Thursday, July 10, 2008
Of Phlogiston and Aether, Cabbages and Kings
Why does wood burn?
Simple. It’s rich in phlogiston, that alchemical sulfurous spirit. Ashes are left behind when all of the phlogiston has been used up.
Or scientific thinkers used to believe back in the 1700s.
In his book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (2008), New York Times science writer George Johnson shows how some scientific theories held sway until researchers empirically proved they were bunk.
Through his experiments Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier provided evidence in 1777 to the Academy of Science that oxygen, not phlogiston, made things burn. Before he left the scene he introduced the concept of an invisible substance called caloric, a subtle fluid that acted as the carrier of heat. But James Joule disproved that idea during a presentation at Oxford in 1847. He demonstrated that energy, not caloric, was the force behind a horse pulling a wagon or a steam engine pushing a piston.
Another concept that bit the dust was aether. Scientists noted that light beams created interference patterns when they overlapped. This meant that waves were involved. But what was creating the waves?
There had to be a universal medium that was spread throughout the universe in the spaces between stars and atoms. The Earth was traveling through the aether as it orbited the sun. Ergo, at times it must be crossing against the aetheral current.
In 1887 researchers A.A. Michelson and Edward Morley set up a tabletop experiment to prove that light doesn’t travel at the same speed in all directions due to aetheral drag.
They bounced light beams with mirrors to create extended paths that would at times line up or cross the aether depending upon the time of day. (Or so they believed.)
They took careful measurements – and found nothing.
The light beams maintained a constant speed. It was kind of a drag when they discovered no drag.
As George Johnson points out, the speed of light, not aether, is the universal standard.
I’m glad I read Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. It provided a historical perspective that backs up my personal viewpoints.
When a scientific or skeptical expert declares that all paranormal events aren’t extraordinary – they’re just the ordinary misunderstood -- such a person is blowing a lot of hot phlogiston, his head is stuck in the aether.
Posted by Ray Palm (Ray X) at 4:05 AM