Encounter lecture series - Small and large encounters: the little known uses of magnets and garlic

The forces of love and hate in society

Professor John Ralston

This is a verbatim transcript and may contain grammatical and spelling errors, particularly in the case of foreign words.

Why did I pick this particular topic? I thought it was challenging. I thought it would be fun to try and talk about what was happening in society and what shaped it at the time when Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin set off. And I thought it would be interesting to trace some of the things that were happening in science. In doing this there is a danger that one will fall well and truly between two stools. I am a great admirer of a man called Richard Fineman who had the greatest mind in physics in the twentieth century. He wrote a little book and in that book there is a quote, which essentially is this; “that in talking about the impact of ideas in one field and ideas in another, one is apt to make a fool of oneself”. And in these days of specialisation there are too few people that have such a deep understanding of two departments of knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or another. I recommend the little book, it is called The Meaning of it all, and it is a lecture that he delivered in April 1963. So I hope that I won’t fall between two stools too much.

I want to talk about the environment that existed in society in France at the junction between the 18th and 19th centuries. This period was in fact the end of the Age of Enlightenment: this great period that swept across Europe in the 18th century in particular. And it was supposed to be the age of reason. In the smart salons of Paris and London people debated great philosophical topics while surrounding them, in society at that time, was poverty, squalor and great discontent. There was also a revolution brewing, not only in the streets of Paris, but also in England. There were periods during this time when parts of the estimable royal navy went on strike. At that stage of course, England and France were at war and the English government was spending 300,000 English pounds a month on mounting the battle against Napoleon, who at that stage was fairly rampant in Europe. Horatio Nelson, of course at that time, wasn’t to be outdone and as we would say in Australia, giving the French curry through the use of the English Navy. 

The forces in society at that particular stage were quite dramatic. Why do I pick the subject of forces? If you go to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and look up ancient places and do a little reading you will find that the Greeks said there were two forces that shape society. They were in fact Love and Hate. One could argue that they still shape society now, but those two forces have formed the basis of chemical theory for about 2000 years. If you dig a little deeper you find that the Greeks were interested in forces at a distance, and in particular magnetic forces. They believed you could use the power of magnets to cope with melancholy and depression. You could also use them as love potions and in fact magnets were meant to be able to protect the chastity of women. However you could remove their action by rubbing them with garlic. Quite interestingly you could also restore the strength of the magnets by using goat’s blood. So there were a lot of women gardeners in those days and a lot of male goatherds. Now things have progressed somewhat since then. Love and Hate, as we will see a little later, still have some very strong controlling forces. 

I want to move on now to the scientists who were present at the time that Baudin and Flinders were starting their voyage. I want to talk about the key figures and perhaps the most pivotal one of that period was Joseph Banks. He was a really formidable person and had been educated at Eton, Harrow and Christchurch at Oxford. 

Banks came from an extremely wealthy background. It wasn’t necessary for him to complete his degree at Oxford; he was more of a dilettante. He had sufficient funding to do whatever he wanted to do with his life, and when he died at a ripe old age he was living on 30,000 English pounds a year. Which even these days is a princely sum. He was instrumental in establishing the Royal Botanical Society, which is at present at Kew Gardens. And the reason for that is because he was very much a naturalist and a botanist. For those who are not aware of his background he was present on the Endeavour when Cook made his momentous voyage. He explored a large number of things around the world and brought back all of these tropical delights back to Kew Gardens. At the age of 35 he was also the youngest President of the Royal Society and, as such, a really pivotal person. A little later in Joseph’s career he was persuaded by Matthew Flinders, who was a great networker, that he should be involved in funding and supporting this voyage on the Investigator. So that is the connection there. But at the same time that Sir Joseph Banks was in fact leading the Royal Society, although he wasn’t quite at the same level as other genuine scientists, he was involved in interacting and stimulating them. One of the most famous of these scientists was Joseph Priestley. 

Joseph Priestley was a very interesting man and his background is quite fascinating. He was born in a fairly well to do family but by inclination he became a pastor. In fact he was a Unitarian pastor. He was also very adept at languages but he had an underlying interest in science, which he took to under the general support of Lord Sheldon, who became his companion as well as his librarian. This would have been a rare job for a librarian in those days. He became his confidant during a period of eight years, and supported by Sheldon, his interest in science developed heavily. At that point the interest in science was very much oriented to try and understand what chemical forces controlled the process of combustion. The process of combustion as we all know is that you burn something. Most of us would think that having ignited something and burnt it, that there would be a loss of mass. And of course this is something that Joseph Priestley realised by a series of experiments. Those experiments were conducted in this laboratory, which if chemical science these days were so simple Vice Chancellors at universities would be happier people. 

