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Saturday, August 18, 2007

More on An Ocean of Air

Aside from the science involved, Gabrielle Walker's An Ocean of Air (which I've written about here) manages to flesh out the dessicated little men from the textbooks and breathe life back into them, an appropriate transformation as they all studied air.

Robert Boyle. Boyle was only 16 when he arrived in Florence in 1641 and read a copy of Galileo's book on air proving that air had weight. In 1649, he installed a laboratory at his estate and began experimenting with alchemy, but he seemed to be mostly dabbling. On his visits to his sister in London, he met men who were also interested in scientific experiments; the group called themselves the "invisible College" which was a forerunner of London's "Royal Society." He eventually moved into lodgings in an apothecary's house in Oxford and mingled with men with similar passions: chemists, mathematicians, physicists, and physicians. Among them, Richard Lower and Tom Willis who would perform the world's first blood transusion experiment and Sir Christopher Wren, "architect, poymath, renaissance man." He eventually hired Robert Hooke to design an air pump to prove that it was not the sucking of a vacuum but the pushing force of air that kept mercury up in a tube. (He was proving Torricelli's --a student of Galieo-- earlier theory.)

Though fluent in Latin, Boyle chose to write New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of Air in everyday English. He described his apparatus, the steps of each experiment, and his results in a straight forward, practical way and is, therefore, "one of the world's first true scientists."

Through ingenious experiments with the air pump, Boyle proved that air is necessary for sound to travel, which may seem obvious today, but was certainly not at the time. In attempts to study the role of air in flight, he put a bumble bee into his chamber and pumped out the air. When the bee suddenly died, Boyle began trying to understand the process of breathing. He was never able to solve the problem, but he did suspect that air may of consisted of different "ingredients," long before anyone knew that air was a combination of different gases.

Joseph Priestley. A clergyman, Priestley's unusual views frequently got him dismissed from his parishes. Priestley had a poor memory and thus wrote everything down. While this might have handicapped him in his intellectual pursuits, Walker believes that it was also "part of his genius...helping him to see the world with fresh eyes. He lived constantly in the moment."

Since the death of Robert Boyle, nearly one hundred years earlier, the idea that there might be more than one kind of air was being seriously entertained. One kind was "fixed air" that could extinguish candles. Priestley realized that "fixed air" (carbon dioxide to us) could be forced into water and the result was a "refreshing beverage" -- soda water, carbonated water.

"Priestley's scientific method, like his curiosity, was both all-encompassing and chaotic. He never quite knew what would happen." In this way, through a small explosion, he discovered nitrous oxide or laughing gas. In testing the new gas (or "air") on a lighted candle , the candle flared and burned brighter and longer than it should have. He'd discovered the element oxygen...although the didn't understand and misinterpreted it, which didn't stop him from experimenting with his "new" air.

He tested the effect of his new air on mice. If he thought the mice wouldn't survive, "when he pushed them through the water or mercury into the vessel, he kept a tight hold of their tails to pull them out as soon as they began to look distressed."

I'm just relating things in a general way, but Walker explains the experiments in simple language and with enough detail for the reader to grasp the mechanics of the experiments. It is, however, fascinating the way she can involve the reader in much the same way that a novelist does.

I've only related some of the interesting details in the first 35 pages, I'm on page 105 and still as involved and amazed and pleased with An Ocean of Air.


  1. This sounds quite fascinating! I love that time period, and thinking about the history of science if interesting.

  2. dorothy -- I love learning when it feels as if I'm reading fiction!