photo of an ancient document showing some of the symbols commonly used by alchemists

Alchemical symbols

Understanding of the alchemists is hampered by their predilection for making their writings incomprehensible ( instant knowledge was not to be available to the uninitiated ) and the popular view that their quest was simply to isolate the Philosophers’ Stone and to use it to transform base metals into gold. There was in fact a genuine search for mental and spiritual advance

Using a world-view totally unlike that recognised today, the alchemists’ ideas of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ were intermingled – the ability to use ‘spirit’ in their experiments was the difficult part.

alchemical symbol for gold

To transform copper to gold: – copper could be heated with sulphur to reduce it to its ‘basic form’ (a black mass which is in fact copper sulphide) – its ‘metallic form’ being ousted by the treatment. The idea of introducing the ‘form of gold’ to this mass by manipulating and mixing suitable quantities of spirit stymied alchemists for over fifteen centuries.

Whilst this transmutation of metals was the mainstream concern of alchemy, there emerged in the sixteenth century a school that brought the techniques and philosophies of alchemy to bear on the preparation of medicines, the main figures involved being PARACELSUS and JOHANN VAN HELMONT.

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Noticing that burning a candle in an upturned container, the open end of which is submerged in water, causes the water to rise into the container, Philon of Byzantium inferred correctly that some of the air in the container had been used up in the combustion. However, he proposed that this is because this portion of the air had been converted into ‘fire particles’, which were smaller than ‘air particles’.

In 1700 the German physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734) invoked ‘phlogiston’ to explain what happens when things burn. He suggested that a burning substance was losing an undetectable elementary principle analogous to the ‘sulfur’ of J’BIR IHBIN AYAM, which he re-named ‘phlogiston’. This could explain why a log (rich in phlogiston) could seem to be heavier than its ashes (deficient in phlogiston). The air that is required for burning served to transport the phlogiston away.

The English chemist JOSEPH PRIESTLY (1733-1804), although a supporter of the phlogiston theory, ironically contributed to its downfall. He heated mercury in air to form red mercuric oxide and then applied concentrated heat to the oxide and noticed that it decomposed again to form mercury whilst giving off a strange gas in which things burnt brightly and vigorously. He concluded that this gas must be ‘phlogiston poor’.

Priestly combined this result with the work of the Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), who had found that keeping a mouse in an enclosed airtight space resulted in its death (by suffocation) and that nothing could be burnt in the enclosed atmosphere; he formed the idea that the trapped air was so rich in phlogiston that it could accept no more. Rutherford called this ‘phlogisticated air’ and so Priestly called his own gas ‘dephlogisticated air’.

In 1774 Priestley visited the French chemist ANTOINE LAVOISIER (1743-1794).
Lavoisier repeated Priestly’s experiments with careful measurements.
Reasoning that air is made up of a combination of two gases – one that will support combustion and life, another that will not; what was important about Lavoisier’s experiments was not the observation – others had reached a similar conclusion – but the interpretation.

Lavoisier called Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’, ‘oxygene’, meaning ‘acidifying principle’, believing at the time that the active principle was present in all acids (it is not). He called the remaining, ‘phlogisticated’, portion of normal air, ‘azote’, meaning ‘without life’

Oxygen is the mirror image of phlogiston. In burning and rusting (the two processes being essentially the same) a substance picks up one of the gases from the air. Oxygen is consumed, there is no expulsion of ‘phlogiston’.

Lavoisier had been left with almost pure nitrogen, which makes up about four fifths of the air we breath. We now know azote as nitrogen. Rutherford’s ‘mephitic air’ was carbon dioxide.


Like phlogiston, caloric was a weightless fluid, rather like elemental fire, a quality that could be transmitted from one substance to another, so that the first warmed the second up.

It was believed that all substances contained caloric and that when a kettle was being heated over a fire, the fuel gave up its caloric to the flame, which passed it into the metal, which passed it on to the water. Similarly, two pieces of wood rubbed together would give heat because abrasion was releasing caloric trapped within.

