Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fjordman: A History of Optics, Part 4

The latest installment of Fjordman’s treatise on the history of optics has been posted at Dhimmi Watch. This is part 4 of 6; see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Here are some excerpts:

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, traditional photography was gradually replaced by digital techniques. Asian and especially Japanese companies such as Sony played a major role in the digitalization of music, movies and photography, in addition to Western ones. However, with the creation of photography in early nineteenth century, advances in chemistry were crucial.

Chemistry developed out of medieval alchemy. In India, alchemy was used in serious metallurgy, medicine, leather tanning, cosmetics, dyes etc. The work of Chinese alchemists facilitated inventions such as gunpowder, which was to revolutionize warfare throughout the world. Although their views differed considerably in the details, scholars in Japan, China, Korea, India, the Middle East and Europe as late as the year 1750 would have agreed that “water” is an element, not a compound of hydrogen and oxygen as we know today. Likewise, the fact that “air” consists of a mixture of several substances was only fully grasped in the second half of the eighteenth century. The easiest way to date when chemistry was born, as distinct from alchemy, is when scholars started talking about “oxygen” instead of “water” as an element. This transition happened in Europe in the late eighteenth century, and only there.

Ibn Warraq in his books is critical of Islam but gives due credit to scholars within the Islamic world who deserves it, a sentiment I happen to share. One of them is the Persian physician al-Razi (865—925), known in the West as Rhazes, the first to describe the differences between smallpox and measles. Here is the book Why I Am Not a Muslim, page 266:
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“Al-Razi was equally empirical in his approach to chemistry. He shunned all the occultist mumbo jumbo attached to this subject and instead confined himself to ‘the classification of the substances and processes as well as to the exact description of his experiments.’ He was perhaps the first true chemist as opposed to an alchemist.”

He considered the Koran to be an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables” and was certainly a freethinker, but unlike Ibn Warraq, I still view Rhazes as a committed alchemist who believed in transmutation and the possibility of turning base metal into gold. Another well-known Persian scholar, Ibn Sina or Avicenna (ca. 980-1037) was more skeptical of the possibility of transmutation. After the gifted alchemist Geber in the eighth century, a number of scholars in the Middle East, among them Rhazes, made some advances in alchemy, for instance regarding the distillation of ethanol (alcohol) as a pure compound. Some of Geber’s work was later translated into Latin. Belief in the possibility of transmutation was not necessarily stupid according to the understanding of elements of the time. Here is David C. Lindberg in The Beginnings of Western Science, second edition, page 291:

“Aristotle had declared the fundamental unity of all corporal substance, portraying the four elements as products of prime matter endowed with pairs of the four elemental qualities: hot, cold, wet, dry. Alter the qualities, and you transmute one element into another… It is widely agreed by historians that alchemy had Greek origins, perhaps in Hellenistic Egypt. Greek texts were subsequently translated into Arabic and gave rise to a flourishing and varied Islamic alchemical tradition. Most of the Arabic alchemical writings are by unknown authors, many of them attributed pseudonymously to Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. 9th-10th c., known in the West as Geber). Important, along with this Geberian (or Jabirian) corpus, was the Book of the Secret of Secrets by Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (d. ca. 925). Beginning about the middle of the twelfth century, this mixed body of alchemical writings was translated into Latin, initiating (by the middle of the thirteenth century) a vigorous Latin alchemical tradition. Belief in the ability of alchemists to produce precious metals out of base metals was widespread but not universal; from Avicenna onward, a strong critical tradition had developed, and much ink was devoted to polemics about the possibility of transmutation.”

The Scottish scientist Joseph Black (1728—1799), a friend of the engineer and inventor James Watt (1736—1819), discovered carbon dioxide. It was by now quite clear that “air” consisted of several different substances, which led to further experiments in pneumatic chemistry. The great English experimental scientist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) identified hydrogen, or what he called “inflammable air.” Another Englishman, Joseph Priestley (1733—1804), a contemporary of Cavendish who corresponded with him, is usually credited with discovering oxygen, although Scheele had in fact done so before him. The Frenchman Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743—1794) noted its tendency to form acids by combining with different substances and named the element oxygen (oxygène) from the Greek words for “acid former.” He worked closely with the mathematical astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749—1827) in developing new chemical equipment.

It is worth noting here that Watt, a practical man of steam engine fame, and the brilliant theoretical scientist Laplace both made contributions to the advancement of chemical science. This illustrates that theoretical science and applied technology were now gradually growing closer, a development of tremendous future importance which in my view had begun in Europe already in the eighteenth century, if not before, but whose effects would only become apparent some generations later.

Several observers noticed that water formed when a mixture of hydrogen with oxygen (or common air) was sparked, but they were cautious in their conclusions. Cobb and Harold Goldwhite, page 159-160:

“Lavoisier did not hesitate. He made the pronouncement that water was not an element as previously thought but the combination of oxygen with an inflammable principle, which he named hydrogen, from the Greek for the begetter of water. He claimed priority for this discovery, making only slight reference to the work of others. There was perhaps understandably a furor. Watt felt that Cavendish and Lavoisier had used some of his ideas, but of course all three owed some debt to Priestley. Again it may be asserted that the significance of Lavoisier’s work lies not in the timing of his experimental work but in his interpretation of the results… Lavoisier however saw it as the combination of two elements to form a compound… Laplace favored a mechanical explanation of heat as the motion of particles of matter (as it is currently understood), but Lavoisier described heat as a substance. This material he called caloric, the matter of fire… His true accomplishments however were that he broke the Aristotelian barrier of four elements, established the conservation of mass as an inviolate law, and confirmed the need for verifiable experimental results as the basis for valid chemical theory.”

Lavoisier is generally considered the “father of modern chemistry.” He had not yet fully arrived at the modern definition of a chemical element, but he was a great deal closer to it than past scholars and had given chemists a logical language for naming compounds and elements. Lavoisier and Laplace now conducted a number of studies of respiration and concluded that oxygen was the element in air necessary for life. Although himself an honest man, Lavoisier represented the hated tax collectors and found himself on the wrong side of the French Revolution which began in 1789. He was guillotined during the Reign of Terror after the revolutionary judge remarked, “The Republic has no need of scientists.”

Read the rest at Dhimmi Watch.


Fjordman said...

Thank you for posting.

I will have to deal with the issue of the steam engine in a separate essay. In the twenty-first century, people often talk about "science and technology," almost in one word. But throughout human history, these were in fact entirely separate categories. Technology was generally not based on mathematical theory, but was rather the creation of practical artisans. More often than not, if there was a correlation at all between the two, technology came first, and scientific attempts to explain why the technology worked were only deduced much later. Gunpowder and cannon would be a case in point.

The creation of modern science, where technology is though of as applied science, is almost 100% a European creation. In fact, I would rate it as the greatest of all European creations, one which has permanently and irreversibly changed the course of human history.