Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Europe
So I did something I haven’t done recently. I went to BLDGBLOG, and right at the bottom of this posting, which consists of a collection of weird photos that aren’t quite photos but are something else somewhat similar, I found this classic bridge:
But that isn’t the picture at BLDGBLOG. I went looking for another, and found it here.
I like bridges, and I especially like bridges with buildings on them, buildings which don’t match, like the bridge is just a street rather than a single unified structure all designed and built at one time.
I also very much like the look of the picture at the top of this posting. which, for reasons I do not understand, is entitled “Critical Engineering Summer Intensives”, but which ought to be entitled “When Roof Clutter Catches Fire”.
I’m a big fan of the Samizdata Commentariat. It’s one of the best things about Samizdata. Part of the reason for its excellence is that when things get heated, a comment like this appears:
I’m not a huge fan, on the other hand, of the Guido Commentariat. Too big, too abusive, too given to tangenting off on only very marginally relevant subjects, just like most other big Commentariats, in other words. Still other Commentariats, like mine, are too small to be worth reading regularly. My commenters are very good, but there just aren’t enough of them (it being absolutely not the fault of those who do comment here (it’s the fault of all those who might comment but don’t (and is it really even reasonable to call that a “fault”?))). Samizdata manages to strike a happy balance. At Samizdata, you don’t get Comments (0), posting after posting, like you (I) do here, but nor do you get Comments (1538), or some such ridiculous number of mostly unreadable twaddle-comments. That, for me, is the Guido Commentariat.
But I keep going to the Guido commenters from time to time, because they do have their moments:
That was this morning.
I don’t know if I would call the immediate economic outlook for Britain “absolutely fine”, but compared to continental Europe, and especially continental EUrope, it remains quite good, both immediate outlooks having got rather worse because of Brexit.
The British policy for the last few years seems to have been: be the least worst governed country, but only by a bit. That way, capital and people flow in but don’t absolutely torrent in, even though our bosses are making most of the same mistakes as are being made everywhere else. Just not quite so much as rivals of comparable stature, like France.
If Brexit had only destabilised Britain, then British markets really would have crashed. As it is, it’s a toss up whether Brexit has destabilised Britain more than it has destabilised EUrope. (That guy means the EUrope won’t survive. Europe obviously will.) My belief is that money is both running away from Britain, and coming into Britain. (But what do I know?)
Now that it’s been decided that we shall Brexit, Dezeen reports on what creatives have been creating to mark the event. Here are the two images they reproduce which I think are the most striking:
Both of these images are intended as expressions of regret that Britain has voted for Brexit, but neither quite say that, or not to me. What, after all, is so great for a balloon about being stuck in a whole bunch of other balloons? It’s creator says: “sad day”, but it doesn’t look that sad to me. It just looks like a change. If he was merely describing, relatively objectively, what had happened, then I guess: fair enough.
As for the disintegrating, weeping Union Jack, that would work far better as an expression of regret, in the event that Britain had voted Remain rather than Leave. It is national flags like this one one that the EU has been working tirelessly to replace with its own flag. Very odd. But, a striking image nevertheless.
First, this, which was the graphic on the front page of today’s pro-Remain Daily Mirror, and reproduced at Samizdata, which Natalie Solent reckons sends a somewhat ambiguous message. I agree. Because REMAIN is in the biggest letters, it looks like it could be saying that if you vote REMAIN, you’ll be sucked into a black hole. As you will, by the way, if enough people do this. This is indeed the fate that awaits us all, in the event of a REMAIN victory. One of the reasons why this graphic only works when misunderstood, is that when misunderstood, it becomes true!
The thing is, the EU is a lot nearer to being like a black hole than us leaving the EU is. For that message, they needed something more like an endless desert, or a huge tundra, or maybe some grim maritime scene, doom-laden as far as they eye can see.
The enormity of this decision is, I feel, appropriately reflected in the deranged graphics which occurred when this picture got loaded up. Samizdata usually centres pictures automatically, and also makes them smaller automatically, if they need to be smaller. That doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment.
