The surprising truth behind many of the most cherished "facts" in science history
Morse invented the telegraph, Bell the telephone, Edison the light bulb, and Marconi the radio . . . right? Well . . . the truth is slightly more complicated. The history of science and technology is riddled with apocrypha, inaccuracies, and falsehoods, and physicist Tony Rothman has taken it upon himself to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Combining a storyteller's gifts with a scientist's focus and hardheaded devotion to the facts-such as they may be-Rothman breaks down many of the most famous "just-so" stories of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and technology to give credit where credit is truly due. From Einstein's possible misunderstanding of his own theories to actress Hedy Lemarr's role in the invention of the radio-controlled torpedo, he dredges his way through the legends of science history in relating the fascinating stories behind some of the most important, and often unsung, breakthroughs in science.
Tony Rothman, PhD (Bryn Mawr, PA), is a Research Associate at Bryn Mawr College. He is the author of seven other critically acclaimed science books and a frequent contributor to leading science publications, including Scientific American and Discover.
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And Other Fables from Science and Technology
By Tony Rothman
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
1 /The Mafia Invents the Barometer
Textbooks mention half of him: "Other units [for pressure] in common
use are the atmosphere, the millimeter of mercury, or torr, and the millibar."
Gads. It is a damnation of the highest caliber: He has been magnified
from a person to a unit and lost his name. Truncated and lowercased,
proof positive that he has faded into the cultural background like his
invention, which hangs uselessly on the walls of seafood restaurants.
Sometimes writers do let drop his entire name. The reference is invariably
laconic: "Another instrument used to measure pressure is the common
barometer, invented by Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647)." Air pressure,
barometer. Ah. Once in a great while, when an author turns reckless, Torricelli
flickers momentarily in human form. Berte Bolle, from his history
of the barometer, bravely:
Torricelli set up his tube of more than 33 feet (10 meters) long in his
house with the top protruding through the roof. He floated a small
wooden dummy on the water at the top of the tube; in bad weather the
height of the water column fell so muchthat the dummy could not be
seen from the road whereas in fine weather it floated high and clear for
all to see. It was soon rumoured that master Torricelli was in league with
the devil and the water barometer was quickly removed!
We are convinced. But wait. In Sheldon Glashow's account, Torricelli
carries on his heretical work, darting around the quayside to the delight of
onlookers. Rumors, evidently-and the Inquisition-failed to deter him:
"Torricelli filled long tubes, sealed at one end, with liquids such as honey,
wine and seawater, and lashed them upright to ships' masts. He found
that the height of the column depended only upon the total weight of the
Isaac Asimov, eschewing drama for knowledge, provides a complete
tale for his readers' edification. The immortal Galileo, Torricelli's boss,
suggested that his assistant investigate why water pumps failed to raise
water more than ten meters above its natural level. Those were the days.
Science was called philosophy, Aristotle held sway, and Nature abhorred a
vacuum. Galileo's position was purely Aristotelian: Pumps create a partial
vacuum above the water, and the water rushes in to fill it. The vacuum
sucks. Evidently, however, the vacuum's ability to suck had limits-about
ten meters. Asimov relays Torricelli's thoughts:
It occurred to Torricelli that the water was lifted, not because it was
pulled up by the vacuum, but because it was pushed up by the normal
pressure of air. After all, the vacuum in the pump produced a low air
pressure, and the normal air outside the pump pushed harder.
In 1643, to check this theory, Torricelli made use of mercury. Since
mercury's density is 13.5 times that of water, air should be able to lift it
only 1/13.5 times as high as water, or 30 inches. Torricelli filled a 6-foot
length of glass tubing with mercury, stoppered the open end, upended it
in a dish of mercury, unstoppered it, and found the mercury pouring
out of the tube, but not altogether: 30 inches of mercury remained, as
Admirable detail. We feel as if we are face-to-face with Torricelli. "Hand
me the mercury," he says. Totally irreconcilable, then, is this remark retrieved
from cyberspace: "In 1643, Torricelli proposed his experiment,
which was carried out by his colleague Viviani."
