The Phlogistion Theory As A Scientific Theory

1687 words - 7 pages

A scientific theory is defined as “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained"(Oxford). Scientific theories of which the average person may be aware include the universal laws of gravitation and the laws of thermodynamics. For something to become a scientific theory, a) the idea must have the evidence to support such a claim, b) experimental results supporting the idea must be replicable by others, and c) the idea should be able to explain the results it obtains. In this paper, I will argue that the phlogiston theory is not only incredibly important, but indeed a scientific theory, even if the theory was eventually replaced by Lavoisier's theory of oxygen and Josiah Gibb’s theory of free energy. (Woodcock)
First, however, I must explain some of the background context behind the creation of the phlogiston theory. The first significant explanations for scientific phenomena were those put forth by the Aristotelian World View. In the fourth century BCE, Greek philosopher Aristotle described the world as being composed of four elements: Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. A fifth element, Aether, was what composed heaven and space. The Earth system was layered, with Earth being at the bottom, followed by water, then by air, with fire being on top. This explained why a rock would sink when placed in a body of water, and why fire would rise into the sky. The idea of a layered Earth that included these four elements was incredibly influential, and was present even into the 16th century CE, when the rise of natural philosophy would slowly begin to overtake it. Natural philosophy is the study of phenomena that occur in nature or could be used to model what occurs in nature. It is during this movement that Johann Becher published his paper “Physical Education” in 1667. Becher proposed that the Aristotelian explanation was not completely correct. Instead of describing the Earth being comprised of the four elements, he replaced the Air and Fire with terra pinguis, terra lapidea, and terra fluida. Terra pinguis, Latin for “fat earth”, was the oily sulphurous material that caused combustion. When a material was burned, the terra pinguis within the material burned away into the air, leaving a calx (Princeton). The idea that there was an actual material inside of objects that allowed for combustion was a revolutionary one, and this concept’s simplicity and intuitiveness are what caused the idea to stay within the realms of science for decades. Using Johann Becher’s idea of a material required for combustion, Georg Stahl, in 1703, proposed a slightly different version (Stahl). Instead of terra pinguis, Stahl stated that this material was phlogiston, and it is from his proposition that the phlogiston theory becomes incredibly popular (Princeton). The reason the theory became more well known as phlogiston compared to terra pinguis, is primarily due to timing. Johann...

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