In the comment thread on that posting, I mentioned that it was raining. Which it was, torrentially. But alas, it soon cleared up, thereby not dampening down the London (= Remain) vote as much it might have if it had rained with less violence but greater steadiness. I mean, they even managed to have a shortened game of cricket at Lord’s, after the rain had stopped.
And on the right there, Elizabeth Hurley, who will have voted Leave by now, that being the picture she Twittered yesterday along with her support for Leave. There she stands, wearing only high-healed sandals and a Union Jack cushion, or that’s how it looks. Thankyou Guido. She was probably right that this would get noticed, and would aid the cause she favours. But I bet the Leavers have been circulating their own interpretations of this rather odd picture. Is the picture recent, I wonder, or does it date from way back?
At least it is upbeat and optimistic in atmosphere, unlike that black hole.
One of the more intriguing consequences of the not-now-so-very-recent (what with another one coming along) Scottish independence referendum (which happened in September 2014) was that, rather suddenly, the world (by which I really mean: I) suddenly found itself (myself) contemplating the idea of the Union Jack flag disappearing into the history books. Had Scotland gone separate, the Union Jack would surely have had to be redesigned. I would not have regretted Scotland detatching itself from England, in fact I would have voted for this if I could have. But, I would have regretted the passing of the Union Jack, if only because it is such a great design, so recognisable that it is capable of being endlessly mucked about with, while still remaining the Union Jack.
The new, non Scottish version of the Union Jack might have looked a bit like the bag on the left here, as we look:
That snap was snapped in 2015, after the Scottish referendum, but I don’t think those designs have anything to do with politics. They’re just simplified and rather dull variations on the Union Jack theme. The one on the left just happens to look a lot like the Union Jack minus the Saltire. (Saltire is the Scottish flag, right? Yes.) But what does the one on the right signify? In terms of the flags that go towards the Union Jack, it takes the blue stripes from the Saltire and turns them into a background for the red bits of the Welsh and English flags. So actually, it’s just a blue bag, with bits of red Union Jack-ish stuff on it. Maybe there was also a red one with white Union Jack-ish stuck on, to complete the red white and blue set. I might never have bothered showing the above photo here, if it hadn’t been for the Saltire subtraction angle.
I had already been snapping Union Jack snaps, since quite a while before that moment of the Union Jack’s possible moment of disappearance. I long ago added “funny things being done with the Union Jack” to my mental photo-category list, alongside such things as bald blokes taking photos, utilitarian and commonplace footbridges, taxis covered in adverts, Big Things seen from a long way away in among foreground clutter, and so forth and so on. But, since that earlier referendum, I have been taking photos of Union Jacks with particular zeal.
Here are a couple of very recent Union Jack snaps I did. The first is of some flip-flops, on sale at the Parliament end of Westminster Bridge:
I reckon it’s the cellophane that gives that its artistic effect.
And here is a London taxi wing mirror:
That taxi décor isn’t part of an advert. It is just a taxi decorated with the Union Jack.
And then, while I was ruminating on a posting along these lines, came this piece of graphic Union Jackery, from the Spectator, to decorate their decision to back the Leave campaign in the forthcoming EU referundum:
This reminded me of a picture I took in East London five years ago, of some Art:
I could continue, with yet more Union Jack snaps, but I will end with some more Brexit propaganda. Still on the flying theme, just before I took the above snap of how fabulous Britain will be and will feel if we Leave, here, taken just moments earlier, is another Artistic-type picture of how ghastly things will be and will feel if we Remain. That’s the EU there, trying and failing to take wing, because its bureaucracy is far too big and heavy and its wings far too feeble and misshapen, crushing us as it plummets to earth:
Are you thinking that there really needs to be a Union Jack on that car, to make this point even clearer? But that’s exactly point! The EU scrubs out the Union Jack. Look! The Union Jack is nowhere to be seen! The EU has totally obliterated it! What could be clearer?
Slightly more seriously, the EU’s rulers will not be happy until they have driven the Union Jack into the history books, not by breaking up Britain, but by swallowing it and turning it into either fuel for itself, or shit. The only Union they want, and want celebrated with a flag, is their own.
