Heroes of Science Part 6

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We know that this generalization holds good in all chemical changes. Solid sulphur may be converted into liquid oil of vitriol, but it is only by the sulphur combining with other kinds of matter; the weight of oil of vitriol produced is always exactly equal to the sum of the weights of the sulphur, hydrogen and oxygen which have combined to form it. The colourless gases, hydrogen and oxygen, combine, and the limpid liquid water is the result; but the weight of the water produced is equal to the sum of the weights of hydrogen and oxygen which combined together. It is impossible to overrate the importance of the principle of the _conservation of ma.s.s_, first definitely established by Lavoisier.

Some time about the year 1770 Lavoisier turned his attention seriously to chemical phenomena. In 1774 he published a volume ent.i.tled "Essays Physical and Chemical," wherein he gave an historical account of all that had been done on the subject of airs from the time of Paracelsus to the year 1774, and added an account of his own experiments, in which he had established the facts that a metal in burning absorbs air, and that when the metallic calx is reduced to metal by heating with charcoal, an air is produced of the same nature as the fixed air of Dr. Black.

In November 1772 Lavoisier deposited a sealed note in the hands of the Secretary to the Academy of Sciences. This note was opened on the 1st of May 1773, and found to run as follows[4]:--

"About eight days ago I discovered that sulphur in burning, far from losing, augments in weight; that is to say, that from one pound of sulphur much more than one pound of vitriolic acid is obtained, without reckoning the humidity of the air. Phosphorus presents the same phenomenon. This augmentation of weight arises from a great quant.i.ty of air which becomes fixed during the combustion, and which combines with the vapours.

"This discovery, confirmed by experiments which I regard as decisive, led me to think that what is observed in the combustion of sulphur and phosphorus might likewise take place with respect to all the bodies which augment in weight by combustion and calcination; and I was persuaded that the augmentation of weight in the calces of metals proceeded from the same cause. The experiment fully confirmed my conjectures.

"I operated the reduction of litharge in closed vessels with Hale's apparatus, and I observed that at the moment of the pa.s.sage of the calx into the metallic state, there was a disengagement of air in considerable quant.i.ty, and that this air formed a volume at least one thousand times greater than that of the litharge employed.

"As this discovery appears to me one of the most interesting which has been made since Stahl, I thought it expedient to secure to myself the property, by depositing the present note in the hands of the Secretary of the Academy, to remain secret till the period when I shall publish my experiments.


"Paris, 11th November 1772."

In his paper "On the Calcination of Tin in Closed Vessels, and on the Cause of Increase of Weight acquired by the Metal during this Process" (published in 1774), we see and admire Lavoisier's manner of working. A weighed quant.i.ty (about half a pound) of tin was heated to melting in a gla.s.s retort, the beak of which was drawn out to a very small opening; the air within the retort having expanded, the opening was closed by melting the gla.s.s before the blowpipe. The weight of retort and tin was now noted; the tin was again heated to its melting point, and kept at this temperature as long as the process of calcination appeared to proceed; the retort and its contents were then allowed to cool and again weighed. No change was caused by the heating process in the total weight of the whole apparatus. The end of the retort beak was now broken off; air rushed in with a hissing sound.

The retort and contents were again weighed, and the increase over the weight at the moment of sealing the retort was noted. The calcined tin in the retort was now collected and weighed. It was found that the increase in the weight of the tin was equal to the weight of the air which rushed into the retort. Hence Lavoisier concluded that the calcination of tin was accompanied by an absorption of air, and that the difference between the weights of the tin and the calx of tin was equal to the weight of air absorbed; but he states that probably only a part of the air had combined with the tin, and that hence air is not a simple substance, but is composed of two or more const.i.tuents.

Between the date of this publication and that of Lavoisier's next paper on combustion we know that Priestley visited Paris. In his last work, "The Doctrine of Phlogiston established" (published in 1800), Priestley says, "Having made the discovery of dephlogisticated air some time before I was in Paris in 1774, I mentioned it at the table of Mr. Lavoisier, when most of the philosophical people in the city were present; saying that it was a kind of air in which a candle burned much better than in common air, but I had not then given it any name. At this all the company, and Mr. and Mrs.

