by Shane L. Larson
I suspect that most of you reading this are just like me — you’re an ordinary citizen of Earth, and have never been to space. Never-the-less, we know a lot of facts about space, the most important of which is it is an inhospitable environment that would kill every one of us cold dead if we didn’t have the technology to protect ourselves. Do you ever wonder how we know that? Sure, the world’s space agencies have sent astronauts to space, but how did they know what to expect when they got there? The answer to that question hides one of the most magnificent truths of the Cosmos we have learned: that the Cosmos is knowable and through pure happenstance we as a species have discovered that secret. We can use the simple tools of our senses, together with a few brain cells, to unveil the machinery of Nature.
I started thinking about this because of this magazine cover. In February 1953, the launch of Sputnik and the beginning of the Space Age were still 4 years and 8 months away. The launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly into space, was still 8 years and 2 months in the future. But the cover of Collier’s magazine boldly showed an image of that future, and the future was bundled up in a spacesuit.
The need for spacesuits was, perhaps, not surprising to the public, since they had been featured as necessary in all the science fiction of the Twentieth Century, beginning with early works like H. G Wells’s “The First Men in the Moon”, Garrett P. Serviss’s “Edison’s Conquest of Mars”, and later films like George Pal’s classic “Destination Moon”. The need for spacesuits is obvious, because space is a vacuum.
But think about this for a moment with me. This was in a time before any human, before any human machine, had ever been to “outer space.” Based on your everyday experiences, you could reasonably expect the environment of space to be exactly the same as here on the surface of the planet — why wouldn’t it be filled with air and wind?
That seems weird to say out loud, but it shows how good our society is at assimilating scientific fact — objective truth — and incorporating it into our understanding of the world. But it begs a lovely question: having never been to space, how did we figure out it was empty and devoid of air? How could we possibly know what to expect and how to prepare for our voyages there? The human species has developed a remarkable ability to observe the world around us, to discern the few simple rules that govern how it behaves and evolves, and use that knowledge to move into the future.
The story begins not with a contemplation of space, but with a contemplation of Earth, and in particular its atmosphere. We are used to characterizing the world around us because it is made of things we can touch, pick up, and see — rocks, leaves, hunks of metal, water, snow, jack rabbits, and so on. But what about things we can’t see? Glass, for instance, is transparent, but not completely so — you can usually tell if there is a pane of it in front of your face, and if you break it you can certainly see its edges and pick up pieces.The air, however, is a trickier thing to talk about. You and I, we’ve grown up from a very young age being told that the air exists, and what it is, and what it is made of, and how it behaves. Looking back through the ages, there was a time when none of that was known, when no one had ever seriously contemplated the question “what is the air and what is it made of?”
Humans are a curious lot, and we all begin our lives as explorers and investigators. Most children discover early on that air exists while playing in the water. If you take a glass and turn it upside down before submerging it in a tub of water you make a curious discovery — water does not rush into the glass and fill it up. Why not? There must be something in the way! What is it? It is air. Of course it is.It is a simple observation, it is a simple conclusion, but the implication is profound — you can investigate and discover something that is invisible, something you can’t control, something you can’t hold in your hands. You can do the experiment over and over and over again, and you’ll get the same result. You can use a different cup, and a different pond or lake or sink, and you’ll get the same result. You can send a letter to your friend who lives on the other side of the world and describe what you have done, and they’ll get the same result. This is the fundamental basis for how we think about the world around us — we make observations, we consider them and expand them to the best of our ability, and we figure out how the world works. Our musings culminate in a set of rules that we call “the Laws of Nature,” and we all agree that these rules govern experiments everywhere. We use those rules to try and understand how the rest of the world works. We use those rules to harness our interface with Nature, and improve the human condition. This practice of discovering the Laws of Nature and using them has a name — “SCIENCE.”
The simple child’s game described above allowed us to “discover” something invisible — the air. What else can we find out about this “air” stuff? Just knowing that something exists can get you far, but not very far. At some point you need to know more. Other objects you encounter have measurable properties. A rock or a bag of Skittles has a size, has a color, behaves a certain way when you squeeze it, and has a weight. So one might ask all those same questions about the air. So what do you think? Does air weigh anything?
At first glance, it seems a silly question because you don’t notice it weighs much. Never-the-less, it is a legitimate question, and one that is worthy of investigation. The first record of an experiment to measure the weight of air is in a letter Galileo wrote to Giovanni Battista Baliani in 1613 describing an ingenious method that you can utilize at home.
