Appreciation 12/12/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

As part of my struggles in the past few years, I had to give up my personal library.  This was an eclectic collection of primarily science books that were of historical significance.  I had textbooks written by the late great Linus Pauling that many people have never even heard of, despite his amazing contributions to science.  I had some of the earliest textbooks on quantum theory, and even a general chemistry textbook that was so old it mentioned a brand-new subatomic particle tentatively called the “electron”. 

My old library is on my mind today because of a conversation I had with a friend (who may actually have one of my books, the definitive work that proved that regardless of source all forms of electricity are essentially the same).  She’s studying psychology, and I mentioned that one of the books I wish I could give to her was an old psychology textbook, written in the early ‘70’s.  Sometime in the mid 1970’s, psychologists came together for a vote in a national convention and decided, by proxy, that homosexuality was, in fact, not a form of insanity.  One of my favorite passages in the chapter on homosexuality suggested that to avoid becoming a homosexual, the best thing to do is avoid homosexual activities.  Gee, whiz, thanks a lot, Mr. Science. 

Another of my old textbooks was on nutrition.  A rare and difficult book to find, it looks like just a standard low-level college textbook, but it was not well-received by academia because shortly after being released, the author, who was a dietitian, died of malnutrition.  When I happened on this textbook in a used bookstore I nearly leapt out of my skin.  Today, it has probably been destroyed, or if somebody did buy it from the used bookstore to whom I was forced to sell my library, they probably just wanted a book on nutrition, and likely don’t even know why that is not the textbook they want. 

I love old unique textbooks.  When I taught general chemistry, we gave basic lessons from quantum theory that explains the octet rule, the foundation of chemical bonding that simply says that most elements want eight electrons in their outermost shell to be stable.  (Yes, there’s more to it but we’ll not go into this.)  As it turns out, that old textbook that suggested the new subatomic element also explained the octet rule.  This, to me, is just incredible.  Even before the discovery of electrons, they figured out how many needed to be around atoms, how they paired up, and even the exceptions to this octet rule.  I specifically purchased this book to see how they deduced all of this.  Obviously, they didn’t refer to “electrons” in this explanation, but rather called them “valencies”.  They certainly didn’t understand why but starting with the element that seemed most consistent to form one and only one bond (hydrogen, which has just one electron in its outermost shell), they simply deduced the rest.  Carbon, for example, would form a compound with a maximum of four hydrogens, so if each hydrogen had one filled valence, then carbon must have four open valences, and so forth. 

Old thermodynamics books, of course, fascinated me the most.  Even before the idea of individual atoms and their motions, they figured it all out.  Today we know that the higher the temperature of a material, the faster the average velocity of the atoms are, but back then, they didn’t even know about atoms, much less their motions.  So, “heat” was simply defined as that which flows from a region of high temperature to low, and temperature is a measure of heat content.  The higher the temperature, the more heat.  This, followed by the idea of the conservation of energy and that of entropy lead to a complete formulation of the laws that dictate everything that happens, without once mentioning atoms. 

This kind of historical insight is something that I adore and would love to try to protect.  But, much like the antique piano in my living room, this kind of history is just not something that most people care about anymore.  Pianos such as mine are often given away free for anybody willing to move it themselves (I actually paid for mine including moving it) because they are not valued in our society.  My library collection has most likely been spread like leaves in the fall wind, or simply destroyed.  Few people would see the beauty in these books that I did, and fewer would care to protect it.  As a society, our disinterest in history, seeing only the “old” rather than the history, is a sacrifice of immense richness in our heritage.  I’m happy that I saw this and have lived a richer life because of it, but that richness will likely die with me when my end comes. 

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