What is being transmitted is heat energy. It was the crucial distinction between the physical and the chemical nature of substances that confused the Ancients and led to their minimal elemental schemes.




bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

1637 – France

Cogito ergo sum‘ – The result of a thought experiment resolving to cast doubt on any and all of his beliefs, in order to discover which he was logically justified in holding.

Descartes argued that although all his experience could be the product of deception by an evil daemon, the demon could not deceive him if he did not exist.

His theory that all knowledge could be gathered in a single, complete science and his pursuit of a system of thought by which this could be achieved left him to speculate on the source and the truth of all existing knowledge. He rejected much of what was commonly accepted and only recognised facts that could intuitively be taken as being beyond any doubt.

His work ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ (1641) is centered on his famous maxim. From this he would pursue all ‘certainties’ via a method of systematic, detailed mental analysis. This ultimately led to a detached, mechanistic interpretation of the natural world, reinforced in his metaphysical text ‘Principia Philosophiae‘ (1644) in which he attempted to explain the universe according to the single system of logical, mechanical laws he had earlier envisaged and which, although largely inaccurate, would have an important influence even after Newton. He envisaged the human body as subject to the same mechanical laws as all matter; distinguished only by the mind, which operated as a distinct, separate entity.

Through his belief in the logical certainty of mathematics and his reasoning that the subject could be applied to give a superior interpretation of the universe came his 1637 appendix to the ‘Discourse’, entitled ‘La Geometrie‘, Descartes sought to describe the application of mathematics to the plotting of a single point in space.

This led to the invention of ‘Cartesian Coordinates’ and allowed geometric expressions such as curves to be written for the first time as algebraic equations. He brought the symbolism of analytical geometry to his equations, thus going beyond what could be drawn. This bringing together of geometry and algebra was a significant breakthrough and could in theory predict the future course of any object in space given enough initial knowledge of its physical properties and movement.

Descartes showed that circular motion is in fact accelerated motion, and requires a cause, as opposed to uniform rectilinear motion in a straight line that has the property of inertia – and if there is to be any change in this motion a cause must be invoked.

By the 1660s, there were two rival theories about light. One, espoused by the French physicist Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) held that it was a stream of tiny particles, traveling at unimaginably high-speed. The other, put forward by Descartes, suggested that instead of anything physically moving from one place to another the universe was filled with some material (dubbed ‘plenum’), which pressed against the eyes. This pressure, or ‘tendency of motion’, was supposed to produce the phenomenon of sight. Some action of a bright object, like the Sun, was supposed to push outwards. This push was transmitted instantaneously, and would be felt by the human eye looking at a bright object.

There were problems with these ideas. If light is a stream of tiny particles, what happens when two people stand face-to-face looking each other in the eye? And if sight is caused by the pressure of the plenum on the eye, then a person running at night should be able to see, because the runner’s motion would make the plenum press against their eyes.

Descartes original theory is only a small step to a theory involving pulses of pressure spreading out from a bright object, like the pulses of pressure that would travel through water if you slap the surface, and exactly equivalent to pressure waves which explain how sound travels outward from its source.

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BLAISE PASCAL (1623- 62)

1647 – France



‘When pressure is applied anywhere to an enclosed fluid, it is transmitted uniformly in all directions’

EVANGELISTA TORICELLI (1608-47) had argued that air pressure falls at higher altitudes.

Using a mercury barometer, Pascal proved this on the summit of the 1200m high Puy de Dome in 1647. His studies in this area led to the development of PASCAL’S PRINCIPLE, the law that has practical applications in devices such as the car jack and hydraulic brakes. This is because the small force created by moving a lever such as the jacking handle in a sizable sweep equates to a large amount of pressure sufficient to move the jack head a few centimetres.
The unit of pressure is now termed the pascal.

