Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 34.djvu/228

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ciate with the action of oxygen, then of course unknown)—a generalization useful in itself, and accompanied by an explanation which was not in its origin objectionable. Let us consider, in illustration, any familiar instance of oxidation, and try to look first for what was reasonable in the eighteenth-century views of the cause of such phenomena. A piece of dry wood has in it the power of giving out heat and light when set on fire; but after it is consumed there is left of it only inert ashes, which can give neither. Something, then, has left the wood in the process of becoming ashes; virtue has gone out of it, or, as we should say, its potential energy has gone.

This is, so far, an important observation, extending over a wide range of phenomena, and, if it had presented itself to the predecessors of Newton, it would probably have been allied to the vibratory theories, and become proportionately fruitful. But to his disciples, and to chemists and others who, without being perhaps disciples, were, like all then, more or less consciously influenced by the materiality of the corpuscular theory, it appeared that this also was a material emanation, that this energy was an actual ingredient of the wood—a crudeness of conception which seems most strange to us, but it is not, perhaps, unaccountable in view of the then current thought.

I have said that the progress of science is not so much that of an army as of a crowd of searchers, and that a call in a false direction may be responded to, not by one only, but by the whole body. In illustration, observe that during the greater part of the entire eighteenth century this doctrine was adopted by almost every chemist and by most physicists. It had quite as general an acceptance among scientific men then as the kinetic theory of gases, for instance, has now, and, as far as time is any test of truth, it was tested more severely than the kinetic theory has yet been; for it was not only the lamp and guide of chemists, and, to a great extent, of physicists also, but it remained the time-honored and highest generalization of chemico-physical science for over half a century, and it was accepted not so much as a conditional hypothesis as a final guide and a conquest for truth which should endure always. And now where is it? Dissipated so utterly from men's minds that, to the unprofessional part of even an educated audience like this, "phlogiston," once a name to conjure with, has become an unmeaning sound.

There is no need to insist on the application of the obvious moral to hypotheses of our own day. I have tried to recall for a moment all that "phlogiston" meant a little more than a hundred years ago, partly because it seems to me that, though a chemical conception, physics is not wholly blameless for it, but chiefly because before it quitted the world it appears to have returned to