Lavoisier as much as any, expressed great surprise. I told them that I had got it from _precipitatum per se_, and also from _red lead_."

In 1775 Lavoisier's paper, "On the Nature of the Principle which combines with the Metals during their Calcination, and which augments their Weight,"

was read before the Academy. The preparation and properties of an air obtained, in November 1774, from _red precipitate_ are described, but Priestley's name is not mentioned. It seems probable, however, that Lavoisier learned the existence and the mode of preparation of this air from Priestley;[5] but we have seen that even in 1779 Priestley was quite in the dark as to the true nature of the air discovered by him (p. 60).

In papers published in the next three or four years Lavoisier gradually defined and more thoroughly explained the phenomenon of combustion. He burned phosphorus in a confined volume of air, and found that about one-fourth of the air disappeared, that the residual portion of air was unable to support combustion or to sustain animal life, that the phosphorus was converted into a white substance deposited on the sides of the vessel in which the experiment was performed, and that for each grain of phosphorus used about two and a half grains of this white solid were obtained. He further described the properties of the substance produced by burning phosphorus, gave it the name of _phosphoric acid_, and described some of the substances formed by combining it with various bases.

The burning of candles in air was about this time studied by Lavoisier. He regarded his experiments as proving that the air which remained after burning a candle, and in which animal life could not be sustained, was really present before the burning; that common air consisted of about one-fourth part of dephlogisticated air and three-fourths of _azotic air_ (_i.e._ air incapable of sustaining life); and that the burning candle simply combined with, and so removed the former of these, and at the same time produced more or less fixed air.

In his treatise on chemistry Lavoisier describes more fully his proof that the calcination of a metal consists in the removal, by the metal, of dephlogisticated air (or oxygen) from the atmosphere, and that the metallic calx is simply a compound of metal and oxygen. The experiments are strictly quant.i.tative and are thoroughly conclusive. He placed four ounces of pure mercury in a gla.s.s balloon, the neck of which dipped beneath the surface of mercury in a gla.s.s dish, and then pa.s.sed a little way up into a jar containing fifty cubic inches of air, and standing in the mercury in the dish. There was thus free communication between the air in the balloon and that in the gla.s.s jar, but no communication between the air inside and that outside the whole apparatus. The mercury in the balloon was heated nearly to its boiling point for twelve days, during which time red-coloured specks gradually formed on the surface of the metal; at the end of this time it was found that the air in the gla.s.s jar measured between forty-two and forty-three cubic inches. The red specks when collected amounted to forty-five grains; they were heated in a very small retort connected with a graduated gla.s.s cylinder containing mercury. Between seven and eight cubic inches of pure dephlogisticated air (oxygen) were obtained in this cylinder, and forty-one and a half grains of metallic mercury remained when the decomposition of the red substance was completed.

The conclusion drawn by Lavoisier from these experiments was that mercury, when heated nearly to boiling in contact with air, withdraws oxygen from the air and combines with this gas to form _red precipitate_, and that when the red precipitate which has been thus formed is strongly heated, it parts with the whole of its oxygen, and is changed back again into metallic mercury.

Lavoisier had now (1777-78) proved that the calces of mercury, tin and lead are compounds of these metals with oxygen; and that the oxygen is obtained from the atmosphere when the metal burns. But the phlogistic chemistry was not yet overthrown. We have seen that the upholders of phlogiston believed that in the inflammable air of Cavendish they had at last succeeded in obtaining the long-sought-for phlogiston. Now they triumphantly asked, Why, when metals dissolve in diluted vitriolic or muriatic acid with evolution of inflammable air, are calces of these metals produced? And they answered as triumphantly, Because these metals lose phlogiston by this process, and we know that a calx is a metal deprived of its phlogiston.

