There is a lot of literature about how it is that important successes in science apparently stemmed from false belief. Belief in the existence of caloric is a common example: it seems to have led Laplace (1816) to the discovery of the correct speed of sound equation.
However, it seems that many calorists of the time were very cautious about the purported existence of caloric. Here are a few passages worth thinking about.
[i]n our ignorance of the nature of heat, we are left to carefully observe its effects, which principally consist in the dilation of bodies, the rendering of fluids, and the conversion into vapor (Lavoisier and Laplace 1783, 153-154).
Lavoisier and Laplace then go on to suggest a way of translating between caloric and dynamical theories of heat:
- Free caloric :: Force vive
- Combining of caloric :: Loss of force vive
- Disengaging of heat :: Augmentation of force vive
(Lavoisier and Laplace, 154). Lavoisier cautions a few years later:
“we are not even obligated to suppose that caloric is a real substance; it is sufficient… that it be any kind of repulsive cause that separates the molecules of matter, allowing us to imagine its effects in an abstract and mathematical way” (Lavoisier, 1789, 19).
It seems that we must at least tread with great care before inferring what role a particular ontology had in any given scientific discovery.
Laplace. 1816. Sur la vitesse du son dans l’air et dans l’eau. Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 3:328-343.
Lavoisier & Laplace. 1783. Memoire sur la chaleur. Memoires de la Academie des Sciences, 355-408.
Lavoisier. 1789. Traite elementaire de chimie. In Oeuvres de Laplace, premiere tome (1864).
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