Saturday, 13 December 2014

Phlogiston and the Vital Force

 I'm planning to post about my kimchi once it's fermented into tasty kimchi goodness.

 For now, I'm going to talk about phlogiston and the vital force and their application in fiction.

 So, what is phlogiston?

 Well, it's not real, which is probably not a surprise to you.

 In a more useful sense, it's an explanation that early sciencey types came up with to explain how fire works.

 The idea was that there was this substance in all flammable things that allowed them to burn. As well as explaining why things burned, it also served to explain why things tend to lose mass when they burn.

 One of the other points of this idea was that when things burned in an enclosed space, like a jar, the air would become saturated with phlogiston and unable to hold anymore, thus causing the fire to go out.

 Now, that alone must be raising alarm bells for you all because you know why that happens.

 Phlogiston is an outdated scientific concept that explains what we now understand as combustion.

 More or less, the original explanation of what phlogiston is runs as almost a perfect opposite of how oxygen works in terms of combustion and respiration.

 Additionally, as combustion is chemically similar to metabolic processes, phlogiston was also used as an explanation for why animals can't survive in an enclosed environment. Like flammable things, animals contain phlogiston and dephlogisticate as they breath. Once the environment becomes saturated with phlogiston, they lost their ability to breath and die.

 Today we know that this is because of the way that both combustion and respiration cause oxygen in the atmosphere to be converted into part of carbon dioxide which cannot be used in either process. When the idea was first proposed by Johann Joachim Becher, chemistry wasn't really out of the age of the alchemists, so they came up with all sorts of odd ideas to explain the world around them.

 (Isaac Newton was kind of the poster boy for this.)

 Of all of these odd ideas, phlogiston is my personal favourite.

 Yes, it's useless for explaining the gains in mass of burning metals, but I don't like it because it's accurate, I like it because it's cool.

 On the other hand, I'm not a great fan of vitalism.

 This is somewhat similar to phlogiston, but it isn't as naturalistic.

 Both do ascribe some kind of substance that imparts life into living things, but unlike phlogiston, the vital force is only part of living things. Life is the only thing that uses it and it creates a stark and fundamental difference between living and non-living things.

 Which is the entire point.

 Okay, okay, maybe not in the beginnings of the idea.

 It has something of the phlogiston/classical element of fire to its original conception back in antiquity, but as science has improved and presented more and more naturalistic explanations, vitalism has been a desperate attempt to hold onto the ghost in the machine.

 Remember, phlogiston is a naturalistic explanation that was wrong.

 Vitalism is not.

 Of course, in the realms of fiction, we can do as we please.

 So, how can the vital force work for you?

 Well, a world of vitalism is a world that would be very different from our own.

 If life is a substance that you can bottle, say, then that gives rise to a lot of possibilities. Especially in fantasy world where alchemy is practiced.

 As I previously complained, vitalism is not a naturalistic explanation, which lends itself incredibly well to the intervention of the gods. Something like that was seen in the Disney film Hercules (which is a fun romp through the gigantomachy, but not the titanomachy as it claims).

 So, you've got gods and/or alchemy? Then vitalism is a great addition to your world building toolset.

 Phlogiston, on the other hand, is more suited to just alchemical settings. Or even to a sort of alternate science science fiction.

 A world with plogiston as the explanation for combustion, respiration and rusting would be superficially similar to the world we live in, but fundamentally different.

 Which is possibly the best kind of fictional world.

 You draw them in with characters just like them, and then bam! You hit them with the fact that oxygen doesn't exist.

 Now that's what I call a twist.

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