Lavoisier contented himself with observing that a metallic calx always weighed more than the metal from which it was produced; and that as inflammable air, although much lighter than common air, was distinctly possessed of weight, it was not possible that a metallic calx could be metal deprived of inflammable air. He had given a simple explanation of the process of calcination, and had proved, by accurate experiments, that this explanation was certainly true in some cases. Although all the known facts about solution of metals in acids could not as yet be brought within his explanation, yet none of these facts was absolutely contradictory of that explanation. He was content to wait for further knowledge. And to gain this further knowledge he set about devising and performing new experiments. The upholders of the theory of phlogiston laid considerable stress on the fact that metals are produced by heating metallic calces in inflammable air; the air is absorbed, they said, and so the metal is reproduced. It was obviously of the utmost importance that Lavoisier should learn more about this inflammable air, and especially that he should know exactly what happened when this air was burned. He therefore prepared to burn a large quant.i.ty of inflammable air, arranging the experiment so that he should be able to collect and examine the product of this burning, whatever should be the nature of that product. But at this time the news was brought to Paris that Cavendish had obtained water by burning mixtures of inflammable and dephlogisticated airs. This must have been a most exciting announcement to Lavoisier; he saw how much depended on the accuracy of this statement, and as a true student of Nature, he at once set about to prove or disprove it.

On the 24th of June 1783, in the presence of the King and several notabilities (including Sir Charles Blagden, Secretary of the Royal Society, who had told Lavoisier of the experiments of Cavendish), Lavoisier and Laplace burned inflammable and dephlogisticated airs, and obtained water. As the result of these experiments they determined that one volume of dephlogisticated air combines with 1.91 volumes of inflammable air to form water.

A little later Lavoisier completed the proof of the composition of water by showing that when steam is pa.s.sed through a tube containing iron filings kept red hot, inflammable air is evolved and calx of iron remains in the tube.

Lavoisier could now explain the conversion of a metallic calx into metal by the action of inflammable air; this air decomposes the calx--that is, the metallic oxide--combines with its oxygen to form water, and so the metal is produced.

When a metal is dissolved in diluted vitriolic or muriatic acid a calx is formed, because, according to Lavoisier, the water present is decomposed by the metal, inflammable air is evolved, and the dephlogisticated air of the water combines with the metal forming a calx, which then dissolves in the acid.

Lavoisier now studied the properties of the compounds produced by burning phosphorus, sulphur and carbon in dephlogisticated air. He found that solutions of these compounds in water had a more or less sour taste and turned certain blue colouring matters red; but these were the properties regarded as especially belonging to acids. These products of combustion in dephlogisticated air were therefore acids; but as phosphorus, carbon and sulphur were not themselves acids, the acid character of the substances obtained by burning these bodies in dephlogisticated air must be due to the presence in them of this air. Hence Lavoisier concluded that this air is the substance the presence of which in a compound confers acid properties on that compound. This view of the action of dephlogisticated air he perpetuated in the name "oxygen" (from Greek, = _acid-producer_), which he gave to dephlogisticated air, and by which name this gas has ever since been known.

Priestley was of opinion that the atmosphere is rendered noxious by the breathing of animals, because it is thereby much phlogisticated, and he thought that his experiments rendered it very probable that plants are able to purify this noxious air by taking away phlogiston from it (see p. 69).

But Lavoisier was now able to give a much more definite account of the effects on the atmosphere of animal and vegetable life. He had already shown that ordinary air contains oxygen and azote (nitrogen), and that the former is alone concerned in the process of combustion. He was now able to show that animals during respiration draw in air into their lungs: that a portion of the oxygen is there combined with carbon to form carbonic acid gas (as the fixed air of Black was now generally called), which is again expired along with unaltered azote. Respiration was thus proved to be a process chemically a.n.a.logous to that of calcination.

Thus, about the year 1784-85, the theory of phlogiston appeared to be quite overthrown. The arguments of its upholders, after this time, were not founded on facts; they consisted of fanciful interpretations of crudely performed experiments. Cavendish was the only opponent to be dreaded by the supporters of the new chemistry. But we have seen that although Cavendish retained the language of the phlogistic theory (see pp. 78, 79) as in his opinion equally applicable to the facts of combustion with that of the new or Lavoisierian theory, he nevertheless practically admitted the essential point of the latter, viz. that calces are compounds of metal and oxygen (or dephlogisticated air). Although Cavendish was the first to show that water is produced when the two gases hydrogen and oxygen are exploded together, it would yet appear that he did not fully grasp the fact that water is a compound of these two gases; it was left to Lavoisier to give a clear statement of this all-important fact, and thus to remove the last prop from under the now tottering, but once stately edifice built by Stahl and his successors.

