The Nature of Nothing

By the middle of the 17th century, some people were obsessed with the nature of…nothing.

Specifically, they had discovered that strange thing called a vacuum.  In 1654, Otto von Guericke proved that two evacuated hemispheres could resist all the power of two teams of horses trying to pull them apart.  Apparently this nothing was pretty powerful stuff.

Air, despite being one of the ancient four elements, seemed to be nothing much.  But von Guericke and his vacuum pump led inevitably to the conclusion that air was really a substantial something since its absence created the great and powerful nothing.

So what was air, exactly?

Well, for one thing, air was clearly something that went bad, often with fatal results.  People trapped in mines suffocated when the air went bad.  The effect could even be demonstrated in a lab.  It became the favorite parlor trick of scientists to put mice under glass jars.  Within a few minutes the mice would pant and die, just like those trapped miners.

But it wasn’t just breathing that made air go bad.  Placing a candle under a glass jar and then lighting it with a magnifying glass had the same results: in a few minutes the flame would shrink down and go out, just like the mice.  And the bad air stayed bad.  No matter how long they waited, trying to relight the candle always ended in failure.

So there was clearly some relation between whatever air was, whatever breathing did, and whatever that strange phenomenon of burning actually was.

Along about 1667, a man named Johann Joachim Becher came up with the solution.  It was neat, logical, and a perfect match to the evidence: Phlogiston.

What Becher did was propose that something was flammable because it contained an invisible, tasteless, and odorless something-or-other called phlogiston (from a Greek word meaning flammable).  The tendency of anything to burn was directly proportional to the amount of phlogiston it contained.  Plant material accumulated phlogiston as it grew, hence it had a great tendency to burn.

Air, according to Becher,  had the natural ability to absorb phlogiston.  Hence burning was the visible process of the phlogiston passing from some object into the air.  But, and here is the very important fact, the capacity of air to absorb phlogiston was limited.  In a closed space, all the air would eventually become saturated with phlogiston.  It would become “phlogisticated.”  Once that happened, combustion had to cease, since there was nowhere for the phlogiston to go.

It was fairly easy to prove all this: Put a candle under a glass jar, and it would begin to die out.  However, if you allowed some fresh air into the jar, the flame would immediately flare into life.  You had replaced the saturated air with fresh air.

Since people and animals consumed vegetable matter, they tended to accumulate phlogiston.  What kept them from getting so full that they just burst into flame?  Respiration.  Respiration was just like burning.  We inhale fresh air, the phlogiston in our bodies is absorbed by the air, and we don’t burn up.  But worse, if we didn’t breathe, the phlogiston would build up in our bodies to the point that it became toxic.  This is what we see in suffocation.

Joseph Priestley, one of the more interesting of the great English eccentrics, performed many experiments on air.  He was able to show that air was not just one thing, but rather had several components.  In one of his most interesting experiments he tried to kill a plant by putting it in a jar with a candle.  After the candle went out, he waited patiently for the plant to die, since the air was now phlogisticated.  To his surprise, the plant seemed not to care that the air in the jar had been made bad by the candle.  It continued to grow.

This led him to try a number of other tests.  In one of them he tried to relight the candle with a magnifying glass.  To his surprise, it not only lit, it seemed to flame as brightly and as long as the first time.  Clearly the plant was somehow rejuvenating the bad air.

This and other experiments led Priestley to announce to the world that he had identified the component of air that sustained combustion and respiration.  He called it “Dephlogisticated Air.”

A few years later Lavoisier was able to demonstrate with his own experiments that Priestley’s “Dephlogisticated Air” was actually an element he called “Oxygen” and that phlogiston was a myth.

That’s the problem with a perfect theory making a perfect match to your data: sometimes you’re wrong, anyway.

So today with our economic crisis.  Everybody’s got a perfect theory that perfectly fits the facts.  And everyone proposes solutions based on their perfect theories.  What we need is more public spending…or we need less.  What we need is less regulation of the financial markets…or we need more.  What we need is higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations…or lower taxes on just those folks.

Looking at the beautiful evidence they present and trying to decide who is right and who is wrong, I keep finding one thought echoing in my head:


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