The truth is, no one is entirely sure what happened. We do know they
were Italians and they were friends. Today they would form a research
group. When the research group monopolizes a territory we call it a mafia.
Then, as now, the senior scientist receives the credit. To understand what
no one is certain about, we return to the dawn of the seventeenth century.
The Counter-Reformation in Europe is under way, the Inquisition is heating
up, Galileo condescendingly ignores Kepler's discovery that planetary
orbits are ellipses rather than circles, Newton has yet to be born. On the
ground, the outstanding philosophical question of the age boils: Is a vacuum
No. The answer is obvious; let's be off to today's witch trial. That, at
least, is the current universal opinion, nineteen hundred years old. Any
objection will be met by a citation from the supreme authority, Aristotle.
Aristotle, in his celebrated phrase, declared, "Nature abhors a vacuum."
(Whatever Aristotle declared, he declared in ancient Greek, but this is
how it is usually translated, and he believed it.) Aristotle adduced a number
of arguments against the vacuum, both physical and logical. You must
first understand that in Aristotle's world-and in the world of the sixteenth
century-there are no atoms. Water is a continuous substance.
Dividing water into finer and finer pieces leads only to finer and finer
pieces, ad infinitum. There is no reason to suppose that the division will
lead to a state composed of ultimate particles between which is nothing.
No, the universe is full, a plenum. What is more, in the pre-Galilean
world, there is no concept of inertia, the idea that without interference an
object travels at a constant velocity. Rather, the velocity of an object depends
on the resistance of the medium through which it travels. A void-a
vacuum-provides no resistance. Therefore the velocity of an object
traveling through a void should be infinite. This is clearly nonsense.
Those are physical arguments that Aristotle brought against the vacuum.
His main logical argument was that the position of an object-its
place-is always understood to be within the inner limits of a surrounding
body. Nonphilosophers call this a container. But the void has no
properties. An object within it cannot be said to be in any sort of place.
Neither could an object be said to move within a void (because it has no
properties to distinguish places). Therefore an object cannot have a place
unless it is within some substance. A vacuum is logically impossible.
If a vacuum is logically impossible, that would mean that God could
not produce one if he wished. This troubled thirteenth-century theologians.
For that reason, by the seventeenth century people were willing to
discuss the issue. Yet the prevailing opinion was that a vacuum was at least
a physical impossibility, if not a logical one.
In the Contemporary Panopticon of Present and Past Concepts, the
exhibits on vacuum and pressure are housed side by side. This way, please.
From our perspective, it is difficult to see how a sensible concept of vacuum
could emerge without a sensible concept of pressure. An anonymous
thirteenth-century pupil of the philosopher Jean de Nemore understood
that pressure in a liquid increased with depth, but the publication of
Nemore's book in which the discussion appears was delayed for three centuries.
Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) seems to have accepted the idea of a
vaccum and in 1614 wrote in his journal that air has weight and exerts
pressure on bodies below, which increases with the depth of the air.
Despite such isolated beacons of insight, a clear understanding of pressure
was not to be had. Air is weightless.
Two years before Beeckman grasped the essentials, Galileo, in a fit of
pique, expressed this universal wisdom: "Even if we then add a very large
quantity of water above [the solid], we shall not on that account increase
the pressure or weight of the parts surrounding the said solid." A year
after Beeckman, in 1615, Galileo continued his denials: "Note that all the
air in itself and above the water weighs nothing.... Nor let anyone be
surprised that all the air weighs nothing at all, because it is like water."
Against this background Giovanni Batista Baliani (1582-1666), from
Genoa, wrote to Galileo in 1630 to report the results of an experiment.
He had attempted to siphon water from a reservoir over a hill about
twenty-one meters tall, and the siphon failed to perform. The siphon, in a
procedure known to gasoline thieves today, was initially filled with water
and laid over the hill, but when the tube was unstoppered, the water level
on the reservoir side dropped back to about ten meters. Mystery? Not to
Galileo. He condescended to reply to Baliani that the answer was obvious:
The force of the vacuum raised the water, but the strength of the vacuum
was limited to ten meters. Baliani was closer to the mark: He believed that
a vacuum was possible and that water and air had weight.