‘The study of the likelihood of an event’

Together with PIERRE DE FERMAT, Pascal developed the theory of probabilities (1654) using the now famous PASCAL’S TRIANGLE.

Chance is something that happens in an unpredictable way. Probability is the mathematical concept that deals with the chances of an event happening.

Probability theory can help you understand everything from your chances of winning a lottery to your chances of being struck by lightning. You can find the probability of an event by simply dividing the number of ways the event can happen by the total number of possible outcomes.
The probability of drawing an ace from a full pack of cards is 4/52 or 0.077.

Probability ranges from 1 (100%) – Absolutely certain, through Very Likely 0.9 (90%) and Quite Likely 0.7 (70%), Evens (Equally Likely) 0.5 (50%), Not Likely 0.3 (30%) and Not Very Likely 0.2 (20%), to Never – Probability 0 (0%).

Picture of the 'Pascaline'. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the a mechanical calculation machine. He called it the Pascaline. The Pascaline was made out of clock gears and levers and could solve basic mathematical problems like addition and subtraction.


The computer language Pascal is named in recognition of his invention in 1644 of a mechanical calculating machine that could add and subtract.


Like many of his contemporaries, Pascal did not separate philosophy from science; in his book ‘Pensees’ he applies his mathematical probability theory to the problem of the existence of God. In the absence of evidence for or against God’s existence, says Pascal, the wise man will choose to believe, since if he is correct he will gain his reward, and if he is incorrect he stands to lose nothing.

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1783 – France

‘ Frenchmen Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and his brother Jacques-Etienne (1745-99) observed a simple natural phenomenon and realised the ‘unachievable’ ‘

Replica of the historic Montgolfier hot air balloon in flight. --- Image by © Skyscan/CORBIS ©

Replica of the historic Montgolfier hot air balloon in flight

Photograph of a statue depicting the MONTGOLFIER BROTHERS ©


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1785 – France

‘The force of attraction or repulsion between two charges is directly proportional to the product of the two charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

The region around a charged object where it exerts a force is called its electric field. Another charged object placed in this field will have a force exerted on it. Coulomb’s rule is used to calculate this force.

Coulomb, a French physicist, made a detailed study of electrical attractions and repulsions between various charged bodies and concluded that electrical forces follow the same type of law as gravitation. Coulomb found a similar principle linking the relationship of magnetic forces. He believed electricity and magnetism, however, to be two separate ‘fluids’.
It was left to HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED, ANDRE-MARIE AMPERE and MICHAEL FARADAY to enunciate the phenomenon of electromagnetism.

The SI unit of electric charge, coulomb (C), one unit of which is shifted when a current of one ampere flows for one second, is named in his honour.

He also articulated Coulomb’s rule of friction, which outlines a proportional relationship between friction and pressure.

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1787 – France

‘The volume of a given mass of gas at constant pressure is directly proportional to its absolute temperature’

Portrait of Jacques_Charles ©


In other words, if you double the temperature of a gas, you double its volume. In equation form:  V/T = constant, or  V1/T1 = V2/T2,  where  V1 is the volume of the gas at a temperature  T1 (in kelvin) and  V2 the new volume at a new temperature  T2.

This principle is now known as Charles’ Law (although sometimes named after GAY-LUSSAC because of his popularisation of it fifteen years later – Gay Lussac’s experimental proof was more accurate than Charles’).
It completed the two ‘gas laws’.

A fixed amount of any gas expands equally at the same increments in temperature, as long as it is at constant pressure.

Likewise for a decline in temperature, all gases reduce in volume at a common rate, to the point at about minus 273degrees C, where they would theoretically converge to zero volume. It is for this reason that the kelvin temperature scale later fixed its zero degree value at this point.

CHARLES’ Law and BOYLE‘s Law may be expressed as a single equation, pV/T = constant. If we also include AVOGADRO‘s law, the relationship becomes pV/nT = constant, where n is the number of molecules or number of moles.

