Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves: An Informal History of Pouring Oil on Water with Reflections on the Ups and Downs of Scientific Life in General

Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves: An Informal History of Pouring Oil on Water with Reflections on the Ups and Downs of Scientific Life in General

Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves: An Informal History of Pouring Oil on Water with Reflections on the Ups and Downs of Scientific Life in General

Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves: An Informal History of Pouring Oil on Water with Reflections on the Ups and Downs of Scientific Life in General

Synopsis

When Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century American statesman and scientist, watched the calming effect of a drop of oil on the waves and ripples of a London pond, he was observing what Pliny the Elder and generations of seafarers had done before him. Franklin, though, was the first to wonderexactly what was happening to the oil, and to investigate this strange phenomenon.Following Franklin's lead, a motley crowd of scientists over the next two centuries and more chose to investigate the nature of atoms and molecules through the interaction of fluid membranes. They included Lord Rayleigh, an altruistic English Lord, Agnes Pockels, who conducted experiments in herkitchen and became one of the earliest women to make lasting contributions to science, the renowned Dutch pediatrician Evert Gorter, and Irving Langmuir, one of America's greatest industrial scientists. Building on Franklin's original experiments, their work has culminated in the discovery of thestructure of cell membranes, research that continues to bear fruit today.Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves is far more than the story of oil on water; it is a voyage into the very nature of science and its place in our history.

Excerpt

"In these experiments, one circumstance struck me with particular surprize. This was the sudden, wide, and forcible spreading of a drop of oil on the face of the water, which I do not know that any body has hitherto considered. If a drop of oil is put on a polished marble table, or on a looking-glass that lies horizontally, the drop remains in place, spreading very little. But when put on water it spreads instantly many feet around, becoming so thin as to produce the prismatic colors, for a considerable space, and beyond them so much thinner as to be invisible, except in its effect of smoothing the waves."

Benjamin Franklin, letter to William Brownrigg, November 7, 1773

The Venerable Bede tells the story of a worthy priest commissioned to escort the Princess Eanflaed from Kent to Northumberland to become the bride of King Oswiu. The journey was to be by sea, and the priest, concerned about his young charge’s safety and comfort, sought the blessing of his superior, the Bishop Aidan, which he received. Aidan also gave him some oil to use in case of storm. “Remember to pour the oil I have given you on to the sea; the winds will drop at once, the sea will become calm and serene, and will bring you home the way you wish.”

This is, of course, not the first mention of the effect of oil on the waves of the sea. The phenomenon must have been observed by the earliest seafarers who used oil to cook meals on board ship and who would have been familiar with the darkened smooth surface, devoid of whitecaps, that appeared in the ship’s wake when greasy . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.