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August 2, 2012 10:53 AM   Subscribe

An interview with Phlogiston.

Notably absent from the interview is any mention of Phlogiston's late-career revival in the Spelljammer campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
posted by prize bull octorok (11 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is incredible. If only all interviewees were as affable and diplomatic as Phlogiston.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2012

Priestley is often seen as the discoverer of oxygen — and causer of my downfall...

But what about Count Rumford! Oh wait...phlogiston != caloric.

OK, carry on.
posted by DU at 11:11 AM on August 2, 2012

Don't we have a user by that name?
posted by Meep! Eek! at 11:13 AM on August 2, 2012

I had no idea the Hairpin had science articles. What a great site and hilarious way to present this chem info.
posted by DU at 11:26 AM on August 2, 2012


Get some Pirates of the Spanish Main figs, put them on a black tablecloth spattered with dots of paint, and you've got the start of a great Spelljammer skirmish game.

(Spelljammer had some problems, but I love me some space-sailing pirate ships and thus it has a warm place in my heart)
posted by curious nu at 11:33 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, that was pretty good and so very nicely encapsulates the correct perspective on the argument that dominated the end of this recent thread.

And it really is worth actually reading Priestly and most certainly Lavoisier to understand why it's not "obvious" what oxygen and oxidation are or "obvious" that phlogiston doesn't exist and to understand the very careful work and reasoning that led from phlogiston to oxygen and the birth of true chemistry. And why it's both true that alchemy and chemistry are very like but also distinct.

Put another way, the transition from alchemy to chemistry reveals a great deal about how a) pre-modern natural philosophy wasn't stupid or incapable of understanding the natural world in useful, correct, and rigorous ways; but b) there's some very important qualitative distinctions between pre-scientific natural philosophy and science, it's not a mere difference in degree. It's a difference in kind, but at the same time it's...well, let's say it's more like the difference between apples and oranges and not the difference between apples and motion. That is to say, there's qualitative differences and then there's qualitative differences, if you get my drift. Something special happened with the birth of modern science, but it's not as if people can't, or didn't, know things without it and it's not as if there aren't methods of inquiry that are similar.

Chemistry is in many respects exemplary for understanding this transition and these similarities and differences because it's "messier" than physics, and in that sense much more confusing. This both emphasizes the need for a more empirically-driven conceptual framework (as opposed to, say, a metaphysically-driven conceptual framework that's an elaboration of an already-existing metaphysical cosmology) and, in contrast to physics, shows how it's usually the case that such a conceptual framework isn't some intuitively attractive elegant single mathematical formula but rather an increasingly clarified system of abstractions. (That's how physics works, too, really, but what sticks in peoples' minds are these ultimate elegant equations and people tend to get the wrong idea that you just somehow jump from observation to that ultimate elegant abstraction.)

People worked very hard at alchemy for many, many years and performed experiments and made detailed observations and learned many interesting and important things. You can't have chemistry without alchemy before it. But the alchemists made far less progress than did the chemists because chemistry is different from alchemy.

Phlogiston wasn't dumb, it was pretty sensible. It took some very hard work, a special kind of work, to go from phlogiston to oxygen.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:35 AM on August 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't we have a user by that name?

Not exactly.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:36 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh, do luminiferous ether next.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:44 AM on August 2, 2012

Thanks for the interest in my career, Octorock.
posted by Phlogiston at 4:01 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's fun to say Phlogiston.

If I ever invent a fictional war-torn Middle East nation, I'll probably call it Phlogistan.
posted by JHarris at 8:02 PM on August 2, 2012

BTW, Spelljammer is awesome. It's this entirely made-up system of cosmology that draws from old legendary, magical and scientific traditions, with the edges embroidered with bits of incredible imaginative whimsy ranging from Dwarven mountain ships sailing through the void to Giant Space Hamsters.

There are problems with it, like how it can turn any D&D campaign into a game of secret societies dedicated to keeping the existence of interplanetary travel a secret from the masses, but it's possible to overcome that I think. Sadly I don't think WoTC views it with the same fondness, although I think they did throw out a passing reference to the Spelljammer universe in 4E. Certainly it's gotten a lot less attention over the year than Gygax's old "Great Wheel" planar system.
posted by JHarris at 3:37 AM on August 3, 2012

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