October 8, 2018

From the Vaults: A Tough Business

Now the title of this FTV is pretty generic.  It could apply to just about any endeavour, but with my background as a Geography/Earth Science teacher, it won’t surprise you that I am talking about science.  Perhaps it is just a force of habit, but one of the first books I read after retirement set in was The Story of Chemistry: From the periodic table to nanotechnology by Anne Rooney (Arcturus 2017).  Yes, I did teach a certain amount of basic chemistry in my Earth and Physical Science classes, but out of all the different branches on the tree of science, it was a subject that I wasn’t as rabid about.  My dad suggested at one time that I should pursue a career as a pharmacist, but in my heart, I knew the amount of chemistry involved was a deal breaker. I am not a chemistry dolt, mind you, I am just not a chemistry geek.  

    In the end, I was able to satisfy my biology Jones by minoring in Conservation.  Getting a teaching degree in Geography/Earth Science allowed me to touch on a host of subjects that I was interested in like Geology, Geomorphology, Dendrology, Meteorology, Cartography, and Physical Geography.  These concentrations helped me develop a teaching curriculum for my classes that contained elements of soil science, trees, landforms, weather, maps, and at least the basic chemistry that accompanied each subject.  The Geography part showed up in the plethora of mapping activities and projects my students engaged in. I only took one undergraduate Astronomy class (and a second one during my postgraduate years), and these classes eventually set me on a path teaching more and more Astronomy based material over the years.  

    One of the first teaching objectives that the State of Michigan developed for science ( the first guidelines were being written in the early 1980s and have been undergoing constant tweaking ever since) called for some type of historical perspective in each subject area.  That was fine with me because ‘how and when’ a particular science field began was always built into my various subject areas. It was instructive to point out that it was always a long hard road from where a field of science began to where we are today. One of my points of emphasis kind of paralleled Kermit the Frog’s old line, “It ain’t easy being green.”  My take was along the lines of, “Being a scientist in the early days wasn’t always popular and it could get you killed.”

    One of the first examples that would come up in Astronomy was that of the well known Galileo Galilei and his less well remembered contemporary, Giordano Bruno.  Both drifted away from the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe and that everything revolved around this planet. The newer Heliocentric model placed the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of our Solar System and definitely not at the center of the whole Universe.  The dogma of the day favored the Earth-centric Universe and it was entrenched in the scheme of things so deeply that it was considered heresy to believe anything else. Both Bruno and Galileo were put on trial for espousing such heretical teachings, but both were also given an opportunity to recant.  Bruno refused and was burned at the stake for holding fast to what we now take for granted. Galileo had friends in high places and they pleaded with him to disavow his earlier teachings, which he did, sort of. He wrote a treatise on the subject implying that he was not correct in teaching the Heliocentric model of the solar system, but he slyly left the door open that it was still the correct view.  His accusers either missed that he was tweaking their noses or ignored it for the sake of his benefactor.

    Galileo did not invent the telescope as so many wrongly believe.  When he learned of this remarkable instrument first assembled by a Dutch spectacle maker, Galileo advanced the science of telescope making very rapidly.  He viewed the Moon’s landscape with his new telescope and compared it to the Earth’s. When he saw the four largest moons of Jupiter, he diligently recorded their motions. Unfortunately, these were also heretical acts because the dogma said (more or less), “That the Universe is composed of divinely created, perfect crystalline spheres upon which all of the things visible in the Universe are suspended.”  Galileo defended his Lunar and Jovian observations by showing the same people who would later prosecute him (for his Heliocentric teachings) the telescopic view of a cathedral across the bay from his home. Galileo asked them, “If my instrument faithfully shows the familiar cathedral in greater detail, why would you not believe it is showing you a faithful (and Earth-like) of the Moon’s mountains, valleys, and plains?”  His semi-retraction (written with his fingers crossed) and his friends in high places kept Galileo from being sentenced to death, but not from being placed under house arrest for the remainder of his days. As I often told my students, “I can kiss my wife goodbye in the morning and spend the whole day teaching science and feel confident that I will be home for dinner without being hauled away to some tribunal to face charges of heresy.”  Being a scientist, back in the day, could indeed be a rough business. Sometimes those near Galileo found the inspiration to innovate in the threats to his (and their own) freedom.

    While Galileo and Gasparo Berti were exploring syphons, they discovered that they could not get one to work above a height of 34 feet.  When a glass tube is closed at one end and filled with water, it can be upended in a container of water and the water level will remain at 34 feet.  They had invented a water barometer to weigh the atmosphere but the effect needed more study. Evangelista Torricelli was one of Galileo’s students who wanted to study the effect further.  No doubt because of his association with Galileo, Torricelli was under suspicion of sorcery and witchcraft so he needed a way to study atmospheric pressure without the conspicuous 34 foot glass tube.  His solution was to use mercury instead of water. The much denser mercury only required a 32 inch closed glass tube, thus leading Torricelli (during his secret experiments) to invent that staple of meteorology, the mercury barometer.  Note that “sorcery and witchcraft” were also heretical acts that made a nice catch all for those wishing to prosecute scientists.

