Today’s factismal: It was once thought that things burned by releasing phlogiston.
If I were to ask you what water is made up of, odds are you’d tell me “H2O”. But did you ever stop to wonder how we know that? The answer is “Thanks to Antoine Lavoisier, who would be 270 years old today”. Known as “the father of modern chemistry”, Antoine had a quick mind and an inquisitive spirit that was willing to do things that no-one else dared. When he was born, the standard explanation for why things burn was that there was a “spirit” in them known as phlogiston that was generated heat and light as it was released; what was left over was known as calx. But Antoine wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. Why should metal gain weight when they lost phlogiston?
Using a set of closed flasks, Antoine was able to show that gasses such as oxygen and nitrogen had different weights; before his work, everyone had thought that they were weightless or had the same weight. Even better, he was able to show that combining the different elements created new materials that had weights which could be found from the amount of each that was used. By changing chemistry from a purely qualitative science (“this plus this gives that”) to a quantitative one (” two parts hydrogen plus one part oxygen gives one part water”), he started chemists on the road to controlling the reactions and creating materials such as plastics, fertilizers, and light-weight alloys.
One of Antoine’s most famous experiments was also one of his most audacious. He wanted to prove that diamonds were made up of nothing but carbon. So he placed a large diamond into a flask and filled the flask with oxygen before sealing it. He then used a magnifying glass to set fire to the diamond. (Don’t try this at home!) After the diamond had finished burning, he was able to show that the resulting gas was the same that was produced when carbon was burned.
Sadly, Antoine’s contributions to science made him both famous and infamous. Because he lived in France during the time of the Revolution and because he came from an aristocratic family, he was soon tried on trumped-up charges and executed. Though the state formally pardoned him a year later, it nevertheless put an end to a career that changed the world.
If you’d like to honor Antoine’s memory, then why not go do a chemistry experiment today? The ACS has a website chock-full of stinky, smelly, chemistry fun: