Friday, 25 March 2011

Worshipping at the feet of giants


I am fascinated by Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). He is credited with the discovery of oxygen which led to one of the most significant advances in Chemistry, but was the French chemist Lavoisier who worked out the real importance of oxygen and elaborated an enduring theory of combustion. Priestley remained loyal to the phlogiston theory which had been advanced in the early 18th century by Becher and Stahl. Indeed, Priestley's name for the newly discovered gas was 'dephlogisticated air.'

Priestley's paper, Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston and the Decomposition of Water (1796) which he addressed to a group of chemists whom he identified as the 'principal advocates for the Antiphlogistic theory,' was a robustly argued and elegantly written defence of a superseded hypothesis.

So he's an intriguing character. He is rightly regarded as one of the giants in the history of science. His discoveries paved the way for a better understanding of the chemistry of combustion but he defended to the last the old theory and it is Lavoisier who is looked upon as the father of modern chemistry. If there were any today who were to defend the phlogiston theory and marshal Priestley's arguments in their cause, we would probably consider them barking mad.

So who are the people who can be regarded as following in the tradition of Joseph Priestley? Are they the (surely non-existent) adherents of the phlogiston theory? No, they are modern scientists in industry and academia, working to advance our understanding of the world we live in.

To adapt a metaphor from Isaac Newton: When we meet a giant there are two possible responses. Okay, there are more, but let's stick with these two - we can ask for a leg-up so that we can get a look at what the giant can see. Or we can stand or kneel in awe and wonder. The scientist is the one who asks for a leg-up.

What I want to ask is whether the adherents of religions can ask their giants for a leg-up or can they only worship at their feet? The trouble with worshipping at the feet of giants is that we can't even be sure we have understood what they are telling us.

So here's my prayer for today: Hey, Rabbi Jesus, give us a leg-up. will you.

We have to be careful with this one, though. We might just see over the tops of the old creeds and formularies and catch a vision of the world around us.

4 comments:

Patsy said...

I think we should stand tall and see all that we can for ourselves.

Rob Crompton said...

Well yes, of course. But when we come across a giant - a real one, I mean, Like Joseph Priestley, not some little person pretending - then ask for a leg up and don't drop to our knees.

Leigh Russell said...

Who was it warned us to be careful what we wish for...? But I agree, in principle, all knowledge is good. Ignorance may be bliss, but it inevitably leads to all kinds of misconception, bigotry and intolerance.

Leigh Russell said...

I was so engrossed in your posts, I quite forgot my reason for visiting your blog! It was lovely to meet you yesterday, Rob, and wonderful meeting so many intriguing and interesting fellow authors. Thank you very much for coming along to the workshop, and for taking the trouble to comment on my blog. Keep in touch, and good luck with your writing!