What Priestley did was to carry out a series of careful experiments that showed that if you burnt something it lost mass. And he invented a substance called Phlogiston which was meant to be the substance, that was present in bodies, which when combusted was lost. There was a problem that was discovered a little later on because it was found that a number of substances when combusted in air didn’t in fact loose mass but gained mass. And since he believed everything that in fact was involved was Phlogiston he had to bring up the concept of a Negative Mass. And that caused some real problems in scientific interpretation, which were picked up a little later by Antoine Lavoisier. 

Now Priestley at that stage was very interested in the events that were taking place in Paris. He was a great supporter of the revolution. In fact he spoke publicly on the matter. It got to a stage where his support was so great that he was in fact elected as a citizen of the republic. He disagreed strongly with Edmund Burke, and the people of England thought he was a traitor. The Birmingham mob burnt down his house ruined his library and did away with all of his books. So if you’re a scientist and you are commenting on things that are outside your discipline, be careful the mob doesn’t burn your house down. He then had to retreat. He left England, went to Pennsylvania and died in 1804. Just before he died he published his very last manifesto on the Phlogiston theory. 

During the time that he was undertaking his research many of his talks were naturally given at the Royal Society, hence the connection with Sir Joseph Banks. But at that time there was a very special scientist, a man called Henry Cavendish; a diminutive figure, a thick neck, couldn’t walk properly and was inclined to stutter, but incredibly bright. He was also almost pathologically shy. There are a couple of stories that show this. He lived in a very nice house, as he was quite wealthy but on one occasion he met one of the cleaning maids on the back steps of the house bearing her mop. He was so shy that he never wanted that event to occur again so he duplicated the steps so that he and she would have independent entries. At a meeting at the Royal Society on one occasion in the presence of Priestley, whose Phlogiston theory he supported, and Sir Joseph Banks, he was introduced to a distinguished Austrian scientist and Banks praised Cavendish quite effusively. Cavendish was so shy that he bolted from the meeting, jumped into his waiting carriage, went home and didn’t appear for a week in public. So this was a man who supported the Phlogiston theory and who was an extremely shy person. 

Cavendish is best known as the man who weighed the world, and that is putting it into the context of popular science, by doing some very simple experiments and arguably one of the best physics experiments ever. He was able to determine the density of the earth to within an accuracy of today’s figures of 1%, which was no mean feat. So we have Priestley, we have the over arching figure of Sir Joseph Banks and we have Henry Cavendish who was perhaps arguably the best scientist of the three. And then buried in Paris at the same time we have Antoine Lavoisier. 

Antoine was born in Paris. His mother died when he was quite young and he was brought up by his grandparents who, when they found they had an extremely gifted child, actually lavished a lot of attention on him. He was in fact trained as and became an excellent lawyer being called to the bar at the age of twenty-one. Antoine soon became bored with law, and went to the jardins du roi where he heard a brilliant series of lectures by a man called Ruel, which were basically on chemical science and he was very interested in this. Diderot was also in the audience and he used to take copious notes. He was friendly with Antoine Lavoisier and Lavoisier read through all the notes, understood what Ruel was driving at and carried out a series of experiments. After some discussion with Joseph Priestley these experiments showed that if you were very careful in your measurements, and you were looking at the process of combustion, you could show in the instances where substances gained weight as distinct from lost weight during combustion, that they in fact absorbed a component from the air. We as chemists these days call this the conservation of mass and at that stage that was a very novel idea. And that component of the air that was in fact absorbed upon combustion Lavoisier gave the name 'oxygen' to. So he was in fact the person who first drew attention to this wonderful element without which we wouldn’t be able to survive. 

Cavendish shortly after showed that a combination of hydrogen and oxygen produced water. So there was the link. The intellectual debate that occurred between Priestley and Lavoisier was dynamic and essentially non-destructive. Lavoisier was unfortunately caught up in the terror and he made the great mistake of joining the tax department and became, what translated from French is in fact a tax farmer. He was a very good one and also a very kind one. In fact he could almost have been classed as a Robin Hood in Paris. And when he was brought before the Terror the only thing they could find to basically charge him with was that he put tobacco and other illegal substances into water and in some way corrupted the community. That didn’t save him from the guillotine and its sharp blade fell, and that was the end, at a very young age, of one of the real intellectual talents of France who was a member of the Academie Française at the age of 31. A special person. 

