Sunday, July 02, 2006

Carbon dioxide: early science and prescience.

Early science

The first person to discover carbon dioxide, and indeed to coin the word "gas", was Flemish noble Jan Baptist van Helmont, 1577 to 1644. An alchemist pursuing the Philosopher's Stone he was nevertheless enchanted by the new learning that was producing men like William Harvey, Galileo Galilei, and Francis Bacon. He was a keen experimenter and exacting observer, and the first to understand that the air of the atmosphere is composed of distinct gases.

In burning charcoal he perceived that the gas emitted, which he called "gas Sylvestre", was the same as that produced by fermentation, and that which sometimes makes the air of caves impossible to breath. "Gas Sylvestre" translates to "gas of wood" and may or may not have been related to the Alchemical Tree.

Over the years carbon dioxide (co2) has been known as gas Sylvestre, gas of Van Helmont, Spiritus Sylvestris, gas of Dr Black, aerial acid, atmospheric acid, Mephitic acid, cretaceous acid, acid of charcoal, fixed air (Priestley's term in the 1700s), Hale's solid air, and acidulated air. Most recently it has became known as "life" itself. :::[Carbon dioxide: We call it Life]

Despite being a faithful Catholic he was persecuted by the Church for his publications that took the mystery out of 'miracles'. From 1633 to 1636 he was arrested and could not publish further until 1642.


It is little know that Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine to run on plant oils, like peanut oil, and not petroleum diesel.

"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time."

OK, so it has not happened just quite yet, but my money is still on his prescience bearing out. If it were to happen on the 100 year anniversary of the statement, not only would there be pleasant side-effects like energy independence and climate change amelioration, it would also have an appealing symmetry. Even poetic justice; Rudolph Diesel was killed in some commercial intrigue while crossing the English Channel and petroleum diesel won out.

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