At dawn one chill December morning I sat in a car outside a laundromat, bundled up and reading while waiting for a week's worth of the family's clothes to finish drying. A sunbeam sliced in front of my nose, invisible until I exhaled and the instant fog caught and scattered the light. It startled me; I caught my breath. The mist vanished and I was alone again. I thought of Archimedes.

You see, a cloud chamber is pretty low-tech: just make a supersaturated vapor. When a high-energy subatomic charged particle blasts through, it ionizes the air molecules along its path. Those ions form centers for droplets to condense around. Voila! --- a cloud-thread magically appears, thinner than spider-silk, along the particle's path. Put a magnet nearby and the thread bends. The curvature depends on the speed and mass and charge of the particle.

You can make a cloud chamber out of a mayonnaise jar, a wet sponge, and some dry ice. Or you can get fancy with a piston in a clear cylinder, to change the pressure suddenly in a large volume all at once. Pop the cap off a bottle of cold beer and look inside; you've made an instant miniature cloud from the decompression. Naturally occurring cosmic rays can give you a track every once in a while. You can get lots more if you put the right kind of radioactive rock nearby.

Could a genius like Archimedes have discovered this millennia ago? Given the observation, what interpretation might s/he have made of it? Would the connection to tiny indivisible particles --- hypothetical "atoms" --- have come to mind? How much other work is necessary to make sense out of ephemeral lines materializing in a fog?

Might science have taken a giant step forward, centuries ahead of schedule, if the right person had looked in the right place at the right time? And today, now, very now, are there similar phenomena under our noses that we're overlooking?

(see CelebrityHistory, 8 May 1999, for a contrary view; see AwaitingNess, 14 November 2000, for a slightly related poetic hack)

TopicScience - TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-01-11

(correlates: AwaitingNess, CatchAndRelease, EmersonOnSelfImprovement, ...)