The explanation given by Lavoisier of combustion was to a great extent based on a conception of element and compound very different from that of the older chemists. In the "Sceptical Chymist" (1661) Boyle had argued strongly against the doctrine of the four "elementary principles," earth, air, fire and water, as held by the "vulgar chymists." The existence of these principles, or some of them, in every compound substance was firmly held by most chemists in Boyle's time. They argued thus: when a piece of green wood b.u.ms, the existence in the wood of the principle of fire is made evident by the flame, of the principle of air by the smoke which ascends, of that of water by the hissing and boiling sound, and of the principle of earth by the ashes which remain when the burning is finished.[6]

Boyle combated the inference that because a flame is visible round the burning wood, and a light air or smoke ascends from it, _therefore_ these principles were contained in the wood before combustion began. He tried to prove by experiments that one substance may be obtained from another in which the first substance did not already exist; thus, he heated water for a year in a closed gla.s.s vessel, and obtained solid particles heavier than, and as he supposed formed from, the water. We have already learned the true interpretation of this experiment from the work of Lavoisier. Boyle grew various vegetables in water only, and thought that he had thus changed water into solid vegetable matter. He tells travellers' tales of the growth of pieces of iron and other metals in the earth or while kept in underground cellars.

We now know how erroneous in most points this reasoning was, but we must admit that Boyle established one point most satisfactorily, viz. that because earth, or air, or fire, or water is obtained by heating or otherwise decomposing a substance, it does not necessarily follow that the earth, or air, or fire, or water existed as such in the original substance.

He overthrew the doctrine of elementary principles held by the "vulgar chymists." Defining elements as "certain primitive and simple bodies which, not being made of any other bodies, or of one another, are the ingredients of which all those called perfectly mixt bodies are immediately compounded, and into which they are ultimately resolved," Boyle admitted the _possible_ existence, but thought that the facts known at his time did not warrant the a.s.sertion of the _certain_ existence, of such "elements." The work of Hooke and Mayow on combustion tended to strengthen this definition of "element"

given by Boyle.

Black, as we have seen, clearly proved that certain chemical substances were possessed of definite and unvarying composition and properties; and Lavoisier, indirectly by his explanation of combustion, and directly in his "Treatise on Chemistry", laid down the definition of "element" which is now universally adopted.

An element is a substance from which no simpler forms of matter--that is, no forms of matter each weighing less than the original substance--have _as yet_ been obtained.

In the decade 1774-1784 chemical science was thus established on a sure foundation by Lavoisier. Like most great builders, whether of physical or mental structures, he used the materials gathered by those who came before him, but the merit of arranging these materials into a well-laid foundation, on which the future building might firmly rest, is due to him alone.

The value of Lavoisier's work now began to be recognized by his fellow-chemists in France. In 1785 Berthollet, one of the most rising of the younger French chemists, declared himself a convert to the views of Lavoisier on combustion. Fourcroy, another member of the Academy, soon followed the example of Berthollet. Fourcroy, knowing the weakness of his countrymen, saw that if the new views could be made to appear as especially the views of Frenchmen, the victory would be won; he therefore gave to the theory of Lavoisier the name "_La chimie Francaise_". Although this name was obviously unfair to Lavoisier, it nevertheless caused the antiphlogistic theory to be identified with the French chemists, and succeeded in impressing the French public generally with the idea that to hold to the old theory was to be a traitor to the glory of one's country.

M. de Morveau, who held a prominent place both in politics and science, was invited to Paris, and before long was persuaded to embrace the new theory.

This conversion--for "the whole matter was managed as if it had been a political intrigue rather than a philosophical inquiry"--was of great importance to Lavoisier and his friends. M. de Morveau was editor of the chemical part of the "Encyclopedie Methodique;" in that part of this work which had appeared before 1784 De Morveau had skilfully opposed the opinions of Lavoisier, but in the second part of the work he introduced an advertis.e.m.e.nt announcing the change in his opinions on the subject of combustion, and giving his reasons for this change.