The constant in this equation is called the gas constant and is shown by R
The equation – known as the ideal gas equation – is usually written as pV = nRT

Strictly, it applies to ideal gases only. An ideal gas obeys all the assumptions of the kinetic theory of gases. There are no ideal gases in nature, but under certain conditions all real gases approach ideal behaviour.

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poster describing the combined gas laws

Combined Gas Laws


1789 – France

‘In a chemical reaction, the total mass of the reacting substances is equal to the total mass of the products formed’

Mass is neither created nor destroyed in a chemical change.

Lavoisier’s Table of Elements

Lavoisier’s Table of Elements

Antoine Lavoisier made the first list of the elements, established the idea of conservation of mass and discovered the true nature of burning and the role of oxygen. Lavoisier continued the work of ROBERT BOYLE. He radically reformed the concept of chemistry and killed off the ARISTOTLEIAN concepts of elemental matter. Lavoisier realised that every substance can exist in three phases – solid, liquid and gas – and proved that water and air are not elements, as had been believed for centuries, but chemical compounds. He thus helped to provide a foundation for DALTON’s atomic theory. He opened the way to the idea that air not only had mass but may be a mixture of gases.

Lavoisier was instrumental in disproving the phlogiston theory, a widely held view that when substances burn they give off ‘phlogiston’, a weightless substance. The phlogiston debate owed much to ALCHEMY and said that anything burnable contained a special ‘active’ substance called phlogiston that dissolved into the air when it burned. Therefore, anything that burned must become lighter because it loses phlogiston. This had become the scientific orthodoxy.

By carefully weighing substances before and after burning, Lavoisier showed that combustion was a chemical reaction in which a fuel combined with oxygen.

He burned a piece of tin inside a sealed container and showed that it became heavier after burning, while the air became lighter.
While the overall weight of the vessel remained the same during Lavoisier’s experiments – for example when burning tin, phosphorus or sulphur in a sealed container – the solids being heated could in fact gain mass. There was no change in total mass as substances were simply changing places.
It became apparent that rather than losing something (phlogiston) to the air, the tin was taking something from it. The explanation was that the weight gain was caused by combination of the solid with the air trapped in the container.

Full length picture of LAVOISIER


After meeting JOSEPH PRIESTLY in Paris, Lavoisier realised that Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’ was not only the gas from the atmosphere that was combining with the matter but, moreover, it was actually essential for combustion. He renamed it ‘oxygen’ (‘acid producer’ in Greek) from the mistaken belief that the element was evident in the make up of all acids. He also noted the existence of the other main component of air, the inert gas nitrogen that he named ‘azote’.

Lavoisier’s wife Marie-Anne Pierrette assisted him in much of his experimental work and illustrated his book, Traite Elementaire de Chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry). The text defined a chemical element, saying that it was any substance that could not be analysed further. With this definition he compiled a list of the then known elements, which founded the naming process for chemical compounds. Lavoisier’s list contained 23 ‘elements’. Many turned out not to be elements at all, but the list included sulphur, mercury, iron and zinc, silver and gold. Lavoisier’s name is still used in the title of the modern chemical naming system.
It took John Dalton to connect the concept of elements with the concept of atoms. Dalton noticed that when elements combined to make a compound, they always did so in fixed proportions.

During the French revolution, Lavoisier was guillotined.

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1799 – France


‘Chemical compounds contain elements in definite proportions by mass’

Proust’s law is now referred to as the law of constant composition or the law of definite proportions.

Claude Berthollet (1748-1822), then the recognised leader of science in France, rejected Proust’s law. Berthollet believed that the force of chemical affinity, like gravity, must be proportional to the masses of acting substances. He suggested that the composition of chemical compounds could vary widely. Proust showed that Berthollet’s experiments were not done on pure compounds, but rather on mixtures. Thus for the first time a clear distinction was made between mixtures and compounds.