Now what we need to do, having dealt with the scientists, is talk a little bit about the captains who were involved and their connection to Joseph Banks, and in the case of Nicholas Baudin to the first consult, who was of course Bonaparte. Matthew Flinders, and we have seen this photograph on many occasions now, was in fact born into a family who were essentially GP’s, and it was thought that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a medical scientist. But in fact, he made the mistake of reading Robinson Crusoe at an early age and was corrupted by the thought of going to sea and at the age of 15 he left school. I couldn’t access his school records but I understand he was a pretty bright kid and would have been a great pleasure to teach. Medical science wasn’t for him, he wanted to join the navy, which he did, and progressed very well. Over a long period of time he showed, I believe, a real capacity for leadership, for innovative thinking and for also realising that you don’t get very far even as a sea captain unless you have friends who are in high places. So he became a confidant of Sir Joseph Banks who found him a very able captain, and sent him on a number of voyages with the general support of the English government where he could bring back specimens which could be used in Kew Gardens. So there is a the connection. 

It was after a period of lying fallow where his skills as a sea captain were not being properly used that he wrote to Sir Joseph Banks and asked him to use his influence with the King to try and encourage a voyage of exploration. Banks agreed and that is the reason why we see the provisioning of the ship, and the voyage being despatched to the South Pacific with the particular task of which I think you know about, which I will come to a little later. Matthew Flinders is a person of a very interesting background who really wanted to break the family mould and do something different. 

Nicholas Baudin, this is not as common a photograph as you might expect. He was born into a merchant family and was also a commoner like our friend Flinders. He was the fifth in the family, the family were not all that rich, and so he wasn’t going to obtain an education in France of the equivalent of Eton or Harrow. He left school at fifteen and immediately gained an apprenticeship and became a sailor. His involvement with the French Philosophical Societies was not all that different, when you actually look at it, from that of Matthew Flinders. On a number of occasions in order to encourage the learned societies to support his voyagers he was known to give quite erudite talks on aspects of botany and occasionally he moved into physics and chemistry to try and encourage support. In other words, what would you do or what would you benefit from if I were the captain of one of your ships? It’s a little bit like a scientist these days going to the Australian Research Council and doing the same sort of thing. He may in fact have survived quite well in a modern context. 

Nicholas Baudin at around the same time as Flinders was using his influence, not so much through learned society but also directly with Bonaparte to try and get provisioning for a voyage. Why would France and England at this time, both at loggerheads, both spending large amounts of money, why would they want to do this and in particular why would they want to go to a southern continent called Terra Australis at that stage? France had done badly in Canada and both countries had regarded scientific exploration in particular as a matter of winning territory and gaining pride. The French discovered that the English were thinking of a voyage of this type and the communications across the channel were pretty good, mainly between the scientists, and not the politicians. The French also decided to provision a voyage. The task was a daunting one. So if you are going to have a scientific voyage you really are going to have to take some scientists with you and the sort of people who were recruited by Baudin were people like Peron and also Fleurieu after whom this peninsular is named. 

In the case of Flinders, there were also a group of distinguished scientists one of them being Brown. One of the interesting things is going back through the records and seeing how much people were paid for the voyage. For the voyage of the Investigator, on this momentous trip to the continent we call Australia, the amount of money allocated for the payment of the captain and of the scientists and the officers was a total of 1200 pounds. 600 at the start of the voyage, 600 on completion. 300 for the captain and 150 pounds divided equally between the four officers on the Investigator and four scientists. So at least there was an equality at that particular point. 

I apologise for the state of the French map, and the date you can’t see is 1753. That’s as much evidence that was available to the Investigator as it set out on its journey to the south. So the task was to explore the regions, which certainly were not clearly mapped. The Encounter, well many of you would have heard about that. That happened on the 8th or 9th of April 1802 and it occurred purely by chance and as far as one can seem to work out there is not much knowledge on the part of either party that the other party was going to be present in those waters. There was a knowledge generally that there was going to be a voyage from France but there seems to be a fair amount of confusion on the part of both captains on what the nature of the journeys were. So the meeting between the two ships off the coast of Goolwa was in fact a pleasant one. There was no animosity although the Investigator did keep itself broad side on. And it did this with its guns ready just in case something awkward happened. Nothing happened and both ships went on their merry way. 