I am currently spending all my blogging time, apart from the late night hour or so that it took to bash out this, working on a summary of a talk given to Libertarian Home by Mark Littlewood, about Brexit. Lilttlewood used to be for Britain staying in the EU, but has since changed his mind. I hope to be sending that summary in to LH some time tomorrow.
Meanwhile, my understanding of the referendum is that the Jo Cox murder has made a bit of a difference, in favour of Remain, but that a stronger swing towards Leave has also been happening.
The whole immigration argument, now being pressed hard by the Leavers, is obviously making a big difference. But I reckon some other forces are also in play.
I was struck by the news that Leave was appealing to Labour voters by saying that voting Leave would wipe the smile off the faces of Cameron and Osborne. I think that’s probably proving to be very persuasive. In a General Election, you can hate Cameron and Osborne all you like, and vote against them. But, against you are all those people who think that a Labour Government would be a catastrophe. They all vote for Cameron and Osborne despite not liking them. But in this referendum, all those Labour voters whose overriding emotion is loathing of Cameron and Osborne can actually cause Cameron and Osborne to lose. I’m guessing that’s a very appealing idea.
I also think that Eddie Izzard’s bizarre appearance – literally his appearance – on shows like Question Time destroyed with one viral image the claim that all Remainers are normal people and only the more unhinged of the Leavers are a bunch of nutters from some other planet. Izzard reminded me of that bonkers woman in a beret that the late Victoria Wood once did, to such comic effect.
To be clear. I’m not saying that everyone now thinks that those arguing for Leave are all normal. Leavers have long been reckoned by normal people people to be, many of them, about as sane as a sackful of drunken badgers. What Izzard did was say to the nation: Lots of us Remainers are barking mad too.
Izzard, in other words, completely changed a widespread and very influential idea. If everyone had been supposing that all Leave freaks are actually not freaks at all, any of them, than the Jo Cox murder would also have changed things, a lot. As it is, this horror story merely confirms what most people already know about Leave freaks. They’re freaks. Meanwhile, the mainstream politicians arguing for Leave are not nearly such freaks. They are fairly normal looking. They look normal in the way that Farage looked normal, when he was sitting next to Izzard on Question Time. The Jo Cox murder doesn’t change that.
Izzard, on the other hand, actually changed things. The murder of an MP is a much bigger deal than Izzard. But that murder, horrible though it was, does not change what most people think about Leavers. Many Leavers are freaks. But what Izzard did was use his small national presence to suggest a really rather big change, and not in a way that helped the cause he was arguing for. He said that many Remainers are freaks too.
That’s the problem with showbiz people. They confuse showbiz popularity with being popular with the entire nation. If you find a comedian to be annoying or just not very funny, you can simply ignore him, happily leaving those who adore him to carry right on adoring him. The comedian makes a good living. You are not bothered. Problem solved. Everyone happy. Personally, I think Eddie Izzard has one joke - “Hey, I’m completely random in what I say!” - and I’ve heard it enough not to want to hear it again. So, I now ignore Izzard.
But politics is, by definition, the stuff that comes for you whether you want it or not. Politics is like having to sit and listen to a performer whom you don’t like. When Izzard steps forward, dressed like that, spouting political opinions, he then provokes, from those who do not like what they are seeing, not a mere shrug of indifference, but active opposition. Izzard made people want to vote against what he was saying.
In this recent piece in the Independent, it was claimed that how Izzard had been arguing was the problem. I wonder if even the anonymous editors who signed off on this editorial really think this. They carefully avoided saying that Izzard looked like a freak. Which is fine for late night telly fun. But it is not fine when the subject being argued about is the manner in which our country should be governed. There is a reason that ambitious politicians do not, any of them, present themselves as Izzard just did.
If the Brexit referendum result is as close as it could well be, Izzard’s contribution to the Leave cause could prove to have been decisive.
This has been a been a rather muddled and repetitious piece of writing. This is because I was working out what I thought, as I wrote. The point about how the Jo Cox murder doesn’t change how anyone feels about Leave Freaks, but that Izzard’s pratting about does change what lots of people feel about Remainers, and that lots of people now reckon that a lot of Remainders are Freaks too, only emerged as I wrote. But, me thinking aloud is one of the things this place is for.
To you, yes, I hope that you had one, but actually what I’m saying is: I did.