When Dalton proposed his atomic theory, Proust’s law helped to confirm the hypothesis. According to Dalton, atoms would always combine in simple whole number ratios. For example, all water molecules are alike, consisting of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Therefore, all water has the same composition.

Proust’s law has been confirmed by experiments. For example, water always contains 11.2 percent hydrogen and 88.8 percent oxygen.

In recent years chemists have discovered certain rare compounds in which elements do not combine in simple whole number ratios. These compounds are known as ‘berthollides’.
In contrast, compounds in which elements do combine in simple whole number ratios are sometimes referred to as ‘daltonides’.

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1808 – France

‘Volumes of gases which combine or which are produced in chemical reactions are always in the ratio of small whole numbers’

One volume of nitrogen and three volumes of hydrogen produce two volumes of ammonia. These volumes are in the whole number ratio of 1:3:2

N2 + 3H2 ↔ 2NH3

Along with his compatriot Louis Thenard, Gay-Lussac proved LAVOISIER’s assumption, that all acids had to contain oxygen, to be wrong.

portrait of GAY-LUSSAC ©


Gay-Lussac re-examined JACQUES CHARLES’ unpublished and little known work describing the effect that the volume of a gas at constant pressure is directly proportional to temperature and ensured that Charles received due credit for his discovery.

Alongside JOHN DALTON, Gay-Lussac concluded that once pressure was kept fixed, near zero degrees Celsius all gases increased in volume by 1/273 the original value for every degree Celsius rise in temperature. At 10degrees, the volume would become 283/273 of its original value and at – 10degrees it would be 263/273 of that same original value. He extended this relation by showing that when volume was kept fixed, gas would increase or decrease the pressure exerted on the outside of the gas container by the same 1/273 factor when temperature was shifted by a degree Celsius. This did not depend upon the gas being studied and hinted at a deep connection shared by all gases. If the volume of a gas at fixed pressure decreased by 1/273 for every 1degree drop, it would reach zero volume at -273degrees Celsius. The same was true for pressure at fixed volume. That had to be the end of the scale, the lowest possible temperature one could reach. Absolute zero.

In an 1807 gas-experiment, Gay-Lussac took a large container with a removable divider down the middle and filled half with gas and made the other half a vacuüm. When the divider was suddenly removed, the gas quickly filled the whole container. According to caloric theory, temperature was a measure of the concentration of caloric fluid and removal of the divider should have led to a drop in temperature because the fluid was spread out over a greater volume without any loss of caloric fluid. (The same amount of fluid in a larger container means lower concentration).
Evidence linking heat to mechanical energy accumulated. Expenditure of the latter seemed to lead to the former.

Gay-Lussac was an experimentalist and his law was based on extensive experiments. The explanation of why gases combine in this way came from AVOGADRO.

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1824 – France

‘The Carnot cycle is the most efficient cycle for operating a reversible heat engine’

It illustrates the principle that the efficiency of a heat engine depends on the temperature range through which it works.

The cycle has a four-stage reversible sequence:

adiabatic compression and isothermal expansion at high temperature; adiabatic expansion and isothermal compression at low temperature.

( ADIABATIC: – no heat flows into or out of a system; ISOTHERMAL: – at a constant temperature )

Carnot suggested that the puissance motrice (motive power, by which he meant work or energy) of a heat engine was derived from the fall of heat from a higher to a lower temperature.

Carnot was the first to grasp the principles that later became known as the second law of thermodynamics.

By the time of Carnot’s death it had become clear there was no such thing as a calorific fluid ; heat is a form of energy, one of many, and the sum of all forms of energy in an isolated system is conserved. This has come to be known as the first law of thermodynamics.

In the case of a steam engine, the heat taken in at the boiler is not equal to the heat removed at the condenser. The work done by the ideal engine is the difference between the two. The first modern experiment proving the first law of thermodynamics was performed by a student of John Dalton’s, JAMES JOULE.


