July 04, 2007

Natura abhorret a vacuo

In English: Natures abhors a vacuum.

This saying is the last in a series of -ura nouns from the previous few days. So far, we've seen pictura, mixtura, iactura, sepultura and cultura. Today's word is probably most famous of the -ura nouns: natura, from the verb nasci, "to be born," with the participle natus. So natura is that whole being-born business!

This particular saying, Natura abhorret a vacuo, "Nature abhors (shrinks back from) a vacuum," is also know as the doctrine of horror vacui, "the horror of the vacuum." In the same way that ancient Greek scientists and philosophers found the notion of zero extremely uncomfortable (see Charles Seife's book for a wonderful "history of zero"), they were also disturbed by the notion of a vacuum, rejecting it as a theoretical possibility.

For Christians, the doctrine was not just inconceivable, but heretical. A vacuum would be a place without God: something abhorrent, indeed! There was a counterargument, however, based on the notion of God's omnipotence. Who is to say what God could not create if he had a mind to do so - including a vacuum.

Protests against the vacuum continued, though, and as late as 1649 the Jesuit scholar Paolo Casati published a treatise, Vacuum proscriptum, "The Vacuum Outlawed." Even though he was opposed to the existence of the vacuum, Casati did get to have a crater on the moon named after him!

Casati felt the need to present this argument against the vacuum because of the major experiment conducted by the scientist Evangelista Torricelli in 1644. Torricelli took a glass test-tube and filled it with mercury. He then used his finger to cover the opening and turned the tube upside down and lowered it into a bowl of mercury. After Torricelli removed his finger, an "empty" space appeared at the top of the tube as the mercury descended into the bowl, although the mercury stopped at a height of 76 centimeters. Torricelli had created a vacuum in the tube, and he was also able to measure the air pressure on the mercury in the bowl, against which the mercury in the tube was pressing. Hence the barometer! Then, in 1648 Blaise Pascal demonstrated that the barometric pressure was less the higher the altitude at which you conducted the experiment.

You can see a picture of the Torricelli experiment, along with lots of other historical information, at the wonderful Horror Vacui website of the Institute and Museum of History of Science in Florence, an Italian site but with English versions of all the pages.

Meanwhile, hoping your day has not been too "vacuous," here is today's proverb read out loud:

1328. Natura abhorret a vacuo.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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