    It wasn’t until more recent times that the negative effects of contacting mercury were revealed.  We made mercury barometers in high school and it required one to hold their finger over the open end of the mercury filled glass tube while upending it in a beaker of mercury.  Nobody was immune to playing with the little globules that escaped on the lab table when a thermometer broke. The hazards from mercury absorption through the skin are widely known today and the main reason we purged all of the mercury from our science labs some years ago.  It made my heart sink to pack up our trusty mercury barometer to be sent for disposal, but who wanted to work with a material that could (as my old friend Dr. Wayne used to say), “turn you into a neurological idiot.”

    According to Rooney’s book, Chemistry did not spring forth as an independent science.  The earliest roots of chemistry were not even recognized as a science. Many chemicals were utilized by our ancestors without much understanding of why certain compounds could be used as dyes and others to make glazes for pottery.  Most of these uses were stumbled upon accidentally and it was only later that learned men began to unravel what things were made of. The earliest belief was that all things were made up of four or five essential elements or ‘roots’.  Chinese, Arabic, Greek, and philosophers from other cultures didn’t have the ability to see the atomic properties of matter, so they began by trying to classify the world around them as being combinations of air, water, earth, and fire.  When these proved insufficient to explain the way all things worked, other mysterious things like The Philosopher’s Stone and phlogiston entered the picture. The Philosopher’s Stone was a hypothetical substance that could be created and used to transmutate base elements into other things, like gold and silver.  Phlogiston was an invisible property that was introduced to try and explain why some things burn better than others. Both muddied the water for hundreds of years as did the idea of Alchemy. Alchemy obsessed philosophers (we would call them scientists today) tried to manipulate base metals to create more valuable substances but the true founding of Chemistry would not take place until it branched off from the magical thinking that drove the Alchemists.  Alchemy held sway for centuries and some notable scientists like Sir Isaac Newton spent as much time searching for a way to spin straw into gold (to emphasis the magical thinking part of the whole concept) as they did more serious scientific problems. People wanted to believe in Alchemy so badly that it opened the doors for many charlatans who promised feats of magic for financial backers to the point that many governments made the practice illegal, even punishable by death in some cases.

     As Chemistry came into its own as a science, it wasn’t only the charlatans and fakers who courted death by science.  Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier is the acknowledged ‘Father of Chemistry’ and his career culminated with the publication of his book Traite elementaire de chimie in 1789.  Five years later, he was charged with “adulterating tobacco and taking money from the national treasury to pay the enemies of France.”  He was exonerated 18 months later when the government admitted that he had been falsely accused, but it mattered little to Lavoisier. He had already been guillotined (along with 27 others) for his ‘crimes’.  

    Joseph Priestley is mostly remembered for his pioneering work developing an apparatus to capture gases emitted during chemical reactions.  He is credited with discovering eight different gases, but Priestly still believed in the existence of that phantom fire element phlogiston.  He also had his own views about religion, leading him to support both the French and American revolutions. By Priestly’s thinking, they would lead to “the overthrow of of all earthly regimes and hasten the coming of the Millennium of Christ as foretold in the Bible.”  His was not a popular view and he fled to America to escape death at the hands of an angry mob. They burned down his house and laboratory and his life would have been forfeit had he not fled. He survived and the four days of rioting that preceded his escape are still referred to as ‘the Priestley Riots.”

    Even into the 20th Century, great scientific discoveries sometimes carried unexpected risks.  Marie Curie became the only woman to win Nobel Prizes in two different areas of science. She is remembered for her work deciphering radiation from iridium and practical uses of X-Rays in battlefield hospitals during World War I.  She had been known to carry test tubes of radioactive substances in her pockets and remarked that the ones she kept in her desk drawer gave off a faint glow in the dark. Curie coined the name ‘radioactivity and she used X-rays in WWI field hospitals with no form of protection.  The dangers of long term exposure to radiation and X-rays was unknown. Curie’s health issues were never attributed to her work and she eventually died of aplastic anemia. Her working notes are considered too dangerous to handle without protective gear. Even her cook books are kept locked in a lead lined box.       

    Science is by no means the only field to expose its participants to danger.  When I used to introduce myself at science workshops I facilitated, the reactions from those who were horrified  that I chose a whole teaching career in Junior High science always amused me. Unlike many of the great pioneers of science, I never felt that my life was at risk sharing knowledge with a room full of seventh or eighth graders.  Sure, it isn’t for everyone, but by far the toughest part of the science game was experienced by those who paved the way to our modern world.

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