The importance of having a definite language in every science is apparent at each step of advance. Lavoisier found great difficulty in making his opinions clear because he was obliged to use a language which had been introduced by the phlogistic chemists, and which bore the impress of that theory on most of its terms. About the years 1785-1787, Lavoisier, Berthollet, Fourcroy and De Morveau drew up a new system of chemical nomenclature. The fundamental principles of that system have remained as those of every nomenclature since proposed. They are briefly these:--

An element is a substance from which no form of matter simpler than itself has as yet been obtained.

Every substance is to be regarded as an element until it is proved to be otherwise.

The name of every compound is to tell of what elements the substance is composed, and it is to express as far as possible the relative amounts of the elements which go to form the compound.

Thus the compounds of oxygen with any other element were called oxides, _e.g._ iron oxide, mercury oxide, tin oxide, etc. When two oxides of iron came to be known, one containing more oxygen relatively to the amount of iron present than the other, that with the greater quant.i.ty of oxygen was called iron peroxide, and that with the smaller quant.i.ty iron protoxide.

We now generally prefer to use the name of the element other than oxygen in adjectival form, and to indicate the relatively smaller or greater quant.i.ty of oxygen present by modifications in the termination of this adjective.

Thus iron protoxide is now generally known as ferr_ous_ oxide, and iron peroxide as ferr_ic_ oxide. But the principles laid down by the four French chemists in 1785-1787 remain as the groundwork of our present system of nomenclature.

The antiphlogistic theory was soon adopted by all French chemists of note.

We have already seen that Black, with his usual candour and openness to conviction, adopted and taught this theory, and we are a.s.sured by Dr.

Thomas Thomson that when he attended Black's cla.s.ses, nine years after the publication of the French system of nomenclature, that system was in general use among the chemical students of the university. The older theory was naturally upheld by the countrymen of the distinguished Stahl after it had been given up in France. In the year 1792 Klaproth, who was then Professor of Chemistry in Berlin, proposed to the Berlin Academy of Sciences to repeat the more important experiments on which the Lavoisierian theory rested, before the Academy. His offer was accepted, and from that time most of the Berlin chemists declared themselves in favour of the new theory.

By the close of last century the teaching of Lavoisier regarding combustion found almost universal a.s.sent among chemists. But this teaching carried with it, as necessary parts, the fundamental distinction between element and compound; the denial of the existence of "principles" or "essences;"

the recognition of the study of actually occurring reactions between substances as the basis on which all true chemical knowledge was to be built; and the full acknowledgment of the fact that matter is neither created nor destroyed, but only changed as to its form, in any chemical reaction.

Of Lavoisier's other work I can only mention the paper on "Specific Heats"

contributed by Laplace and Lavoisier to the Memoirs of the Academy for 1780. In this paper is described the ice calorimeter, whereby the amount of heat given out by a substance in cooling from one definite temperature to another is determined, by measuring the amount of ice converted into water by the heated substance in cooling through the stated interval of temperature. The specific heats of various substances, _e.g._ iron, gla.s.s, mercury, quicklime, etc., were determined by the help of this instrument.

As we read the record of work done by Lavoisier during the years between 1774 and 1794--work which must have involved a great amount of concentrated thought as well as the expenditure of much time--we find it hard to realize that the most tremendous political and social revolution which the modern world has seen was raging around him during this time.

In the earlier days of the French Revolution, and in the time immediately preceding that movement, many minds had been stirred to see the importance of the study of Nature; but it was impossible that natural science should continue to flourish when the tyrant Robespierre had begun the Reign of Terror.

The roll of those who perished during this time contains no more ill.u.s.trious name than that of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. In the year 1794 Lavoisier, who had for some time acted as a _fermier-general_ under the Government, was accused of mixing with the tobacco "water and other ingredients hurtful to the health of the citizens." On this pretext he and some of his colleagues were condemned to death. For some days Lavoisier found a hiding-place among his friends, but hearing that his colleagues had been arrested, he delivered himself up to the authorities, only asking that the death sentence should not be executed until he had completed the research in which he was engaged; "not" that he was "unwilling to part with life," but because he thought the results would be "for the good of humanity."

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Heroes of Science Part 6 summary

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