The Water Boiler

The Water boiler

Growing up in a Hindu-Indian household, it is difficult to not know what a havan is- a prayer where everybody gathers with a fire burning at a centre, with a priest pouring oil and sweet-strange smelling mixtures into the fire at regular intervals, chanting incantations in sanskirt, and involving everbody by asking them to say “svaha!” at the end. Fire must have been a subject of ancient indian texts, its nature must have discussed by the ancient hindus, the greeks, the aztecs – they must have contemplated and weighed in on what they thought was its “true nature”.

In the middle of the 17th century (a.d.) Denis Papin, a french physicist, too contemplated the nature of fire, or rather its indirect effect on the lid placed on the casserole filled with boiling water. It was he that decided to wonder if this fire could not be put to “use”, and by the end of the century many like him were working on heat powered boats. Since then the idea has remained the same, the industrial world has exploited the “motive power of fire”, a nuclear power plant is after all but a giant water boiler being ferociously boiled with nuclear energy.

So it may be said that the modern world began, in a sense, when a boy was enamoured by the rattling caused by boiling water.

Indeed the “Reflections on the motive power of fire” is precisely the name given by Sadi Carnot, another brilliant french physicist, to a little book he wrote as a young man in the beginning of the 19th century, that would be the basis on which the laws of thermodynamics would be established. Indeed at the time, as his title suggests, the nature of “heat” itself was not clear. Lavoisier (again french) in the seventeenth century had laboured to deconstruct the phlogiston theory, and he developed the caloric theory, which was finally dismantled by Clausius, who took up and refined the work of Carnot to develop the concept of thermodynamic entropy. It seems that with him the “nature of heat” was finally understood in physics, well atleast at a macroscopic level.

But for thousands of years these sages had contemplated fire? What did they find out? What was their “understanding” of fire, can it be compared to the mathematised one we have today? And why weren’t they interested in pulling out motive power out of the fire before them?

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