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A History of Science, Volume 4   By: (1863-1943)

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A HISTORY OF SCIENCE

By Henry Smith Williams, M.D., LL.D.

Assisted By Edward H. Williams, M.D.

In Five Volumes

Volume IV.

MODERN DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES

BOOK IV. MODERN DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES

AS regards chronology, the epoch covered in the present volume is identical with that viewed in the preceding one. But now as regards subject matter we pass on to those diverse phases of the physical world which are the field of the chemist, and to those yet more intricate processes which have to do with living organisms. So radical are the changes here that we seem to be entering new worlds; and yet, here as before, there are intimations of the new discoveries away back in the Greek days. The solution of the problem of respiration will remind us that Anaxagoras half guessed the secret; and in those diversified studies which tell us of the Daltonian atom in its wonderful transmutations, we shall be reminded again of the Clazomenian philosopher and his successor Democritus.

Yet we should press the analogy much too far were we to intimate that the Greek of the elder day or any thinker of a more recent period had penetrated, even in the vaguest way, all of the mysteries that the nineteenth century has revealed in the fields of chemistry and biology. At the very most the insight of those great Greeks and of the wonderful seventeenth century philosophers who so often seemed on the verge of our later discoveries did no more than vaguely anticipate their successors of this later century. To gain an accurate, really specific knowledge of the properties of elementary bodies was reserved for the chemists of a recent epoch. The vague Greek questionings as to organic evolution were world wide from the precise inductions of a Darwin. If the mediaeval Arabian endeavored to dull the knife of the surgeon with the use of drugs, his results hardly merit to be termed even an anticipation of modern anaesthesia. And when we speak of preventive medicine of bacteriology in all its phases we have to do with a marvellous field of which no previous generation of men had even the slightest inkling.

All in all, then, those that lie before us are perhaps the most wonderful and the most fascinating of all the fields of science. As the chapters of the preceding book carried us out into a macrocosm of inconceivable magnitude, our present studies are to reveal a microcosm of equally inconceivable smallness. As the studies of the physicist attempted to reveal the very nature of matter and of energy, we have now to seek the solution of the yet more inscrutable problems of life and of mind.

I. THE PHLOGISTON THEORY IN CHEMISTRY

The development of the science of chemistry from the "science" of alchemy is a striking example of the complete revolution in the attitude of observers in the field of science. As has been pointed out in a preceding chapter, the alchemist, having a preconceived idea of how things should be, made all his experiments to prove his preconceived theory; while the chemist reverses this attitude of mind and bases his conceptions on the results of his laboratory experiments. In short, chemistry is what alchemy never could be, an inductive science. But this transition from one point of view to an exactly opposite one was necessarily a very slow process. Ideas that have held undisputed sway over the minds of succeeding generations for hundreds of years cannot be overthrown in a moment, unless the agent of such an overthrow be so obvious that it cannot be challenged. The rudimentary chemistry that overthrew alchemy had nothing so obvious and palpable.

The great first step was the substitution of the one principle, phlogiston, for the three principles, salt, sulphur, and mercury. We have seen how the experiment of burning or calcining such a metal as lead "destroyed" the lead as such, leaving an entirely different substance in its place, and how the original metal could be restored by the addition of wheat to the calcined product... Continue reading book >>


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