Friday, March 03, 2006

The Alchemist's Daughter

I'm reading an interesting novel right now called The Alchemist's Daughter by Katherine McMahon. It's a historical fiction about a girl growing up in the early 1700's who follows her father's footsteps and teachings into the world of "Natural Philosophy" - what we would today call Biology. As a scientist, it's an interesting read for me because there is so much scientific knowledge that I take for granted. Daily calculations of molar concentrations, molecular weights and percentage solutions come so naturally to me that it is difficult to imagine a time before the theory of the atom. One of the large scientific debates in the novel is over the nature of fire - which was considered a primary element along with water, air and earth - and the prevailing thought is the idea of phlogistation. Fire was thought to release a material called phlogiston and an item would only be flammable until it took in as much phlogiston as it could hold. Hence when a candle is burned in an enclosed space, it will go out when the air has become saturated with phlogiston. Of course such notions seem ridiculous today - and part of me wants to scream about elemental oxygen to the characters - but there is certainly merit in the creativity of the thinkers of that age.

Oftentimes it's obvious to look at inventions - the printing press, lightbulb, steam engine, cotton gin, telephone or radio - that have changed the course of history and daily life as we know it. However, it is much less often that we think about the ideas that have impacted the world in massive ways. Revolutionary inventors are usually listed as Whitney, Edison, Bell, etc. where as Galileo, Newton, and Rutherford were geniuses as much and more. The ice breaker is often raised "What's the greatest invention before sliced bread?" but I'd like to open the discussion "What's the greatest IDEA before slicing bread?"

Think creatively and defend your answer.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog. I read this book too. The ideologies in it were overshadowed by the romantic plot, but still a decent novel. To answer your question, I would say that scientifically, atomic theory is the greatest idea of the past few centuries but outside of science and in a longer time frame democracy has had a greater impact on society as a whole.

lisa :) said...

Oh the frustration of annonymous commenters!!! I suddenly realize why all th LJ-ers out there gripe about wanting anon's to leave a name. Well, whoever you are, glad you liked the post and very interesting point. I hadn't considered Democracy as a response although I expected that someone might say Civil Rights (although maybe that's not a precursor to sliced bread - when was sliced bread invented???). And any defense for your answer of atomic theory? Do you mean theory of the atom or atom splitting? Rutherford or Einstein - take your pick. (And yes the romance side of the novel was a bit schmaltzy but you have to admit that the ending was pure genius!!)

Greg said...

>>when was sliced bread invented?<<

BTW... I can't think of just one answer to your original question... so many to choose from! =) Although, maybe the invention of the fax machine? Haha.