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1827 – France

‘Two current-carrying wires attract each other if their currents are in the same direction, but repel each other if their currents are opposite. The force of attraction or repulsion (magnetic force) is directly proportional to the product of the strengths of the currents and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

portrait of ANDRE AMPERE ©


Another addition to the succession of ‘inverse-square’ laws begun with NEWTON’s law of universal gravitation.
Ampere had noted that two magnets could affect each other and wondered, given the similarities between electricity and magnetism, what effect two currents would have upon each other. Beginning with electricity run in two parallel wires, he observed that if the currents ran in the same direction, the wires were attracted to each other and if they ran in opposite directions they were repelled.

He experimented with other shapes of wires and generalised that the magnetic effect produced by passing a current in an electric wire is the result of the circular motion of that current. The effect is increased when the wire is coiled. When a bar of soft iron is placed in the coil it becomes a magnet. This is the solenoid, used in devices where mechanical motion is required.

Ampere exploited OERSTED’s work, devising a galvanometer which measured electric current flow via the degree of deflection upon its magnetic needle.

He attempted to interpret all his results mathematically in a bid to find an encompassing explanation for what later became referred to as electromagnetism (Ampere had at that time christened it electrodynamics), resulting in his 1827 definition.

Ampere’s name is commemorated in the SI unit of electric current, the ampere.

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1832 – France

‘The study of solutions of some equations and how different solutions are related to each other’

Bust depicting Evariste Galois©

Or, the study of certain groups, known as Galois groups, that can be associated with polynomial equations.
Whether or not the solutions to an equation can be written down using rational functions and square roots, cube roots, etc., depends on certain group-theoretic properties of Galois groups.

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ARMAND FIZEAU (1819- 96)

1849 – France

‘The first successful experiment to determine the speed of light’



Prior to this experiment it was believed that light had an infinite speed – although in 1676 the Danish astronomer Ole Røemer (1644-1710) had used GALILEO’s 1610 discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter to describe the way of measuring the speed of light by measuring the times at which the moons were eclipsed by Jupiter itself.
The timing of the eclipses is affected by whether the Earth is on the same side of the Sun as Jupiter, or on the opposite side. Rømer explained the differences in the eclipse timings as due to the extra time required for light from the moons to reach the Earth when it is on the opposite side of the Sun.

Diagram explaining how the speed of light may be determined from observation of the moons of Jupiter from the earth if the distance between the planets is known.

Using modern measurements, it is calculated that it takes light more than eight minutes, traveling at 300,000km per second, to reach us from the Sun, across half the diameter of the Earth’s orbit; so the maximum delay in observing an eclipse of one of the moons of Jupiter is twice that – more than a quarter of an hour.

photo portrait of ARMAND FIZEAU ©


Fizeau carried out his experiment in Paris between the belvedere of a house at Montmartre and a hill at Suresnes – a distance of 8.67 kilometres.
He placed a rotating toothed wheel with 720 gaps at Montmartre and a mirror at Suresnes. When the wheel was at rest, light passed through one gap and was reflected. When the wheel was rotated slowly the light was completely eclipsed from the observer. When the wheel was turned rapidly the reflected light passed through the next gap. Fizeau observed this at a maximum speed of 25 revolutions per second. Therefore the time required by light to travel a distance of 8.67 × 2 kilometres was 1/25 × 1/720 of a second. This gave a speed of 312,320 kilometres per second (the correct value is 299,792 kilometres per second).

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LEON FOUCAULT (1819- 68)

1850 – France

‘A Foucault pendulum is a simple pendulum – a long wire with a heavy weight (bob) at the end – except that at the top it is attached to a joint which allows it to swing in any direction’

Foucault’s pendulum proved that the Earth is rotating

Once a Foucault pendulum is set in motion, it seems not to swing back and forth in the same direction but to rotate. In fact, it is the rotation of the Earth beneath the pendulum which gives rise to its apparent rotation.
The angle of rotation per hour, which is constant at any particular location, can be calculated from the formula 15 sin Φ, where Φ is the geographical latitude of the observer. At the North or South Pole, the pendulum would rotate through 360 degrees once a day. At the equator it would not rotate at all.