It was Flinders and his crew who did the lions share of the mapping and they need to be credited for that. But the great task that was taken on by Baudin shouldn’t be overlooked as well. So the Encounter was a momentous one and it is important for this particular state. The significance of their work should not be overlooked. An interesting connection here and the funny thing about all of this is that Baudin and Flinders and other scientists after the event, later what we found was both captains ended up on Ile de France, these days it is called Mauritius. Flinders who was a fairly aggressive individual had an argument with the French government and was imprisoned there and of course was there for seven years or so. He eventually ended back in England where his wife had been patiently waiting for him and died a death, which really didn’t befit him or the great work that I think that he had done. Our friend Baudin ended up on the Ile de France as well and then was discredited to a large extent by this rather innocuous and unpleasant looking fellow whose name is François Peron. He had been one of the scientists on board and wanted to gain great credit for the journey, mapping and exploration itself. In this photograph he looks quite ingenious. It is very interesting when you look at historical records because in the next photo here he doesn’t. So this is a more popular version of Peron, the other one is the less popular one. So you can basically demonise someone by the sorts of photographs you take and it is something we recognise from the media from time to time. But he played a major role. And it was Fleurieu who later on basically brought the importance of Baudin’s voyage up to much greater significance. 

Since then, during this period we have seen a lot of things happen. We still, I think are very much within the communities of France and England at that time we supported scientific work and the voyages of exploration. But what happened to the legacy of Flinders and Baudin and the scientists, physicists, chemists and botanists that were with them. What has been happening since then in the community at large particularly with respect to science? 

From the point of view of scientists these days the terms Love and Hate are a lot less popular than they were 2000 years ago or in the days of both Priestley and Lavoisier. However the terms attraction and repulsion are perhaps a better way of putting things and are very applicable to what happens in chemistry and what interactions take place between molecules and atoms and particles. So we now have these days a quantitative description of a lot of the events that take place. And I want to just tap one or two of these just a little bit. 

This is a diagram and I apologise for the fact that you won’t be able to read it all, but it is in fact an arrow of time in chemistry and biology. It starts down here with a billion seconds, ten to the ninth seconds. This is basically a human life span. So down in here I put humans. If you run across this line here, you go from 1850 – 1900. So this is the time in which we found that our friends Priestley and Lavoisier were at work. If you move up this scale here the time domain which is 10 to the 9th seconds moves down to seconds and then to 10 to the minus 3 or milliseconds. These are the observation times which I am trying to point out to you are now possible within chemistry and physics. We now move to the microsecond, which is one millionth of a second, and in 1960 the first experiments were carried out in chemistry and physics using lasers at the nanosecond or 10 to the minus 9 second intervals. 

We now moved on into 1970 to the picotsecond spectroscopy and in 1980 to fentochemistry, which are 10 to the minus 15 of a second. And in the last six months we have seen the first publishing on experiments, which have carried out at time scales of 10 to the minus 18 of a second, which is really an attosecond. So that is 1 million, million, millionth of a second. That is incredibly important because in ten years time these very early ideas and experiments will enable us with the right processing techniques to track the notion, not so much now of atoms, but of the nucleus and the electrons that are in atoms, and to track the course of the chemical reaction completely. If I go back of for a moment or two, back into the fentosecond domain which in ten years time we will think is slow, I can look at the interaction between a couple of iodine atoms. All I want to do is point out that their rotational and vibrational functions, how they rotate, how they move apart like this, can be tracked now using techniques which operate at the fentosecond scale. So we can see what is happening, literally a picture of a chemical reaction occurring. We can tune things, we can tell what might or might not happen, we can bias things toward one side or another, and so we can control chemical reactions. 

There is another technique, which we invented in Australia. It is called Atomic force microscopy. You would have heard of it because in its imaging mode you can see and resolve pictures of things, which are sitting on surfaces at a very small scale. A young fellow who was doing his PhD at that time, at the Australian National University found that if you took a little instrument, whose tip is not unlike a record player needle. If you can imagine the tip of that being made much smaller, so it becomes the arm of a little spring, we have in fact a tip here which is the tip of an atomic force microscope – it’s called a cantilever but it behaves in fact like a little spring. This fellow, William Ducker, who was working at the ANU discovered that if you put a little ball, a very small ball, somewhere near the size of a micron (10 to the minus 6 of a metre) and you stuck it on to the end of a spring here and if you hadn’t had too much to drink the night before you could put it in the right place. And you put it on with a fentolitre of glue (which is 10 to the minus 15 of a litre) you could stick it on to the end here and you could press this sphere against a support, a substance that you were interested in like a flat surface on top of a piece of electric crystal. And you could move this thing up and down so you could control the distance by the deflection of this little spring at the base here, you could in fact determine the force. So you could measure force as a function of distance. 