He also had friends. Of the right sort. They included Raffaello Magiotti,
Evangelista Torricelli, Emmanuel Maignan, Athanasius Kircher, Niccolo
Zucchi, and, evidently, Gasparo Berti. This was the Roman mafia. Somewhere
between 1639 and 1641-the dates have been eliminated-Berti
performed an experiment at his house in Rome. The mafiosi Kircher,
Magiotti, and Zucchi were there; Maignan was absent; and Torricelli's
whereabouts are unknown. Four accounts exist of the experiment, three
by the eyewitnesses and one by Maignan, who was informed of the proceedings
by Berti a week later. The accounts differ on the details; over the
interpretation of the results they came to blows.
According to Maignan, "one of the keenest minds of the seventeenth
century," the experiment was set up roughly as follows. Berti clamped a
long leaden tube, at least "forty palms" in height, to the outside of his
house. The bottom of the tube, which ended in a barrel of water, was fitted
with a valve. Over the top end of the tube was sealed a glass flask,
which was also fitted with a stopcock. The experimenters closed the bottom
stopcock, then from a tower window filled the entire tube, including
the glass flask, through the upper valve. The upper stopcock was closed,
the bottom one opened.
The water level falls-but not completely. The experimenters lower a
sounding line into the tube to determine the height of the water. The data
are in: eighteen cubits. This is the height to which Galileo claims an air
pump can raise water. The water level stands for a day. The experiment is
repeated with variations. The data are solid. But what is the space above
the water? When the philosophers first opened the upper stopcock to lower
the sounding line, they heard a loud noise as air rushed in. Air rushing
in-that is Maignan's view. The fall of the water level in the tube therefore
must have left a vacuum behind. Fellow mafiosi are unconvinced.
The plenists argue that air seeped in through the pores of the lead or the
glass in order to fill up the space left by the falling water. Kircher, apparently,
suggests putting a small bell into the glass bulb and attracting the
clapper to one side with a magnet. If within the flask exists a vacuum, no
sound will be heard. Maignan objects that the glass itself will conduct the
sound, and no documents in the Panopticon make clear whether the
experiment is ever carried out.
Today the breakthrough would have won a Nobel prize. Then, news
was kept in the family. They were a congenial bunch, judging from the
letters among them, reveling in the vistas of the Golden Age that opened
before them. They may have also held doubts about the Inquisition. Vacuums,
you know. In 1648, some years after Berti's experiment, Raffaello
Magiotti, who was there, wrote a letter to Father Mersenne in Paris, mentioning
that he had told Torricelli about Berti's tube and that "they" had
since made many demonstrations with quicksilver. They.
The mercury connection. Torricelli, born on October 15, 1608, had
attended the University of Rome and had become a recognized mathematician.
They say he was charming. By the end of 1641 he had become
Galileo's assistant, but Galileo died only three months later, to be followed
by Torricelli himself in 1647. In the meantime Grand Duke Ferdinand II
made Torricelli philosopher and mathematician in Florence, a joint appointment
rarely encountered today. He remained in Florence, publishing until
he perished, we hope in better circumstances than Galileo.
The idea for using mercury in a device similar to Berti's may have come
from that archfoe of air pressure, Galileo (perhaps he had repented). In a
copy of the original edition of Galileo's Discorsi of 1638, there appears a
marginal note made in the hand of his assistant of the time, Vincenzio
Viviani, "with the approval of Galileo himself." The note reads, "It is my
belief that the same result will follow in other liquids, such as quicksilver,
wine, oil, etc., in which the rupture will take place at a lesser or greater
height than 18 braccia, according to the greater or lesser specific gravity
[density] of these liquids in relation to that of water." Viviani is a great
friend of Torricelli. Ah.
