The Scientific Method: Adventures in Research
Ordinarily, I don’t editorialize when I introduce an “Adventures in Research” subject. The stories ought to speak for themselves. However, I will introduce this item with my own “Ball of Fire” story. (Not the “Shower of Sparks” story; that’s another thing.) Some years back, I was setting about to make popcorn. I had the oil heating up on the stove. I went off pottering, and saw, checking the pan of oil, that it had started to smoke. I took it up, and it burst into flames. I went directly to the sink, turned on the water, and blasted a shot into the flaming oil. “Fwoom”—I believe is the correct sound effect for this. An impressive ball of fire flared; fortunately, it disappeared in an instant . . . and without disaster. So, as I learned, when they say “Don’t put water on a grease fire”, they’re telling the truth. But I have a certain sympathy for those who don’t believe a thing until they’ve put it to the test.
From the Derby Mercury of 16 June 1785 “Extract of a Letter from Boulogne”
(Correspondents were literally correspondents, in those days.)
I found this story first in Gertrude Bacon’s ballooning survey of 1905. And when I find a curious story, I like to verify by locating a newpaper reference to it, hence the Derby Mercury. Jean Francois Pilatre de Rozier had volunteered to be the first passenger in the newly invented Montgolfier hot air balloon.
After this initial success, and the acclaim that accompanied it, he decided to try crossing the English Channel. His brainstorm was to combine a hydrogen fueled balloon with a hot air balloon, creating, as he supposed, twice the momentum. He was advised against the plan, but persisted. The letter in the article describes the aftermath, the unnamed correspondent writing that he had himself examined the bodies:
“The two intrepid Adventurers were dashed to Pieces…the Legs and Thighs are broken in many Places.”
Another item, from the South London Press, 9 September, 1899—on the death of Pierre Curie. (I was surprised to learn of it; having always read the sad denouement of the Curies’ experiments with radium, I’d assumed he died in the same way she did.) The article says, of M. Curie, that in crossing a Paris street, he encountered a sudden taxicab:
“In attempting to get out of its way M. Curie slipped on the macadamised roadway and fell under the wheels of a heavy van coming in the opposite direction.”
Last, there is the fate of Mr. John Henry Warner, also a pursuer of radium.