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LOUIS PASTEUR (1822- 95)

1865 – France

‘Many human diseases have their origin in micro-organisms’

1862 – ‘Memoire sur les corpuscles organises qui existent dans l’atmosphere’ (Note on Organized Corpuscles that exist in the Atmosphere) – Puts an end to centuries of debate on the theory of spontaneous generation.

Although a chemist, Pasteur is best remembered for his contributions to medicine. His name is used to describe the process of ‘pasteurisation’.
Pasteur proved that living microorganisms cause fermentation. Previously scientists had assumed that fermentation was a chemical process.
Pasteur showed that the alcohol in fermentation was made by the yeast microbe. He also realised that when fermentation went wrong it was due to other germs.

Portrait of Louis Pasteur in his laboratory


In 1863 he showed that brief, moderate heating of wine and beer kills germs, thereby sterilizing the foodstuffs and ending the fermentation process. The process now known as pasteurisation is still used in the food industry.

His investigations led him to believe that microorganisms could also cause disease in humans. Pasteur realized the dangers of infection, but the English surgeon JOSEPH LISTER (1827-1912) is credited with developing and systematizing the notion of antiseptic surgery so that operations could be made safer if an ‘antiseptic’ procedure was introduced to destroy microbes and curb the infections that followed wounds or surgery.

In 1876, Pasteur confirmed the findings of ROBERT KOCH’s discovery of the anthrax bacillus. After EDWARD JENNER’s breakthrough in the development of vaccination against smallpox, little had been done to take advantage of the potential of this treatment against other disease.

In 1882 Pasteur successfully applied his discovery of vaccination by attenuated culture of microorganisms to anthrax and in 1885 to the treatment of rabies in humans.

On 14 November 1888 the Pasteur Institute opened in Paris.





1888 – France

‘When a system in equilibrium is subjected to a change in conditions, it adjusts itself so as to try to oppose that change’

photo portrait of HENRI LOUIS LE CHATELIER ©

The principle is a consequence of the law of conservation of energy.

Le Chatelier’s principal is valuable in understanding how to control the industrial production of chemicals such as ammonia.
Nitrogen and hydrogen react to form ammonia. When the pressure of this system is increased, more ammonia is produced, but when the pressure is lowered, ammonia is decomposed into hydrogen and nitrogen. Thus by controlling pressure and temperature, ammonia can be produced with the minimum of waste.

Le Chatelier was a chemist and is remembered for inventing thermocouples for measuring high temperatures (1877) and oxyacetylene welding (1895).

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1895 – Germany

picture of the diploma awarded to Roentgen by the NOBEL foundation. link to:link to:
Photograph of ROENTGEN ©


‘X-Rays are high energy radiation given off when fast-moving electrons lose energy very rapidly’

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image of an early X-Ray image of a human hand taken by Roentgen. link to :

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1898 – France



‘1903 – Awarded the Nobel-Prize for Physics jointly with Marie and Pierre Curie’

picture of a rock displaying fluorescence under short wavelength radiation

The phenomenon of fluorescence – displayed under short wavelength radiation

Stimulated by WILHELM CONRAD ROENTGEN’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, Becquerel chanced upon the phenomenon that is now known as radioactivity in 1896. The Frenchman believed that Röntgen’s X-rays were responsible for the fluorescence displayed by some substances after being placed in sunlight. Although he was wrong to assume that fluorescence had anything to do with X-rays, he tested large numbers of fluorescent minerals.

He found that uranium, the heaviest element, caused an impression on a covered photographic plate, even after being kept in the dark for several days, and concluded that a phenomenon independent of sunlight induced luminescence.
Investigation isolated the uranium as the source of ‘radioactivity’, a name given to the occurrence by Mme. Curie.

The SI unit of radioactivity, the becquerel is named in his honour.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to

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