22: Gimme That Old-time Combustion

The two prisoners’ dinner break seems to give Gonsales a second wind. But what have they been drinking? In the after-dinner session, Gonsales gives a doubtfully coherent account of a rather strange physics experiment. Nor does it help much when he tries to explain combustion and chemical elements in terms of Aristotelian physics.

He is also fond of using personification to spice up his lecture. While not quite the same as today’s almost obligatory audio-visual and multi-media teaching aids, it does add a charming touch of style.

I think he wanted to talk some more; but they brought us our food, and I closed my ears and he, his mouth, using it only to fill his stomach.

We enjoyed philosophizing, and neither of us cared to talk about low or frivolous things. I remember he said, “I’m very upset to find a mind the quality of yours infected with common misconceptions. The pedantry of Aristotle resounds in your classrooms in France, nevertheless you must realize that all is in all. For example, in water, there is fire; in fire, water; in air, earth; and in earth, air. Although the Scholastics’ eyes bulge at this opinion, it is easier to demonstrate than to explain.

“First, I ask them whether water doesn’t engender fish. When they say it doesn’t, I tell them to dig a ditch and fill it with liquid from a pitcher. They can strain it through cheesecloth, if they wish, to meet any objections from blind people. If, after a while, they don’t find any fish, I will swallow all the water they have poured out. And if they do find some — and I don’t doubt they will — it is a convincing proof that there is salt and fire.

“After that, finding water in fire is no difficult task. Even if they choose the fire that is most detached from matter, such as comets, there is still a lot of water. If the oily humour that engenders comets is reduced to sulfur by the heat of the antiperistasis that makes the comets shine, and if that humour found no obstacle to its force in the moist cold that tempers and combats the heat, the comet would be suddenly consumed like a bolt of lightning.

“Nor will they deny that there is air in earth, unless they have never heard of the terrible earthquakes that have often shaken the mountains of Sicily. Aside from that we see that the earth is quite porous, as are even the grains of sand that it is composed of. However, no one has yet said that these pores are filled with empty space. No one will find it wrong to say, then, that air lodges in them.

“I still have to prove that there is earth in air, but I hardly have to bother, because you’re convinced of it as often as you see countless clouds of dust flying overhead.

“But let us move from simple to complex bodies. They will provide me with much more frequent examples to show that all things are in all things. Not that they change from one thing to another, as your quack professors say; I will tell them to their faces that the principles mingle, separate and recombine yet again so that what was once made water by the wise Creator of the world will always remain water. Unlike the Scholastics, I do not presuppose a theory I cannot prove.

“Thus I ask you to take a log or some other combustible material and set fire to it. The Scholastics will say that what was wood has become fire. I say no, there is no more fire now that the log is in flames than before it was set ablaze. The fire that was hidden in the log was prevented by cold and damp from extending and acting. With the aid of an external agent, it rallied its strength against the clamminess that stifled it and took the field occupied by its enemy. Thus it appears unimpeded and triumphant over its jailer.

“Do you not see how water flees from the two ends of the log and is hot and steaming from the battle it has waged? The flame you see at the top is the most subtle and most removed from matter. Consequently it is ready to return to matter as soon as possible.

“However, it forms a pyramid at a certain height to penetrate the heavy humidity of the air that resists it. As it rises, it gradually separates itself from the violent company of its hosts and spreads out because it finds nothing to prevent it.

“This negligence is very often the cause of another capture, because the fire that rises separately will sometimes wander off into a cloud. If other fires meet in number large enough to resist steam, they join, roar, thunder and flash, and the death of innocents is very often due to the animate anger of inanimate objects.

“When fire finds itself caught up in the importunate crudity of the middle region, it is not strong enough to defend itself; it yields to the discretion of the cloud, which, constrained by its weight to fall back to earth, takes its prisoner with it. This unfortunate captive in a drop of water may fall at the foot of an oak whose natural fire will invite the poor wanderer to take up lodging in it. Thus it returns to the same condition it had left a few days before.

“But let’s see what happens to the other elements that made up the log. The air goes back to where it was before, although it now mixed with vapors that the fire has spurted out every which way. It serves as a balloon to the winds, enables animals to breathe, fills the void in nature and, perhaps, will be enveloped in a drop of dew and sucked up by the thirsty leaves of the tree the fire came from. The water that the flame had chased from that throne is drawn up by heat to the cradle of all that comes from the sky and will fall back again as rain on this oak or another. The earth that had turned to ash will be cured of its sterility by the nourishing heat of the compost pile onto which it has been thrown, by the vegetative salt of a few neighbouring plants, and by the fertile waters of rivers. It may all come together near this oak, which, by the heat it generates as it grows, will attract it and make it a part of itself.

“In that way, the four elements return to the same condition they had left a few days before. In like manner, a man contains all that is needed to make up a tree; likewise, a tree contains all that is needed to make up a man. Thus, finally, all things meet in all things, but we need a Prometheus to distill it.”

Galileo and others like him, such as Cyrano, seem to have been justified in retaining Aristotle’s organic view of nature; it has re-emerged in our time as the study of ecology.

Another ancient name, Prometheus, is also mentioned in episodes 2 and 8. However, Gonsales’ Prometheus will turn out to be not a mythological figure but a real person: Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), one of the founders of modern chemistry. He created chemical terminology and discovered the composition of air, the role of oxygen in combustion, and the law of the conservation of mass, among other things. Cyrano’s outline of the knowledge of the mid-17th century is practically a shopping list — made up a hundred years in advance — for Lavoisier’s breakthroughs in science.