Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Discovery of Oxygen

` You know that gas we breathe, in order to metabolize food? Yes, oxygen. Well, it had to have been discovered at some point, right? In fact, it was discovered twice, by two different people during a time of political upheaval in the late 1700s.

` One of these people was an English rebellious 'heretic' Unitarian named Joseph Priestly who was a 'natural philosophy' enthusiast. While the Classical Greek explanation that air was an elemental substance was widely accepted, he - being skeptical and all - was doubtful about this notion. Why? Because nature showed some evidence against this idea:

` Consider that at this time, the prevailing explanation of how burning took place was that an unmeasurable substance called phlogiston was a primary element of matter that became released in fire.
` Priestly puzzled over the fact that this theory did not explain why metals actually became
heavier after they were burned. They must have been gaining some kind of substance, but what?

` In one of his experiments, Priestly placed a lighted candle in a jar filled with mercuric oxide and a 'mystery gas'. He expected that the candle would quickly be extinguished.
` However, it burned even more vigorously than before! Similarly, placing a mouse in a jar with this same gas caused it to live longer than a mouse trapped with the ordinary atmosphere.
` He called it 'dephlogisticated air', as this particular gas had phlogiston added to it only by the activities of breathing and burning.
` Not an unimportant thing to uncover... however, being a religious heretic and all, he had to flee the country. Some people are so underappreciated.

` The other person credited with this important discovery was a French aristocrat named Antoine Lavosier. He was one of the king's tax collectors, and also took science even more seriously than did Priestly.
` He, too, thought that the assumption at the time about the way fire worked as a substance just didn't add up.

` The exciting conclusion: when I'm done with breakfast.

` Okay, okay, I was done with breakfast an hour and a half ago, and Phil's still prattling on about how it's not contradictory that he assumes the universe is conscious. He doesn't seem to realize that, because there is no evidence of this, that I (being a skeptic) don't care whether or not this is true.
` I'll write about that some other time...

` Anyway, Lavosier created acids in his scientific experiments, and managed to isolate the same gas as Priestly. He discovered that, for example, phosphorous and sulfur absorb a gas when it is burned, rather than expel something. Also, reducing calcified lead to metallic lead releases a gas which extinguishes both flames and animals (now called carbon dioxide).
` This was highly intriguing. In time, Antoine figured out that this 'dephlogisticated air' was the gas responsible for combustion.
` He called it oxygen, short for oxys-gainomai, which means 'acid-engenderer' in Greek. Why? Because at the time, all acids were thought to contain oxygen - in other words, substances would need to be partly oxygen if they were to be acids.
` Though Lavosier was beheaded in the French Revolution, this 'oxygen' thing he'd found is no doubt a very important part of the beginning of modern chemistry.

` It was but one small step in understanding the world, and though this discovery could have happened in other ways, subsequently unvocering what oxygen actually is has allowed scientists to develop chemistry and understand how oxidation (as in rusting), rapid oxidation (as in bonfires), and metabolism works.
` We know now that, for example, fats and carbohydrates are full of energy that can only be liberated when life forms oxidize them. This is not something I'd expect that the discoverers of oxygen could have dreamed would happen from their own 'messing around' with nature.

` And there you have it folks, something I decided to write about for no apparent reason!


Galtron said...

Grrr. Oxygen is the sworn enemy of the hummingbird! It cuts their lifespan very short, and yet, we depend on it in order to live.

Crafty bastard, that oxygen.

Aaron said...

Oxygen - The Great Destroyer. Ask your car.

S E E Quine said...

` All the better to have discovered its secrets.

Anonymous said...

That was really interesting! Seriously! I have to make some stupid project on important discoveries in chemistry and this is the only thing I've found till now that's actually worth reading.

Ambika said...

Really interesting! Seriously! I have to make this stupid project about important discoveries in chemistry and this is the only one I've found till now that's worth reading.

S E E Quine said...

Wow, thanks! I wrote that years ago when my life was really messed-up, so I'm glad to see I was coherent enough to make sense.
` I'm actually working on a website about science and critical thinking now...

Also, I've gotten far away from that Phil character and onto a completely different life!