The Phlogiston: Not Quite Vindicated


Phlogiston Theory was an attempt, in the 17th century to rectify a problem in the practice of alchemy. You see, the Greeks believed that there were four elements in nature: earth, air, fire, and water. But when all you have is these four elements and everything in nature is comprised of only these four substances, then how to you explain wood burning and metal rusting? What process is taking place?

Phlogiston Theory throws out air and fire and then states that everything that is combustible contains another element called phlogiston that is liberated during combustion or oxidation. At the time it made perfect sense. When wood burns, it grows smaller and the flames might look like something released from within the wood, and when iron rusts, it crumbles into dust, possibly after having lost whatever held it together in the first place.

Phlogsiton is a massless, colorless, odorless, (etc.) substance. It is a substance completely without identifying qualities. And we know how scientists love things without qualities. It’s a lovely theory because at its outset, it is very tricky to disprove. It took over a hundred years to dethrone it as the dominant theory of combustion. Today we know, of course, that combustion is rapid oxidation of a flammable material and that rust or corrosion is a slower version of the same natural process. In Phlogiston Theory, the fact that iron oxide is heavier than pure iron was reconciled by positing that phlogiston has negative mass!

Hilarious, I know. But is it really so unreasonable?

In the most recent (double!) issue of Analog Magazine, Dr. Don Lincoln speaks out about the ludicrous controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). His purpose is largely to allay fears that it’s going to destroy the world and generate some interest in the new, tasty bits of knowledge that it might allow us to discover. Throughout the article, he goes into some pretty serious depth about theoretical particle physics and what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know, and what we want to know about it. In particular, he focuses on two things: the Higgs Boson and gravitons.

I’ll be getting back to phlogiston in a moment, so bear with me.

As you are possibly, there are four forces acting in the universe: the strong, the weak, electromagnetism, and gravity. Since we know that there is a particle associated with the first three (and the strongest) forces, it is theorized that there is a fourth particle called a graviton that is associated with the gravitational force. Now, since gravity is the problem child of the four forces, with very little resemblance to any of its associates, we are bound by the principles of science to test the royal crap out of the theory in an attempt to prove it wrong.

But it’s not so easy.

What I’m saying is, we have to entertain the possibility that the graviton is a phlogiston, which we might, for the moment, define as “something that we make up in order to fill a gap in our current understanding of some subject.”

So how does a phlogiston differ from a hypothesis?

Even more “phlogistic” than the graviton is the Higgs Boson. If it exists, we can pat ourselves on the back for unifying the weak force and electromagnetism (electroweak). In fact, the current Standard Model of particle physics depends on its existence. It’s entirely possible that we are, in essence, making it up to explain the way the world works. Granted, these hypotheses and theories are based on tremendous mountains of verified evidence and extrapolated outward from them, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the world and it’s very possible that whole other models could be constructed that would fit our current data.

Who knows? When the LHC is activated later this year, it might generate data that would topple the Standard Model completely. It seems unlikely, but it’s entirely possible. The point is, the Higgs Boson might not be a phlogiston much longer now that we can actually test it.

Perhaps the most phlogistic of all theories (aside from Phlogiston Theory) is String Theory, and it has to be one of my all time favorites. I ate Brian Green’e book like a hobo eats pork’n’beans! It’s a marvelous theory. “Elegant” is perhaps the best word for it and if the world has any sense of artfulness (think Oscar Wilde, here), then String Theory has to be correct. But is it?

As a side note, it’s interesting how the Higgs Boson theory, the newer theories of gravity, and String Theory all seem to predict extra dimensions.

Anyway, I don’t necessarily mean to say that all theories are phlogistic until they have evidence to support them. Some are definitely going to be more phlogistic than others. Some, like String Theory, are likely to remain phlogistons until we can find some way of observing something tinier than the tiniest thing the human mind can conceive.

In the end, what we must understand about Phlogiston Theory, as a bit of science history, is that it was actually quite reasonable at the time. We must remember that European scientific inquiry for much of the Middle Ages was based on the assumption that the Greeks had got it right. Suddenly, the four elements idea wasn’t holding up, which meant that they were being questioned for the first time since Aristotle. Johann Becher, the scientist who first posited Phlogiston Theory, was engaging in a profoundly scientific act: he posed a hypothesis. Granted, he lacked follow-through, like attempting to test the hypothesis through experimentation, but he revised the Standard Model of the day and, since most philosophers were rationalists (he was, after all, a contemporary of Descartes), experimentation wasn’t necessarily required for a theory to become accepted. In point of fact, while it was technically possible at the time to test the theory, the techniques simply hadn’t been devised yet to test it.

The thing to take home: phlogiston was disproved a lot quicker than the Greeks’ four elements.

So let’s re-define a phlogiston thusly: a theory composed to fill a gap in understanding that is not yet possible to test thoroughly.

And let’s not judge Phlogiston Theory too harshly, because honestly, it was an improvement, but also because we might be assuming a hefty handful of phlogistic nonsense ourselves. Stay skeptical, but continue to indulge the occasional case of whimsy, because you never know just where the solution to some problem might appear. At least phlogiston got people thinking again.

Credit for pointing out Phlogiston Theory to me is owed to my friend, Jessymandias.


4 thoughts on “The Phlogiston: Not Quite Vindicated

  1. Scientists love things without qualities? The whole emergent properties of quantum mechanics yet no traceable electron is not something I love so much, and I don’t think others love it so much either!

  2. To be fair, I was shooting for sarcasm. I suppose I could have been a little clearer, but I don’t like it when people beat me over the head with their jokes, so I try not to do it myself, and sometimes it can cause problems.

    Regardless, Lisa, I’m in total agreement with you!

  3. I discovered the graviton particle.
    It simply creates gravity & inertia by bumping into things. Every atom has at least one graviton particle in orbit around it.
    Alfred Herman Schrader

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