Interview With an Element: Oxygen Phlogiston

by Simone Bauer

You are not Oxygen.

No, name’s Phlogiston. I am afraid Oxygen can’t make it, he’s a busy element and sends his regrets. I was sent to meet you instead.

Thank you for taking the time. What do you think of being called an impostor element?

Of course I’m not an element in the modern sense. But I embody the modernized form of the ancient element fire, as you can tell from my name*. I was the subject matter of advanced chemistry lectures — quite distinct from alchemy. In short, I was the bee’s knees. Incorporating the most important chemical principle for more than a century feels like a real achievement to me. It was based on facts, you know, just not on those we have now. A working theory was wanted; I delivered the goods. Nothing faked and all of excellent quality — even if reality as we know it now is different.

What do you think of Oxygen’s career? Are you envious?

My own career went very well, thank you. I had a good run. No need for envy; I enjoy my current obscurity and time for pro bono work. What is the worth of a theory, the worth of truth?

Maybe an explanation is in order. I offered a principle able to explain combustion, respiration, and metallurgy. Air able to sustain a flame was ‘dephlogisticated’ (good air). Air was able take up phlogiston until it became ‘phlogisticated’ (foul air) and the flame was extinguished. During respiration, air would remove me, phlogiston, from the body. Of course, during my heydays no one knew yet what air was made out of.

Nowadays, it is common knowledge that combustion is an oxidation process. But we all know that Oxygen itself doesn’t have that much to do with it, and mostly lends its name to it. Call it ‘reduction’ and it would be the same thing. It’s all a matter of moving electrons around. See, electrons were discovered only two hundred years after I started my career. In the meantime, I had a job to do.

Which modern element do you feel closest to?

Essentially, I am anti-Oxygen, like in that drawing of a crone morphing into a lady with a hat. So in a way, Hydrogen might be the element closest to my nature. For a while we were considered to be the same, but the new fashion of taking accurate measurements put an end to that. Suddenly people started clamoring for quantification instead of just letting me do my job based on qualification! Good friends of me postulated that I had negative mass, just so I would be able to keep doing my job, but it was deemed unacceptable. Why would anyone care if I had proper credentials? My talent, excellent performance, and dedication prevented me from being found out earlier.

Phlogiston theory went the way of giant lace collar fashion for men. Do you consider yourself a victim of the Chemical Revolution?

Just let me say here that here’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned lace collar! Jokes aside, The beginning of the end was the research on air and respiration by the English theologian Joseph Priestley and the tax-farming French noble Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Marie. Their experiments coincided with that other well-known revolution in France. This research definitely contributed to my fall from grace, but Priestley and the Lavoisiers were just doing their job as investigators. For the longest time they really wanted to believe in me, in spite of contrary evidence. I do not feel victimized, but regret that things had to move on. I could just not get them off my case; I would like to think that in the end we remained friends.

So you feel no resentment for the people effectively ending your career?

Priestley is often seen as the discoverer of oxygen — and causer of my downfall — but he loyally held on to the idea of the Phlogiston theory until the end of his life. He considered Oxygen some kind of ‘improved air’ for the longest time. Now I feel it’s up to me to be loyal to him. Most people know him as a chemist — if at all — but during his life he was better known for being a metaphysically religious, radical clergyman, and for his prediction of the Second Coming. Being a scientist was not the defining aspect of his life. As an early supporter of the French revolution, he was seen as notorious dissenter, which led to his home ending up, well, dephlogisticated during the Birmingham Riots. Priestley was kind of nutty, but that was maybe due to all that closeness to Mercury. Priestley emigrated to the U.S. and to this day, the American Chemical Society medal carries his name. Modern career paths of scientists seem so uninspired to me in comparison — did you know that Priestley had time to invent soda water?

What about the Lavoisiers? Did you get to know them as well?

We spent quite a lot of time together. Antoine and and Marie Lavoisier did most of their work in the morning and evenings, whenever they were not busy being part of the Ancien Régime — their rather glamorous portrait hangs now in the Metropolitan Museum. They seemed a quite happy couple, despite him marrying her at thirteen, at her father’s request, mostly to save her from a marriage to an even older, creepy count. Marie translated, and corrected Priestley’s work into French for her husband. She should get more credit for her involvement in the discovery of oxygen. Lavoisier had a direct influence on the end of my career, as the first truly quantitative chemist, which casts him as my natural enemy, but he met such a beastly fate, I cannot feel resentment.

What happened?

Antoine Lavoisier fell victim to the Terror and was guillotined in 1794, Marie’s father was executed the same day. She ended up destitute for a while, but did all she could to keep Lavoisier’s equipment and legacy safe. She is rumored to have had a long-term affair with the printer that eventually published Lavoisier’s memoirs. I got my hopes up but regrettably she was not interested in collaboration. As you might imagine, I was rather put out. She ended up marrying Sir Benjamin Thompson, famous inventor of the coffee percolator and thermal underwear. But from what I heard, it did not work out too well. Marie resented that he did not involve her in his scientific work, and Thompson was annoyed by her frequent soirees. This led to a rather acrimonious divorce, but only after she poured boiling water over his plants. I think she would have been better off with me. Imagine what new theories we could have come up with together!

This suggests you miss your life outside the law of conversation of mass?

I do, but you have to change with the times. Nowadays, I use my given talents in education. Benefiting from ignorance was never my aim; everyone should have a good understanding of science. You should check out my recent TED talks on the subject of science education, especially of policy makers. As my biographer Conant** put it, “Even a highly educated citizen without research experience will almost always fail to grasp the essentials in a that takes place among scientists with a projected inquiry. This will not be so because of the layman’s lack of scientific knowledge or his failure to comprehend the technical jargon of the scientist; it will be to a large degree because of his fundamental ignorance of what science can or cannot accomplish, and his subsequent bewilderment in the course of a discussion outlining a plan for a future investigation.” I am trying to improve on that, give people an idea how science really works based on my experience, and help them make educated funding decisions. All said, I still miss the time when Arts and Sciences were less separated, and the freedom before quantitative science took hold.

Are you in a dialogue with modern scientists as well?

I am trying to reach out to scientists, to get them to think a little more philosophically about research. As Priestley said with candor that was — and is — quite rare about improbable discoveries: ”[…] I see the closest and easiest connexion in the world between them, so as to wonder that I should not have been led immediately from one to the other. That this was not the case, I attribute to the force of prejudice, which unknown to ourselves biasses not only our judgements, properly so called, but even the perceptions of our senses: for we may take a maxim so strongly for granted that the plainest evidence of sense will not entirely change, and often hardly modify our persuasions, and the more ingenious a man is the more effectually he is entangled in his errors; his ingenuity only helping him to deceive himself by evading the truth of force.” I apologize, I seem to have been carried away a bit. I see I have to leave in time for my next seminar, but let’s keep in touch.

Thank you for the interesting discussion.

*Ed.: Φλογιστόν = burning up

** Conant, James Bryant, The overthrow of the phlogiston theory; the chemical revolution of 1775–1789, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1950.

Previously: Arsenic.

Simone Bauer has a doctorate in chemistry, was born and raised in (West) Berlin, lived for the last eight years in NYC, and recently moved to Cambridge, MA.

Image by concept w, via Shutterstock