghosts sit with me and flatter me, And send me back content to my dull round."[3]

One of the most commonly occurring and most noticeable changes in the properties of matter is that which proceeds when a piece of wood, or a candle, or a quant.i.ty of oil burns. The solid wood, or candle, or the liquid oil slowly disappears, and this disappearance is attended with the visible formation of flame. Even the heavy fixed metals, tin or lead, may be caused to burn; light is produced, a part of the metal seems to disappear, and a white (or reddish) solid, very different from the original metal, remains. The process of burning presents all those peculiarities which are fitted to strike an observer of the changes of Nature; that is, which are fitted to strike a chemist--for chemistry has always been recognized as having for its object to explain the changes which matter undergoes. The chemists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were chiefly occupied in trying to explain this process of burning or combustion.

Van Helmont (1577-1644), who was a physician and chemist of Brussels, clearly distinguished between common air and other "airs" or gases produced in different ways. Robert Hooke (1635-1703), one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society, in the "Micographia, or Philosophical Description of Minute Bodies," published in 1665, concluded from the results of numerous experiments that there exists in common air a peculiar kind of gas, similar to, or perhaps identical with the gas or air which is got by heating saltpetre; and he further supposed that when a solid burns, it is dissolved by (or we should now say, it is converted into a gas by combining with) this peculiar const.i.tuent of the air.

John Mayow (1645-1679), a physician of Oxford, experimented on the basis of facts established by Hooke. He showed that when a substance, _e.g._ a candle, burns in air, the volume of air is thereby lessened. To that portion of the air which had _dissolved_ the burned substance he gave the name of _nitre-air_, and he argued that this air exists in condensed form in nitre, because sulphur burns when heated with nitre in absence of common air. Mayow added the most important fact--a fact which was forgotten by many later experimenters--that the solid substance obtained by burning a metal in air weighs more than the metal itself did before burning. He explained this increase in weight by saying that the burning metal absorbs particles of "nitre-air" from the atmosphere. Thus Hooke and Mayow had really established the fact that common air consists of more than one definite kind of matter--in other words, that common air is not an element; but until recent times the term "element" or "elementary principle" was used without any definite meaning. When we say that the ancients and the alchemists recognized four elements--earth, air, fire, and water--we do not attach to the word "element" the same definite meaning as when we now say, "Iron is an element."

From earth, air, fire and water other substances were obtained; or it might be possible to resolve other substances into one or more of these four. But even to such a word as "substance" or "matter" no very definite meaning could be attached. Although, therefore, the facts set forth by Hooke and Mayow might now justify the a.s.sertion that air is not an element, they did not, in the year 1670, necessarily convey this meaning to men's minds. The distinction between element and compound was much more clearly laid down by the Hon. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), whose chemical work was wonderfully accurate and thorough, and whose writings are characterized by acute scientific reasoning. We shall again return to these terms "element" and "compound."

But the visible and striking phenomenon in most processes of burning is the production of light and sometimes of flame. The importance of the fact that the burned substance (when a solid) weighs more than the unburned substance was overshadowed by the apparent importance of the outward part of the process, which could scarcely be pa.s.sed over by any observer. There appears to be an outrush of _something_ from the burning substance. There _is_ an outrush of something, said Becher and Stahl, and this something is the "principle of fire." The principle of fire, they said, is of a very subtle nature; its particles, which are always in very rapid motion, can penetrate any substance, however dense. When metals burn--the argument continued--they lose this principle of fire; when the burned metal--or _calx_ as it was usually called--is heated with charcoal it regains this "principle," and so the metal is re-formed from the calx.

Thus arose the famous theory of _phlogiston_ (from Greek, = "burned"), which served as a central nucleus round which all chemical facts were grouped for nearly a hundred years.

John Joachim Becher was born at Speyer in 1635, and died in 1682; in his chemical works, the most important of which is the "Physica Subterranea,"

he retained the alchemical notion that the metals are composed of three "principles"--the nitrifiable, the combustible, and the mercurial--and taught that during calcination the combustible and mercurial principles are expelled, while the nitrifiable remains in the calx.

George Ernest Stahl--born at Ans.p.a.ch in 1660, and died at Berlin in 1734--had regard chiefly to the principles which escape during the calcination of metals, and simplifying, and at the same rendering more definite the idea of Becher, he conceived and enunciated the theory of phlogiston.

But if _something_ (name it "phlogiston" or call it by any other name you please) is lost by a metal when the metal is burned, how is it that the loss of this thing is attended with an increase in the weight of the matter which loses it? Either the theory of phlogiston must be abandoned, or the properties of the _thing_ called phlogiston must be very different from those of any known kind of matter.

Stahl replied, phlogiston is a "principle of levity;" the presence of phlogiston in a substance causes that substance to weigh less than it did before it received this phlogiston.

In criticizing this strange statement, we must remember that in the middle of the seventeenth century philosophers in general were not firmly convinced of the truth that the essential character of matter is that it possesses weight, nor of the truth that it is impossible to destroy or to create any quant.i.ty of matter however small. It was not until the experimental work of Lavoisier became generally known that chemists were convinced of these truths. Nevertheless, the opponents of the Stahlian doctrine were justified in asking for further explanations--in demanding that some other facts a.n.a.logous to this supposed fact, viz. that a substance can weigh less than nothing, should be experimentally established.

The phlogistic theory however maintained its ground; we shall find that it had a distinct element of truth in it, but we shall also find that it did harm to scientific advance. This theory was a wide and sweeping generalization from a few facts; it certainly gave a central idea around which some facts might be grouped, and it was not very difficult, by slightly cutting down here and slightly adding there, to bring many new discoveries within the general theory.

We now know that in order to explain the process of combustion much more accurate knowledge was required than the chemists of the seventeenth century possessed; but we ought to be thankful to these chemists, and notably to Stahl, that they did not hesitate to found a generalization on the knowledge they had. Almost everything propounded in natural science has been modified as man's knowledge of nature has become wider and more accurate; but it is because the scientific student of nature uses the generalizations of to-day as stepping-stones to the better theories of to-morrow, that science grows "from more to more."

Looking at the state of chemistry about the middle of the eighteenth century, we find that the experiments, and especially the measurements, of Hooke and Mayow had laid a firm basis of fact concerning the process of combustion, but that the phlogistic theory, which appeared to contradict these facts, was supreme; that the existence of airs, or gases, different from common air was established, but that the properties of these airs were very slightly and very inaccurately known; that Boyle had distinguished element from compound and had given definite meanings to these terms, but that nevertheless the older and vaguer expression, "elementary principle,"

was generally used; and lastly, that very few measurements of the ma.s.ses of the different kinds of matter taking part in chemical changes had yet been made.


[1] I have borrowed these ill.u.s.trations of the alchemical, experimental method from M. Hoefer's "Histoire de la Chimie," quoted in the "Encyclopaedia Brittanica," art. "Alchemy."

[2] "Ripley reviv'd: or an exposition upon Sir George Ripley's Hermetico-poetical works," by Eirenaeus Philalethes. London, 1678.

[3] Browning's "Paracelsus."

Heroes of Science Part 2

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