Events become obscure. The first full account of Torricelli's famous
experiment, described by Asimov and Bolle in hyperrealistic detail, comes
nineteen years after the fact. In 1663, one Calo Dati, a pupil of Torricelli,
pseudonymously published letters from Torricelli to his best friend,
Michelangelo Ricci, who may also have been present at Berti's experiment.
These letters report the first experiments with mercury, that is, the
On June 11, 1644, Ricci wrote to Torricelli, "I live in a great desire to
know the success of those experiments that you indicated to me." Torricelli
penned his celebrated reply the same day:
I have already hinted to you that some sort of philosophical experiment
was being done concerning the vacuum, not simply to produce a vacuum
but to make an instrument which might show the changes of the
air, now heavier and coarser, now lighter and more subtle. Many have
said that [the vacuum] cannot happen; others say that it happens, but
with the repugnance of nature.
Torricelli goes on to espouse his own view that the vacuum is not the
issue and that one can be produced. Then the immortal phrase "Noi viviamo
sommersi nel fondo d'un pelago d'aria elementare":
We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of elementary air, which
is known by incontestible experiments to have weight, and so much
weight that the heaviest part near the surface of the earth weighs about
one four-hundredth as much as water.
He goes on to say, "We have made many glass vessels ... with necks
two ells long." We. The tubes, closed at one end, were filled with mercury,
so that no air remained at the closed end, then inverted in a basin of mercury;
as Asimov describes, the mercury falls, but not completely. Torricelli
clearly understands that it is not the vacuum exerting an insufficient force
on the quicksilver:
I assert ... that the force comes from outside. On the surface of the liquid
in the basin presses a height of fifty miles of air; yet what a marvel it
is, if the quicksilver enters the glass [tube] ... it rises to the point of
which it is in balance with the weight of the external air that is pushing
it! Water, then ...
Excerpted from Everything's Relative
by Tony Rothman
Copyright © 2003 by Tony Rothman.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPreface.
Lapses, Sources, and Acknowledgments.
I. THE DOMAIN OF PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY.
1. The Mafia Invents the Barometer.
2. The Riddle of the Sphinx: Thomas Young’s Experiment.
3. Joseph Henry and the (Near) Discovery of (Nearly) Everything.
4. Neptune: The Greatest Triumph in the History of Astronomy, or the Greatest Fluke?
5. Invisible Light: The Discovery of Radioactivity.
6. Light, Ether, Corpuscles, and Charge: The Electron.
7. Einstein’s Miraculous Year (and a Few Others).
8. What Did the Eclipse Expedition Really Show? And Other Tales of General Relativity.
9. Two Quantum Tales: Bohr and Hydrogen, Dirac and the Positron.
10. A Third Quantum Tale: Southpaw Electrons and Discounted Luncheons.
II. THE DOMAIN OF TECHNOLOGY.
11. What Hath God Wrought? Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Samuel Morse, and the Telegraph.
12. Fiat Lux: Edison, the Incandescent Bulb, and a Few Other Matters.
13. “Magna Est Veritas et Praevalet”: The Telephone.
14. A Babble of Incoherence: The Wireless Telegraph, a.k.a. Radio.
15. Mind-Destroying Rays: Television.
16. Plausibility: The Invention of Secret Electronic Communication.
III. THE DOMAIN OF CHEMISTRY AND BIOLOGY.
17. The Evolution of Evolution: Erasmus, Charles, Gregor, and Ronald.
18. Dreams with Open Eyes: Kekulé, Benzene, and Loschmidt.
19. Chance, Good and Bad: Penicillin.
IV. THE DOMAIN OF MATHEMATICS: CLOSED FOR RENOVATION.
References and Notes.
What People are Saying About This
"If you were not a sceptic about the mythology of discovery, you will be one after reading Tony Rothman's fascinating book. It's an assemblage of compelling antistories, all eminently readable, to counter the stories scientists tell themselves, and then tell us. And that we...are all too eager to hear." —Roald Hoffman, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry