The Grateful Matter

Matter doesn't enjoy great prestige in our scale of values. We are so persuaded by platonic reminiscences and we consider the matter as the last tier of reality, an abstract to look at with contempt. If we change the word into an adjective, it gets even worse. To call someone a "materialist" is an insult in almost the entire world. The adjective "materialist" always involves the reproach of the selfishness, of the lack of altruism, of the kingdom of the interest above any other consideration. All of this, despite always carrying with us a precious load of matter that we call "body". Although it is true that in this case, we talk about living matter. There is even an inferior tier, the inert matter, for example, the minerals, those bodies that have never been alive.

Tabela VIII from De Sphaera estense - Cristoforo de Predis (1460 circa)

Fortunately, science in the Baroque was quite concerned about the matter, it took care of it, in an attempt to understand it. The new empirical philosophers refined their senses to get a closer look at it and, finally, the matter became comprehensible and it showed evident gratefulness, exhibiting its complexity and its harmony.

This way, scientists managed to understand the matter; the field that had a great intellectual projection was the mechanical philosophy, which achieved interesting results in the time elapsed from Galileo Galilei and Johannes Keppler's generation to Robert Hook and Isaac Newton's generation. The knowledge on the new mechanics was so relevant that for centuries, it formed a solid knowledge structure, well explained, and in constant expansion. Among all achievements from this era, the most famous and relevant one is attributed to Isaac Newton, who managed to offer a synthesis of all the mechanical knowledge of his time in the work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), published in 1687. In this work, the author owed a lot to his antecessors and contemporaries, but he didn't spare in original contributions; the most significant Newton's contribution was the introduction of the concept of gravity force, an attraction force responsible for objects falling onto the ground, among many other things, which was reflected in a simple and elegant formula which would allow to calculate positions and trajectories of objects that are part of the solar system. But, above all, Newton convinced his generation and the future ones that the material bodies, the matter itself, interacted with each other. It could sound a bit surprising that Newton's contemporaries had taken that suggestion seriously, as if a giant rocky object such as the Earth, dominated the movement of a smaller rocky body, such as the Moon, and that they both together participated in the dictatorship of the sun, about which scientists didn't have much of information, besides knowing that it was an incandescent body. Moreover, according to the daring philosopher, the apples fall from the trees thanks to the same force that moves the planets. Despite being all of these statements quite surprising, they were all supported by an important mathematical virtue, as it seemed that everything was perfectly arranged by a law according to which all bodies are attracted mutually thanks to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance. Geometry was the perfect tool for philosophers to understand and verify the relevance of this new philosophy. Newton had a lot of adversaries who opposed his ideas, so bizarre at that time, but a century later the entire scientific world was Newtonian.

The Newtonian gravitation is, perhaps, the most brilliant scientific contribution of the millennium, and one of the most influential in the development of future sciences. Perhaps, Newton had a grumpy, revengeful and megalomanic attitude; despite all of this, he was one of the most suggesting natural philosophers in history. Newton's fame at the time of his death is recognized in the words of English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744):
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light
Undoubtedly, the matter showed his gratefulness to Newton, who also claimed that the world is composed of atoms, to the despair of many. Atoms and vacuum, and the scandal of the Cartesians, believers of the existence of a universe with indefinite proportions, was huge. The new mechanics always considered the matter in a monotonous way: all bodies were materials and from its point of view, their properties were the same. For mechanics, it only existed one type of matter, which was also monochromatic. But, the mechanical philosophers were not the only ones concerned about the matter. The matter was also an object of study for the chemists, in some sense, they were the heirs of the alchemists who projected on it feelings of love and hatred, and they worked with the underground forces that allowed the combination to create substances. Newton attempted to influence the interpretation of the chemistry of his time but in this case, the matter turned elusive to him. Regarding how substances combine and how the elements are formed, the chemists were more cunning, as they possessed a more empirical knowledge linked to the experimental cabinets.

In this post, we are not going to talk about the work of all of them, but only about their urge to discover the basic elements that compose all substances found in the universe. Were these elements made up of atoms as the English John Dalton (1766-1844) suggested? The truth is that most chemists speculated that the elements were atoms that joined together to create substances. Other chemists considered that those hypotheses expressed metaphysical negligence and that it was necessary to talk only about elements and not about atoms. This controversy could seem nowadays somewhat ridiculous, but it took up precious time for many scientists of the 19th century. While lots of philosophers and chemists argued about the presence of atoms, let's not forget that nobody had managed to see such minuscule entities, nature was gradually being seen better by the eyes of the experimentators, and the number of known chemical elements was larger. The matter showed itself with prodigality and harmony; the matter of the chemists was polychrome and polyphonic. Volta's invention allowed the chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) to obtain alkaline and alkali earth elements such as the sodium, potassium, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron. Finally, he managed to prove that chlorine can be considered a new element.

