In the 18th Century, it was held that all flammable substances contain a mysterious, unstudied substance called "phlogiston." "Phlogisticated" substances were, upon being burned, "dephlogisticated," as the phlogiston floated into the air and the true substance (or the "calx"), the ash, was left.
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier approached the problem of combustion in 1772, and grew exasperated with the prevailing theory. His exact complaint was of a type that would make him the father of modern chemistry, and of the type that we here at AA admire so much: "One must admit that we still have so little understanding of what we call phlogiston that we cannot say anything precise about it."
This thinking put him on the road to his death by beheading.
This portrait of Madame and Monsieur Lavoisier hangs at the Met, right here in New York. It was painted by Jacques-Louis David who, at the time of its execution in 1788, tutored Madame in drawing. Lavoisier, as you may have learned back when, identified and named oxygen and hydrogen, discovered that water is the product of the two, explained combustion, sketched out the first long list of elements, rationalized chemistry's nomenclature, and confidently spelled out the Law of Conservation of Mass, for (almost) the first time. That's the half of it. David, as you also may also have learned, is the great French neoclassical painter. If your teacher didn't tell you, he also served on the Committee of Public Safety -- the ruling body of the Republic of Virtue -- and in that capacity signed Lavoisier's death warrant in 1794.
This is another painting by David, of a man who believed in phlogiston (flow-JISS-tunn). Jean-Paul Marat was a bad scientist before he was a good -- or I should say, effective -- revolutionary. He was ingenious, there is no doubt of that. His experiments with an instrument of his own devising, "the solar microscope," were deeply interesting to Benjamin Franklin. It was his conclusions that were the problem. Citing sixty-six experiments and providing seven engraved plates, Marat concluded that fire, because it cannot be matter, is thus proven to be an ingenious fluid, similar to the nervous fluid that unites the body and the soul. Ecstatically proud of his work, Marat submitted it to the Royal Academy of Science, where it was rejected by Lavoisier.
The art of drawing conclusions from experiments and observations consists of evaluating the probabilities and estimating whether they are large enough or numerous enough to constitute a proof. This type of calculation is more complicated and difficult than is generally appreciated; it requires knowledge and is beyond the capacities of most men. The common misunderstanding of the sort of calculation is fundamental to the success of charlatans, sorcerers, and alchemists, as it was in an earlier age to the suggest of magicians, enchanters, and all those who abuse or attempt to abuse the credulity of the public.
This was an argument for which Marat, the defender of reason, the strict Cartesian, was unprepared. He had, as Lavoisier had championed, conducted experiments. Was it not his right and his duty to draw thorough, logical, sublimely coherent conclusions from his experiments? No, said Lavoisier. Reason is useless unless it is disciplined by experimental recourse to nature in every step of the process. And maybe your sample size was too small.
Marat did what anyone so enraged and spurned would do: he self-published. He got his ideas out in front of "an enlightened and impartial public: it is to its tribunal that I appeal with confidence, the supreme tribunal whose decrees scientific bodies are themselves forced to respect." And, actually, he found like minds. Ever called something "mesmerizing"?
In an extraordinary moment in the history of science, Franz Anton Mesmer's wildly popular theory of animal magnetism was put to the test by a panel of experts summoned by King Louis XVI, upon which sat Lavoisier, Benjamin Franklin, and Dr. Guillotin (yes, that one), among others. Together they sat around a tub, their knees touching, and held someone's left thumb with their right hand as the attending mesmerist started the flow of magnetic substance lurking in the bottles of magnetized water, the pile of damp sand with iron fillings, the cable running from participant to participant, and, of course, the cosmos. If all went well, the magnetized individuals would be cured of maladies like back pain. The panel met weekly for three months, and concluded that there was nothing in it, though they were cautious and, like a high court, decided to rule narrowly.
The very fact that the panel met, however, spelled danger. Marat, Mesmer, and their various disciples were mounting an impressive campaign against the scientific establishment, and indeed Mesmerism was taking on a Masonic quality, with lodges and provincial affiliates. This idea of Lavoisier's -- that the untutored person is not qualified to make inferences from national phenomena; that this is a hard thing to do -- had incensed and unleashed the demagogues. These men would defend to the last their right to posit the existence of things that logic seems to require. They would create, so to speak, new phlogistons. They would continue to see (I'll let it slip) clutch hitters with their own eyes.
It is hard to say whether Lavoisier would have been executed were he not a scientist. He may have been. He was rich, somewhat obstinate, and he had collected taxes for the King. But one senses that he was finished the moment he stood up for the Royal Academy of Science before an ascendant Marat, who hated it like a first hate. Marat set about dismantling it as David went about abolishing the Royal Academy of Painting. They charged Lavoisier with the crime of collecting taxes, and they executed him on May 8, 1794, in the Place de la Revolution.
I wrote this post because it seems to me that "phlogiston" is a good metaphor for everything that is undefined, little pondered, and fiercely defended in this world. When I thought about this, I naturally thought about baseball and Lavoisi-AA. As for all the blood and gore, that just made the story interesting. (It's not a commentary on the Revolution.) A parting quote from Monsieur:
If all of chemistry/baseball can be explained in a satisfactory manner without the help of phlogiston/grit/clutch/heart/wins by a pitcher/rbi/record in postseason play, that is enough to render it infinitely likely that the principle does not exist, that it is a hypothetical substance, a gratuitous supposition. It is, after all, a principle of logic not to multiply entities unnecessarily.