Historically, there has been much dispute over whether such a thing as a vacuum can exist. Ancient Greek philosophers debated the existence of a vacuum, or void, in the context of atomism, which posited void and atom as the fundamental explanatory elements of physics. Following Plato, even the abstract concept of a featureless void faced considerable skepticism: it could not be apprehended by the senses, it could not, itself, provide additional explanatory power beyond the physical volume with which it was commensurate and, by definition, it was quite literally nothing at all, which cannot rightly be said to exist. Aristotle believed that no void could occur naturally, because the denser surrounding material continuum would immediately fill any incipient rarity that might give rise to a void. In his Physics, book IV, Aristotle offered numerous arguments against the void: for example, that motion through a medium which offered no impediment could continue ad infinitum, there being no reason that something would come to rest anywhere in particular. Although Lucretius argued for the existence of vacuum in the first century BC and Hero of Alexandria tried unsuccessfully to create an artificial vacuum in the first century AD, it was European scholars such as Roger Bacon, Blasius of Parma and Walter Burley in the 13th and 14th century who focused considerable attention on these issues. Eventually following Stoic physics in this instance, scholars from the 14th century onward increasingly departed from the Aristotelian perspective in favor of a supernatural void beyond the confines of the cosmos itself, a conclusion widely acknowledged by the 17th century, which helped to segregate natural and theological concerns. Almost two thousand years after Plato, René Descartes also proposed a geometrically based alternative theory of atomism, without the problematic nothing–everything dichotomy of void and atom. Although Descartes agreed with the contemporary position, that a vacuum does not occur in nature, the success of his namesake coordinate system and more implicitly, the spacial–corporeal component of his metaphysics would come to define the philosophically modern notion of empty space as a quantified extension of volume. By the ancient definition however, directional information and magnitude were conceptually distinct. With the acquiescence of Cartesian mechanical philosophy to the "brute fact" of action at a distance, and at length, its successful reification by force fields and ever more sophisticated geometric structure, the anachronism of empty space widened until "a seething ferment" of quantum activity in the 20th century filled the vacuum with a virtual pleroma.
The explanation of a clepsydra or water clock was a popular topic in the Middle Ages. Although a simple wine skin sufficed to demonstrate a partial vacuum, in principle, more advanced suction pumps had been developed in Roman Pompeii.
In the medieval Middle Eastern world, the physicist and Islamic scholar, Al-Farabi (Alpharabius, 872-950), conducted a small experiment concerning the existence of vacuum, in which he investigated handheld plungers in water. He concluded that air's volume can expand to fill available space, and he suggested that the concept of perfect vacuum was incoherent. However, according to Nader El-Bizri, the physicist Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen, 965-1039) and the Mu'tazili theologians disagreed with Aristotle and Al-Farabi, and they supported the existence of a void. Using geometry, Ibn al-Haytham mathematically demonstrated that place (al-makan) is the imagined three-dimensional void between the inner surfaces of a containing body. According to Ahmad Dallal, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī also states that "there is no observable evidence that rules out the possibility of vacuum". The suction pump later appeared in Europe from the 15th century.
Medieval thought experiments into the idea of a vacuum considered whether a vacuum was present, if only for an instant, between two flat plates when they were rapidly separated. There was much discussion of whether the air moved in quickly enough as the plates were separated, or, as Walter Burley postulated, whether a 'celestial agent' prevented the vacuum arising. The commonly held view that nature abhorred a vacuum was called horror vacui. Speculation that even God could not create a vacuum if he wanted to was shut down by the 1277 Paris condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier, which required there to be no restrictions on the powers of God, which led to the conclusion that God could create a vacuum if he so wished. Jean Buridan reported in the 14th century that teams of ten horses could not pull open bellows when the port was sealed.
The 17th century saw the first attempts to quantify measurements of partial vacuum. Evangelista Torricelli's mercury barometer of 1643 and Blaise Pascal's experiments that both demonstrated a partial vacuum.
In 1654, Otto von Guericke invented the first vacuum pump and conducted his famous Magdeburg hemispheres experiment, showing that teams of horses could not separate two hemispheres from which the air had been partially evacuated. Robert Boyle improved Guericke's design and with the help of Robert Hooke further developed vacuum pump technology. Thereafter, research into the partial vacuum lapsed until 1850 when August Toepler invented the Toepler Pump and Heinrich Geissler invented the mercury displacement pump in 1855, achieving a partial vacuum of about 10 Pa (0.1 Torr). A number of electrical properties become observable at this vacuum level, which renewed interest in further research.
While outer space provides the most rarefied example of a naturally occurring partial vacuum, the heavens were originally thought to be seamlessly filled by a rigid indestructible material called aether. Borrowing somewhat from the pneuma of Stoic physics, aether came to be regarded as the rarefied air from which it took its name, (see Aether (mythology)). Early theories of light posited an ubiquitous terrestrial and celestial medium through which light propagated. Additionally, the concept informed Isaac Newton explanations of both refraction and of radiant heat. 19th century experiments into this luminiferous aether attempted to detect a minute drag on the Earth's orbit. While the Earth does, in fact, move through a relatively dense medium in comparison to that of interstellar space, the drag is so minuscule that it could not be detected. In 1912, astronomer Henry Pickering commented: "While the interstellar absorbing medium may be simply the ether, is characteristic of a gas, and free gaseous molecules are certainly there".
In 1930, Paul Dirac proposed a model of the vacuum as an infinite sea of particles possessing negative energy, called the Dirac sea. This theory helped refine the predictions of his earlier formulated Dirac equation, and successfully predicted the existence of the positron, confirmed two years later. Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle formulated in 1927, predict a fundamental limit within which instantaneous position and momentum, or energy and time can be measured. This has far reaching consequences on the "emptiness" of space between particles. In the late 20th century, so-called virtual particles that arise spontaneously from empty space were confirmed.
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