It is not necessary to check the history of each one of the elements that were gradually discovered throughout the 19th century because they are simply too many, but we could affirm that behind each discovery, there was a fascinating research and a lot of sagacious investigators. In the mid 19th century scientists had already discovered dozens of elements, some of them had been discovered in ancient times, such as the iron or the copper; others were associated with the search for the philosopher's stone, such as the phosphorus, which was discovered by the German Hennig Brandt, and others were discovered thanks to the powerful chemistry of the Enlightenment, like the hydrogen or the oxygen. Substances that were considered for centuries as compounds, such as the sulfur, were proved to be elements. There were very abundant elements, such as the carbon or the silicon, and very scarce ones, such as the antimony; other elements were boring and unalterable, like the gold, or voracious, such as the oxygen.

The chemistry was a very essential science but it was very disordered at that time; prodigal in applications and controversies. The community of chemists was numerous but disorganized and plural. You could find chemists who founded prosperous industries and others who occupied prestigious university chairs and, although the problem of atomism started to become more of a concern to the latter ones, finally the controversy managed to contaminate the entire profession. What relationship existed between the chemical elements? Were they different or they all came from a single primitive, fundamental element? Some elements were similar, like the alkalines, and existed groups with a certain air of familiarity. Also, the particular chemical notation of each community was so different and the interpretation problems, so constant, that the communications between the members of that collective of scientists were getting worse.

At this point, a chemist concerned about the theoretical chemistry of the age, August Kekule (1829-1896), considered that it would be a good option to meet his colleagues from all over the world to discuss the problems of atomism and chemical elements. He convened an international chemistry congress. Aided by his French colleague Adolphe Wurtz (1817-1884), he sent a telegram to most of his colleagues, calling for a meeting at the beginning of September (1860) in Karlsruhe to reach an agreement on how to write the atomical notation. In other words, how to describe symbolically the names of the matter, which also demanded an agreement in the atoms' arrangement.

140 chemists from all corners of the world, attended the meeting. They came with the determination to reach a consensus about chemical notation and they ended up discussing the meaning of the atomical weights of the elements and the difference between atoms and molecules. The discussion resulted to be arduous and it was stimulated by the great professors, like Stanislao Cannizzaro (1826-1910), who defended the correspondence between atoms and elements, conception also shared by other famous chemists, such as Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) and Julius Lothar Meyer (1830-1895).

When the congress finished and its participants returned to their places of work, the minds of some of them still resonated with the discussions carried out in Karlsruhe. Especially in Meyer and Mendeleev's imaginations. The elements showed a strange harmony and both scientists committed themselves to design an arrangement that manifested, eloquently, the properties of each element in the context of the different possible families. Mendeleev was either lucky or convinced, and he proposed a table where each element occupied a different box, although some boxes were empty. In Mendeleev's point of view, the chemical elements were individual, like fundamental ashlars of nature, which couldn't be converted into others because their identity was a characteristic as objective as Newton's law of gravitation. The chemical elements were the voices of the matter and the chemistry, a coral science that collected the harmony of those voices. The music score was the periodic table of elements, which nowadays is known by most people in the entire world. The book where Mendeleev ended up pouring his ideas was titled "Principles of Chemistry" and it was a work written for the students in the subject. What could be a better destination for a new conception than explaining the basics of a discipline?

This way, the mechanics on one side, and the chemistry on the other studied the dead matter with great fruitfulness. The emerging physics also explored more properties of the matter, which always responded with generosity before the curiosity of the scientists. In the chemistry laboratories of the 19th century, lots of substances that apparently could only be produced by humans were synthesized, such as the urea, which proved the capacity of the human being of imitating nature. However, it was still considered that the matter presented a lack of activity and it was only active when it was stimulated. Finally, that idea went into a crisis when the chemist Henry Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered accidentally that the uranium salts could veil a photographic plate without exposing it to any kind of visible light or excessive heat. This discovery was made in 1896. The matter, moreover, could emit a strange radiation by itself and possessed his own "voice".

The matter, to the despair of those who despise it, proved in all of these stories that it demands intelligent questions to provide valuable information.

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