Thursday, January 07, 2010

In Praise of Avogadro

This is related to yesterday's post, but Jen, you'll be able to understand this one!

Avogadro is famous in chemistry for Avogadro's number, the number of atoms or molecules in a mole of any chemical element or compound, based on the number of atoms in 12 grams of Carbon-12 (the normal carbon). He proposed this principle in 1811.


Does it seem weird to you that anyone was interested in something like that, 200 years ago? The value of the number was indicated later, in 1865, by a man named Johann Loschmidt, who estimated the average diameter of molecules in the air (I ask why? HOW??) by a method equivalent to estimating the number of particles in a given volume of gas.

So the value of Avogadro's constant (as it is officially called) is 6.022 141 79(30) x 10-to-the-23rd. (abbreviated for us high-school chem types as 6.02 x etc etc.)

I am in awe of the mathematicians and scientists who have come before. I remember Gregor Mendel, a monk who invented the entire field of genetics by observing the plots of peas that he tended at the monastery. Blaise Pascal, who, living in a time when you didn't start your math education until ten or eleven years old, invented his own math system at age seven or so, including geometric proofs. Euclid (for whom geometry is named) goes way farther back. How did they come up with the number pi? They even measured the size of the earth back in the Greek civilization.

I could name names for a very long time here, folks.

Now I love poetry, and literature, even growing in my appreciation for Shakespeare. History has become a love of mine, ever since I got OUT of school (too bad it didn't come earlier...). But I am a science girl at heart, and that means I must be a math girl, to an extent.

The advances in science and technology have come at an exponential rate, beginning in the last three decades or so of the nineteenth century. Remember, the electric light and telephone came in the 1870's, radio and flight in the 1900's. We make little comments about the size and capabilities of our cellphones compared to five or ten years ago. But I don't think we're in *awe* anymore about these things. I just wanted to take a moment to honor those upon whose shoulders we stand. Those who began with nothing but an idea. Certainly their ideas were God-given. Which reminds me of my favorite definition of Science: discovering what God has already done.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I love these brainiac posts! You are right, of course. One of my favorite long-ago scientists was Michael Faraday.

Inquisitive and creative, those folks were. Makes me want to shake the dust from my brain and get out and do something.