Monday, June 23, 2014

Chapter 3 - A Good Engineer: Part 2 - A Chemical Education

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish

All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

In the late 19th Century, chemical engineering had just emerged as a separate profession from mechanical engineering. With a boom in industrial chemical technology, Wladyslaw Korzybski seems to have hoped his son would be able to leap onto a lucrative bandwagon. So in spite of Alfred’s clear attraction to mechanical engineering—he enjoyed working with electrical and mechanical tools and in subsequent years invented and constructed a number of mechanical devices for his own and others’ use—he majored in Chemical Engineering and minored in Organic Chemistry in order to satisfy papa.(4) His classes also covered mathematics, physics, and basic engineering subjects.

In 1898 the science of chemistry had not yet reached the level of theoretical, mathematical treatment that physics had achieved and which Alfred, the lover of mathematics, seemed to yearn for. Yet it seems hard to imagine that he did not find interest in at least some of what he was learning. For example, in chemistry, as in the rest of 1898 science, fundamental discoveries and changes in basic understandings had been coming fast and furiously. This followed a relatively stagnant 2000 or so years from Democritus until Lavoisier at the end of the 18th Century.

Only at the start of the 19th Century had John Dalton developed his atomic hypothesis and attempted to classify the elements. New elements had been discovered throughout the century. And then in 1869, only 10 years before Alfred’s birth, the Russian Mendeleev had his vision of the periodic table, which revolutionized chemistry with its systemization of the qualities of elements by their atomic weights. The periodic table allowed Mendeleev to predict new elements and their characteristics, which were then subsequently discovered. Throughout the 1890s, elements forming an entirely new chemical group, the inert gases, were being found. They fit into Mendeleev's schema with remarkable ease.

In the physics of matter, the invisible atom, the basic elemental unit once thought indivisible, had begun to reveal an inner structure. In 1897, two years after Rontgen discovered x-rays emanating from cathode tubes, the British researcher J. J. Thomson found a particle discharged from such tubes which he named the “electron”, thought to be a constituent of the atom. Strange energy related to certain elements had also recently been discovered—phenomena that scientists could not easily understand in terms of established chemistry or physics. In 1896 Becquerel had discovered a powerful kind of ray labeled “radioactivity” coming out of the element uranium. Recently in Paris, Alfred’s compatriot Marie Curie, with her French husband Pierre, had begun to isolate another new element, radium, from pitchblende ore and to explore its radioactive properties. Matter was beginning to seem like something other than a solid brick. Alfred nigh undoubtedly followed many of these developments.

Thermodynamics had become a separately recognizable discipline within the previous 50 years. Here, Maxwell’s, Bolzmann’s, and Gibbs’ independent but related work in statistical mechanics challenged older accepted notions of determinism. This work demonstrated probability as basic to the study of the energetic changes in the physical-chemical systems Alfred was studying. As time went on probabilistic thinking would take on ever greater importance to Alfred in his understanding of the world beyond physics and chemistry and how humans think about it.

Alfred's minor field of organic chemistry, the chemistry of carbon-based compounds, had also been born in the 19th Century. Its applications to the manufacture of dyes, synthetic materials, explosives, drugs, etc., had great importance for a chemical engineering career. One aspect of organic chemistry probably had more lasting interest for him: its emphasis on structure. Louis Pasteur had found that the characteristics and reactivity of molecules depends not just on the proportions of their constituent atoms but also on their arrangements in space. Investigating samples of racemic acid, a residue seen on the wooden barrels used to ferment grapes, he isolated two crystalline forms. He discovered that the two forms of the acid rotate polarized light in opposite directions. In other words, they exist in right-handed and left-handed versions. He went on to find that these mirror-image molecules of the ‘same’ substance have different chemical and biological properties as well. With his minor in organic chemistry, Alfred would have had to learn about and visualize such molecules. He would not have been able to miss the significance of structure, which, in a much more generalized form, became central to his later work.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
4. Korzybski, “American Men of Science Application, 1948”. IGS Archives.

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