Today’s VERITAS is a short biography of one of the greatest Scientists of all time. A person who did Science for knowledge and knowledge only. A person whose character comes closest to the picture that most people have of Scientists: uncommunicative, absent minded ….
This is the story of Henry Cavendish. And he lived in a time when Chemistry meant blasts in laboratories, smelling all sorts of pungent fumes etc.
Cavendish was the son of Lord Charles Cavendish( one helluva rich dude). He was born on October 10 , 1731. He joined Cambridge University in 1749… but he left Cambridge without completing his degree in 1753.
After a tour of Europe he went to live in London. There he lived a frugal life and did not socialize much. His energies were devoted to the study of the Sciences.
Cavendish had inherited a HUGE amount of wealth from his father and uncles and was one of the richest men in England. So he did not work. He only did Science( what a life!). He built a laboratory for himself and did some very important experiments.
His earliest researches were in Chemistry and Heat. BUt his first research paper did not come until 1766. He was 35 years old when this happened. Please note that most modern “Scientists” start publishing papers when they are about 26 years old and publish a lot. Cavendish did not care much about publication and did Science to satisfy his own curiosity.
His first paper dealt with Facticious Airs( chemical compounds). He had studied the properties of gases very carefully and had characterized them for the first time by Specific Gravity.
In 1781 Cavendish was the first to show that when Oxygen and Hydrogen are burnt together water is formed.
He writes in his paper :
” …on applying the lighted paper to the mouth of the bottle… With 3 parts of inflammable air to 7 of common air, there was a very loud noise”.
” By the experiments it appeared that when inflammable and common air are exploded in proper proportion, almost all of the inflammable air and near one-fifth of the common air loose their elasticity and are condensed into dew”
He discovered Nitric Acid in 1795.
Canvendish was also interested in Electric Phenomenon and spent several years experimenting with electricity. But he published only 2 papers on this subject: in 1772 and 1776. About a 100 years later Maxwell published the unpublished investigations of Cavendish. It seems that Cavendish had done the experiments that made Faraday and Coloumb famous much before them. He had just not bothered to publish.
He discovered the composition of Air. He established through accurate experiments that Air consists of 79.167 % phlogisticated air( now nitrogen + argon) and 20.833% dephlogisticated air( now known as oxygen). He also established that 1/120 of air is a third gas( now we know that this is CO2).
Cavendish also established the mean density of earth in 1796-97. He established it to be 5.448. He did this by carefully verifying Newton’s formula for gravitation using 2 metal balls and determining the attraction between them. This way he established the value of the gravitational constant and thus was the first to “weigh the earth”.
Cavendish did not talk much. He did not even talk to his servants. It is said that he would write what he wanted to eat on a piece of paper and place it on the dining table. His servants would cook the dish and place it on the table and go away. Minimal contact with people. Maximum Science.
Cavendish died in 1810 leaving behind a huge fortune and stacks of scientific manuscripts. In his memory the famous Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge was started.
| Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
| Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
| Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
| Correct old time and regulate the Sun;