Why would you want to do that? Because the forces are very small. You can measure down to a nano-neutron. This takes us into this funny realm, which these days we call the nano-domain. Its been known since the days of the early Egyptians, it just happens to have become a bit more popular now. So you can measure these funny things called forces and distances as a function and distance. You can look at very small particles on surfaces, you can image molecules on there and you can use these devices for giving you information. The information might look something like force possibly as a function of separation. Just to give you an idea for some real results here; if you have something stuck to a surface you can work out how many nano-neutrons are required to pull it off. That is a very small force. 

So these things are accessible to all of us as practicing professionals in physics, chemistry and in science in general. So we have come a long way from Love and Hate for 2000 years controlling chemical reactions. We understand a lot now about the sort of forces that are involved between atoms and we also understand what happens within molecules, between small particles and the host substraights [phonetic] that in fact may bear them. We understand how to manipulate the forces that are involved, how to make the surface clean for example, how to pattern something, how to use something which can form a template in an electronic circuit. And all of this is leading us as chemists, as physicists to understand how to make things that work on a much smaller scale. So some of the things that you hear on Quantum or some of the more advanced science programs, will in fact turn into real things in the not to distant future. 

All of that is fine but let me ask the question: Where are we now? We have done a huge number of things in science, all of these are important. What about the forces that have shaped society, how well have we gone there? I would give us a fairly good tick on the scientific side; I would say by and large there has been little blood shed in science. Normally speaking if two scientists, physicists, chemists whatever disagreed with one another they may have quite a stern public debate but they usually don’t kill one another. If you make a public statement like Priestley did, you get elected as the citizen of the Republic of France and your country is at war, then perhaps you might understand the citizens burning your house down. But if my colleagues and I disagree on something usually speaking my house remains in tact and I usually don’t have to look under my car in the morning to discern whether or not any bombs have been planted. 

From a societal point of view we haven’t done nearly as well. I don’t want to dwell on that too much, as it is obvious to everyone. However I think if one casts a scientific view, if you live in a mixed society that is well dispersed and if you don’t let too many barriers come up and you have the systems of governance which we are lucky to have in this country, you seem to be able to maintain the forces of love and hatred at what I call a realistic level. 

What I want to do now is just trace a little bit where we are now and I wanted to be slightly parochial but let me start off by saying that the links that exist between England and France and Australia are extremely strong. These links that exist are in terms of cooperation, cultural exchange and if I also in specific areas of science. If we take for example the relationship between the institute where I have the pleasure of working in this University and France. What is the relationship? We have an excellent link to the College de France. That college was created in the times of Napoleon because the College Royal at that particular stage was put out of existence during the time of the Terror, because they thought it was a hot bed of discontent. That evolved into the College de France, which arguably is one of the most prestigious institutions in France these days. What is our interaction? Scientific exchange, staff, students and so forth. And that happens not only with that institution in France but with many others. So bright young French scientists come here and we send a complimentary group of people across to France. 

We do the same thing in England. I happen to have picked Bristol, which of course at the times we were talking about was unfortunately linked back into the slave trade. Not by many years, but it was still there. That passed and places like the University of Bristol are organisations with which we have great scientific exchange. What are we interested in with the link between Bristol, the College de France and us? We are interested in the forces that control events. What happens if you want to look at something like a couple of little oil droplets that might approach one another? How do you describe that event? Why is that important to you? Because you use it every day when you poor milk on your Weeties. The oil droplets, which are milk fat globules, are in fact sterically [phonetic] stabilised as we call it by proteins. That is one of the reasons why they don’t coalesce. They did when I was a kid and when you took a milk bottle and you put it outside the front door you would find a layer of cream on the top. If you left it out for two long the local black birds would come along and peck a hole in the top and drink all the cream. Or if you were a kid, you could take the top off very carefully and drink the cream. If it were at school you would take the little cap and flick it at one of your neighbours because with any luck it would hit him/her and they would be sprayed with the residual cream. So these things were good fun. The little droplets that you find in milk, the reason why they don’t coalesce is that they have been homogenised and they are sterically [phonetic] stabilised. So the sorts of things that we talk about, the measurement devices that we use are all incredibly important in controlling forces. Would that we had the same precise devises for doing the things in society. But I think with a bit of help that we are getting there. 

What I would like to do is to conclude the lecture tonight with a little doggerel

A dingo and an echidna met
High on a hill near Hurst
And there it was, they had a bet
On who could race down first
You’ll never cope with such a slope,
The dingo quipped with glee
Ah don’t be daft the echidna laughed
I’ll win this race you’ll see.
The echidna had the wherewithal
To take an early lead
He rolled himself into a ball
And swiftly gathered speed
The moral here is plain to see
As I shall now convey
However long one’s legs may be
Thinking laterally will win the day.