England came belting back against Sri Lanka at Lords. After sampling the London weather last night, I had a feeling that might happen. It was not bright and sunny, more overcast and sweaty. It felt like swing bowler weather, which made SL’s reply yesterday afternoon (to England’s 416) of 162-1 rather strange. Dropped catches apparently. Well, this morning, order was restored and SL are now 218-6. Woakes, luckless yesterday, got a wicket with his first ball. England now look likely winners of that series 3-0. The longer the series goes on, and the more the Lankans get acclimatised (following seriously inadequate practising games), the more it counts beating them. The first game, where SL collapsed twice, meant nothing, I reckon. I’ve been following the score here.
Deep thanks to Michael Vaughan, who mentioned on one of the bits of cricket commentary I listened to that England were also playing Australia. At rugby. Aus 28 Eng 39. Must have been some game, and according to the BBC live updates, it was.
And before all that, I even managed a quick (they’re often the best) Samizdata posting, about something odd I heard on the radio, about the EU.
Here is one of the funner pictures I took while out and about last night, this one taken at the Parliament end of Whitehall:
Great reflections in her sunglasses, right? On the left, as we look, the two devices she is holding, and on the right, you can just see a tiny Big Ben. Is that red thing she is holding a charger?
Plus an elephant.
The onward march of mobile phones into photography continues apace.
I haven’t always been blogging here as early as I’d like to in recent days, but today, I did it.
If you had as good a morning as I did, lucky you.
For years I have wondered how to put videos done by others at this blog. My problem has always been that they were too big. 560 pixels wide instead of 500 pixels, which is the width here. This evening, I thought I observed that “Brexit: The Movie”, as shown at Bishop Hill, was the exact same width as stuff at my blog. So, I rootled around in the source code for the Bishop’s posting of Brexit, and dug up what seemed to be the relevant bit. It turned out I was wrong about the width. It was 560, same as it always seems to be, But having got this far I tried just changing the bit in the code where it said “560” to “500”, and that seemed to work. The video seemed to get a bit smaller. (I changed 500 to 300 just to be sure I wasn’t imagining it.) I did some more sums, which told me to change 315 to 280, and here it is, 500 pixels wide, fingers crossed:
There is some kind of EUro-metaphor or EUro-moral buried in this story, concerning believing that a straight-jacket was actually tighter and more rigid than it really was, but I’m too tired to be bothering about that.
Tomorrow, I will watch it.
As nudged by Simon Gibbs yesterday, I did indeed make my way to Trafalgar Square to check out Kenny and his Brexit chalk-proclamation.
The photos I sent to Libertarian Home yesterday evening were strictly utilitarian, to tell LH exactly what Kenny had written. Read the entire thing there.
Here, on the other hand, are some pictures which give more of an idea of how it looked, what the atmosphere was, and what Kenny himself looks like:
The atmosphere was low-key, actually. There were no scenes or arguments, although I did hear the occasional “not going to read it all because it says Out”, as people walked away. Others, however, did stop and read. Most significant, I would guess, were those with mobile phones who were, unlike me, maybe passing it on with twenty-first century immediacy. (I had to wait until I got home before I could send off my photos.)
I had to wait a while for Kenny to finish his efforts. I got there before 3pm, and it wasn’t until just after 5pm that he was done. And he started at 10am.
But it was worth the wait, and there was plenty else in Trafalgar Square to divert me, and to take photos of. But photos like that can wait. First things first, and that means Kenny.
I have been neglecting Libertarian Home of late. Let me assure LH’s Dear Leader Simon Gibbs that this is not permanent, just a combination of the declining energy that accompanies advancing years, and being, first, knackered by my French expedition, ant then preoccupied with the meeting I hosted on Friday addressed by Dominic Frisby. (Because this was a dry run for a theatrical performance at the Edinburgh Festival in August, some rearranging was required in my tiny front room, to make it less completely unlike a theatre.)
Simon has made it easy for me to respond positively to his constant nudgings, by serving up a nudge that is very easy for me to respond to, and in fact which I am glad to respond to, because it takes care of my something-every-day self-imposed rule here, for today.