Make a simple balance by hanging a stick around its center by a string. On each end of the stick, hang an aluminum can so that the entire apparatus is balanced. If your significant other complains about this, either (a) convince them it is a piece of art, or (b) tell them you are recreating a frontier science experiment from the 1600s.
If you heat a can up, air is expelled from the can. Placing a candle under one can and heating it up will cause that end of the balanced experiment to rise. Why? Because it got lighter — the expelled air had mass of its own. By pushing air out of the can, the combined weight of the can and air decreased, and the balance became unequally weighted — the heavy side (with air) tipped down.You will often see versions of this experiment described with balloons instead of cans; the weight of air can be understood in this way, but the physics is more subtle. Using a rigid container makes it more straight-forward. If you want to prove to yourself that air is expelled from a heated container, take a bottle on its own and put a balloon over the neck. When you heat the bottle, the balloon will inflate as a result of air being pushed out. The discovery that air had weight was the beginning of serious examinations of the atmosphere. One of the earliest important innovations came from Evangelista Torricelli, who worked with Galileo in 1641, for the last three months before Galileo died. In 1643, he invented the first mercury barometer, showing that air had pressure. When air pressure is high compared to when the barometer is set up, the barometer rises; when air pressure is low compared to when the barometer is set up, the barometer sinks.
The figure below shows how Torricelli’s barometer works. Begin with an empty glass test tube, filled with air. Fill the tube up completely with mercury, and cap it (pictures of Torricelli doing this often show him holding his thumb over the end, the way you might do on a garden hose!). Invert the test tube in a small bowl of mercury, and remove your thumb with the top of the tube beneath the surface. The level of mercury in the tube will fall causing the level in the bowl to rise, but will eventually stop.Why does it stop? The pressure of the air (green arrows) is strong enough to keep mercury inside the tube! What is left behind in the tube when the mercury level sinks? Absolutely nothing. This is called a Torricellian vacuum, and was the first time a vacuum had been made in the laboratory. In fact, it was the first time that a vacuum had ever been demonstrated to even exist, pointing the way to the possibility that vacuums exist in Nature.
There are a variety of neat ways you can build your own barometer at home to see changes in pressure, using Torricelli’s method, straws and glassware, and water. However my favorite barometer is simply a sealed bag of chips. Food products like chips are sealed at the factory, and have a certain amount of air trapped inside the bag with them. If the external pressure of the air changes, then the air inside the bag either can’t resist being pushed inward (crushing the bag when air pressure is high), or it can’t resist pushing outward (blowing the bag up like a balloon when the air pressure is low).Torricelli’s invention was quietly explained to colleagues and other scientists in Europe at that time. In 1647 it was brought to the attention of Blaise Pascal, who deduced it must be the weight of the air pressing down on the bowl of mercury, preventing the weight of the mercury in the tube from falling further. If the air had some measurable and finite weight, then it must not stretch infinitely far above our heads, Pascal reasoned. There must be a top to the atmosphere. And if there was a top to the atmosphere, the weight of the air above you must decrease as you go higher — say climbing a tower, or walking up a tall hill or mountain. In 1648, Pascal convinced his brother-in-law to carry a barometer up the 1460 meters up the slopes of Puy-de-Dôme in France, and showed that it was so.
For the next three centuries, experiments with vacuum in laboratories continued. The Earth’s atmosphere was measured and tested on the highest mountains we could scale. We could understand the trends and behaviour of the ocean of air in which we swim, and thus predict what we would encounter when we crossed into space. In all that time, we never reached space itself, but we knew what we would eventually find there. On 4 October 1957, Sputnik rose on a tongue of flame, borne aloft by a rocket based on a missile into an orbit that ranged from 215 to almost 940 kilometers above the Earth. An orbit, which as expected, was beyond the rarified edges of what you and I regard as the atmosphere, truly in the vacuum of space. It was as we had expected from long contemplation and experiment here on Earth — the laws of Nature are immutable, and they apply everywhere in the Cosmos, even hundreds of kilometers above our head.
This is the nature of science. It is not a philosophy, it is a method of exploration, a method of understanding the Cosmos of which we are a part and using that understanding to improve our lives. It is not perfect, but it is self-correcting and extensible, able to assimilate new data and information to update our knowledge of the Universe, as we did when we discovered the existence of the vacuum. It is deadly accurate when it makes predictions based on overwhelming evidence. It is, so far as we know, the best method for discovering new knowledge and solving problems.