Flights of Fancy

What really drives some people to pursue things that are out of the ordinary while most of us are happy doing mundane things? When Tenzing Norgay,the conqueror of Everest was asked why did he want to climb the mountain he simply said, ‘because it is there’. Likewise when JK was asked what motivated him to keep giving lectures,he replied,’why does a flower distribute its fragrance? because that is its nature’ or something to that effect.
Similarly when one looks at the lives of great explorers of Science,the manner in which they pursued their goals is incredible. Do they do it for money,name& fame or simply happiness and bliss derived from this? I do not know. While Indian philosophers explored the inner world for happiness,scientists in the West explored the outside world. Whatever be the reasons,the story of science & scientists makes for an interesting read. Recently I happened to read a book titled, “The Age of Wonder” by the author RICHARD HOLMES.The book is all about scientific explorers of 19th century in France and England. In the next few posts I will try to capture interesting stories of a few scientists belonging to late 18th and early 19th century.

Man has always been fascinated by the thought of flying into the deep skies. In the 18th century France,flying gas baloons started as a scientific curiosity and was practiced with a lot of fanfare using simple tools of chemistry. Joseph Mongolfier was the first to launch a balloon and he chose hot air as the gas to fill the balloons. The balloons were made of painted silk sections backed by coarse paper and stitched together. It was to the credit of one Dr Charles,though,to completely modify the balloon for better navigability and safety by introducing a number of features. In fact his design features bore very close similarity to the modern day version of the balloon. For one thing,Hydrogen gas which is 13 times lighter than air was used. The balloon itself was made of silk coated in rubber enclosed in netting.It had a venting valve at the top to release gas when one wanted to descend. It also had finely tuned ballast bags to be jettisoned in stages when one wanted to climb high. Lovoisier’s Hydrogen gas produced from iron filings and sulfuric acid reaction,was used to fill the balloon.
Dr Charles could go up to an astonishing height of 10000feet which is virtually the limit for human survival with the temperatures falling very low. As he flew to those heights, he kept making notes until his hand was too cold to grasp the pen. As he later explained- ‘I was the first man to see the Sun set twice in the same day….I had acute pain in my right ear and jaw…it was so solitary,so sublime….’..

In those days,the formula and ‘equation‘ for popularity and fame was very simple: Showmanship + Chemistry= Lots of crowd + Lots of Wonder+ Loads of Money. Chemistry has always has been a mystery of sorts to the lay public and when it was combined with showmanship,that was the ultimate ‘mantra’ for name,fame and money. In fact in 1783,when Charles launched his glorious pink-yellow-candy coloured balloon 30feet tall, 400,000 people watched the show with excitement and wonder in Paris. That was almost half of Paris population in those days. Apart from the excitement it generated among the public,even balloonists seemed to enjoy the shows to the hilt – they derived both material and (surprisingly) even ‘spiritual’ delight. As one ballonist described his ‘take-off ‘ experience: ‘Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstacy. My companion murmured to me- I’m finished with the earth. From now on it’s the sky for me! Such utter calm. Such immensity!’

Benjamin Franklin who was the American ambassador to Paris watched the launch with a telescope from his balcony and remarked: ‘Someone asked me – what’s the use of a balloon? I replied – what’s the use of a new born baby?’

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Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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