At the Libertarian Home secret coven site where Simon nudges most of his nudgings to his various LH helpers and comrades, he posted this picture, which he recently snapped in Trafalgar Square:
Click on that to get the original, bigger and with more verbiage.
It is typical of Simon that he nudged this in my direction (picking me out individually thereby ensuring that an email about the nudge would reach me immediately) by emphasising the horizontality of this photo. (He had other ways of recommending it to others.) What this illustrates is that Simon is good at tuning in to how others think, which is the bedrock of the art of persuasion.
Photographic horizontality interests me because it suits the blogging format by helping to make blog postings vertically shorter and hence less unwieldy than they would otherwise be, and because horizontality also suits other circumstances that happen to be of interest to me.
So, he used it. Thus are ideological movements built and strengthened.
That Brexit thing is getting less and less horizontal by the minute, apparently. Although I promise nothing, I have in mind (more Gibbs nudging) to go to Trafalgar Square this afternoon and try to photo the whole thing.
Nothing much here today, but I just did three Samizdata postings today and yesterday:
I have always felt that the fascination with cat photos that has engulfed the internet was somehow more important than just being a matter of cat photos, engulfing the internet. Now it seems that cat photos are a threat to Islam, and must be forbidden. For me, cats means pure fun. No purpose is served. Other than the purpose (purr-puss) of having fun. And it seems that there is this crazy Sheikh who also thinks that photoing cats is pure fun also, and that this is why photoing cats should be forbidden. For him, I guess, fun is never pure. Quite the opposite.
This is a first:
I am at Brian Micklethwait’s place for his latest Friday. This argument against leaving the EU was made (I am literally live blogging, this is breaking news!): The good thing about Brussels is that it is impossible to be emotionally attached to it. This weakens the state.
Interesting discussion is now ensuing. And we have not even got to the speaker yet.
The liveblogger in question being Rob Fisher, to whom thanks.
The speaker and subject matter were described in this earlier posting here.
I do hope to write something soonish about what was actually said by Patrick Crozier, but meanwhile, the other interesting thing about this evening’s event, for me, was how well attended it was. By this I mean that the room was, as it usually seems to be, comfortably but not uncomfortably full.
What was so unusual about this outcome was that when I sent that first email out last Sunday evening, flagging up the meeting, I got no responses. Usually, one or two or three people reply by return of email that they intend to attend, and more acceptances come in as the week before the meeting (which is on the Friday) progresses. But this time: nothing. Not even one email. Not a sausage. In my reminder email, which went out yesterday, I pretty much begged people to come, and to tell me beforehand that they were coming. And a healthy trickle of positive responses duly trickled in, and I relaxed. And then, come the evening itself, as already revealed, pretty much the exact same number of people showed up as usually shows up.
How do people, collectively, know to do this? There has to be some kind of mathematical law in operation here, which says that the right number of people always shows up, no matter what.
It cannot be coincidence that the only time when far, far too many people showed up for comfort was the very first of these meetings, when I restarted them at the beginning of (I think it was) 2013. Never again. This strongly suggests to me that The Crowd, subsequently so wise, started out ignorant, of how much comfortable space there was, but that The Crowd has subsequently learned. And now, The Crowd knows how to turn up chez moi in the exact right numbers, every time. No matter what I do to assemble it, and no matter what it says beforehand, or doesn’t say.
Circumstances had placed me at the Angel Tube. My business was concluded and the weather was wondrous. So, where to next? There is a canal near there, but I didn’t fancy another canal walk, so instead I just walked along whatever road presented itself to me, in the general direction of the Big Things of the City (one of them (the Heron Tower) having been turned blazing gold by the early evening sun). The road turned out to be Goswell Road. A place of slightly down-at-heal struggle, where you felt that for some, the struggle wasn’t worth it, but for others, maybe. That kind of in-between sort of a place. Not as affluent as you’d expect for something that close to the City, but trundling along as best it could. Big, shabby-modern university buildings. Building sites. Ethnic shops.
And then in amongst all this middlingness, a glimpse through what looked like a shop window, into a world of money-no-object designer gloss and nouveau riche ostentation. What is all this stuff?
It all looked rather Zaha Hadid, especially this shiny but strange object, presumably for sitting on:
And hey, look, there’s a picture of Zaha Hadid. This is obviously a place that takes Zaha Hadid pretty seriously, and is very saddened by her recent death:
Zaha Hadid, I should explain, is the world-renowned starchitect and designer, who recently died at the shockingly young age of 65. When a starchitect dies at 65, that’s like a rock star dying at 22. At 65, starchitects, rather like classical conductors, are just getting started. The thing is, starchitects need power, and their target demographic is old decision-makers, so they tend to be old too.
What was this rather strange place? I stepped back to see if there was any clue on the outside.
Here was a clue:
Good grief. This is an actual Zaha Hadid place of work.
I crossed the road, to photo the whole thing:
To be more exact, this is not the one place where Hadid and all her underlings did everything. This is the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery, which opened in 2013 (I now learn), which would perhaps have been open for me to walk into had I encountered it earlier in the day. The place displays many of Hadid’s numerous designs for Small Things, like furniture, lamps, sculptures, jewellery, paintings, and suchlike.
Considering what a wacky designer Hadid was, that’s a surprisingly prosaic building, isn’t it? I’m guessing that it was not built specifically with her in mind, but was adapted.
So, no wonder that this place now contains memorials to Zaha Hadid, like this:
There is some reflection of the outside in this next snap, but it gives you an idea of what the place as a whole is like, and what kind of stuff is in it:
Frankly, for me, all this indoor small stuff does not show Hadid at her very best. For that, I think, you have to go outside.
Her only building in London so far is the Aquatics Centre, which I photoed, very hastily, when I visited the top of the Big Olympic Thing. Had I know then that Zaha Hadid had been about to die, I would have taken more photos of this building, and more carefully:
I would, for instance, have placed it in a gap in that safety netting, rather than just randomly. Another time.
But notice that even in that casual photo, the beauty, I think, of the building still asserts itself. It’s like a sports helmet, of the sort worn by cyclists, and by some cricketers.
Even more remarkable is this amazing ancient-modern juxtaposition:
This is now, apparently, nearing completion. It might be worth a trip to Antwerp, just to see it.
Zaha Hadid’s underlings are going to try to keep the Zaha Hadid enterprise going, at least the architectural bit. Good luck people, but you’re surely going to need it.
The rumour I heard is that Hadid was “difficult” to work for. Maybe this was just an example of that law that says that bossy men are masterful, but bossy women are bossy. But maybe she really was difficult to work for. If so, this difficulty looks like it was all of a piece with the sorts of designs she created.
The thing is, Hadid was not some logical, everything-has-a-reason systematic, machines-for-living in, presider over a system of architectural problem solving. She was the kind of architect who unleashed drama, excitement, at vast extra expense, if what you’re comparing it all with is a big rectangular box. You only have to look at her stuff to see that any logic involved is just an excuse for a cool looking design. Why does it look that way? Because I, Zaha Hadid, say so, and I’m the boss, that’s why. I make beautiful shapes. Other people like them and buy them. Deal with it.
That’s going to be a hard act to replace.
As regulars here know, I am fascinated by unusual vehicles, and by almost all commercial vehicles. Whereas cars tend to be reticent about making any sort of personal statement, commercial vehicles have to communicate. They have to radiate an atmosphere. They have to dress themselves like they’re going on the pull in a nightclub. Well, they don’t have to. But most commercial vehicles are an opportunity to do marketing, so why turn it down? And these vehicles consequently radiate as many different atmospheres as there are commercial purposes being pursued in and with them.
Here are a couple of vans I spied today:
Both are somewhat self-conscious, I think. There is a lack of earnestness here, a certain ironic distance, a certain slightly bogus artifice, not to say Art, involved.
But, all part of what makes wandering about in London such an endlessly entertaining pastime.
Sausage Man website here. I tried googling “Oliver London”, but all I got was a lot of stuff about a stage musical. The small tricycle van looks oriental to me, and that its presence outside an oriental restaurant is not coincidental.
I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government). The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.
But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science. Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77). Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:
The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”
So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time? Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it? There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air. Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?
One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools. The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.
In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.
The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.
When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.
This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.