Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Clericus says about lightning, and what that might teach us about Chazal and science

In a post a week of so ago, I mentioned Shadal's position that a lightning bolt ignited underground pools of bitumen in Sodom, and that that was how Hashem overturned Sodom. He based himself in this on the writings of Clericus. And so in a follow-up post I presented Clericus' own words about this lightning theory, at length.

In the course of this discussion, he explained how the sulfurous nature of lightning led to the calling of lightning "fire and brimstone":
Secondly, God is said to have rained down Fire and Brimstone from the Lord, which is a Periphrasis for Lightning, as in Psalm 9. ver. 6. He will rain Whirlwinds upon the Wicked, Fire and Brimstone ; and Ezekiel 38. 22. I will punish him with Pestilence and Blood : a mighty Shower, Stones of Hail, FIRE and BRIMSTONE, Will I rain down upon him. Now Thunder is therefore called Fire and Brimstone, which is as much as to say, Brimstone set on fire, and lighted...

But the reason why Thunder is thus described, no one certainly can be ignorant of, that has either smelt those places that have been struck by Thunder, or has read what Learned Men have writ upon this occasion. I will only give my self the trouble to set down two or three Testimonies. Thunder and Lightning likewise, says Pliny, lib. 35, c. 15. have the Smell of Brimstone, and the very Light or Flame of them is sulphureous. And Seneca in the fecond Book of his Natural Questions, ch. 21. tells us, that all things that are struck

by Lightning, have a sulphureous Smell. And indeed, our Natural Philosophers have plainly demonstrated , that the Thunderbolt is nothing else but a sulphureous Exhalation. For this Persius, in his second satire, calls it Sulphus Sacrum,
Ignovisse putas, quia cum tonet, ocyus ilex,
Sulphur discutitur Sacro, quam tu'q; domusq;

On the other hand, because the Thunderbolt is of a Sulphureous nature, the Greeks seem to have called Brimstone in their Language, theion ; that is, Divine, by a proper name [GREEK TEXT], because it comes from God.
In this, Clericus was relying on Greek science, and even his contemporary science. Indeed, if one smells a place struck by lightning, he will smell the smell of sulfur. However, we now know this to be incorrect, and that they were not giving the correct scientific explanation of lightning, and the smell sensed after lightning strikes.

As The Principles of Science (1874) states:
Wherever we detect resemblance, there is a more or less satisfactory explanation. The mind is always somewhat disquieted when it meets a novel phenomena, one which is sui generis; it seeks at once for any parallels which may be found in the memory of past sensations. The so-called sulphurous smell which attends a stroke of lightning long excited the attention and fears of men, and it was not explained, until the exact similarity of the smell to that of ozone, or allotropic oxygen, was pointed out.

The strong smell that lightning leaves in places where its ravages have been exercised has been very often compared to that given off by sulphurous substances in burning.

This smell is doubtless of a complex nature, and it is probable that it is composed partly of the smell of ozone, which we have seen to be characteristic of electric discharges, and of other smells, which proceed from organic or other matters in the path of the lightning.

Among these matters it may be that there are some where sulphur is in combination, and which, decomposed by the high temperature of the spark, gives place to the production of sulphurous acid, and justifies the phrase generally used by eye-witnesses ; but it is very probable, as Boussingault has remarked, that all unscientific persons would be very apt to describe as "sulphurous" any burning smell accompanied by nauseous odours which they did not distinctly recognise.

Boussingault, when giving an account to the Academic da Sciences of the effects of a lightning stroke which had split in two and partly carbonised the trunk of a pear-tree, adds, "This stroke has nothing extraordinary about it, and I should not have mentioned it but for this circumstance: the fire was discovered at four in the morning by a man who went and told the owner of the tree, assuring him that the pear-tree was exhaling an insupportable smell of sulphur. All the people who saw this tree after it had ceased to burn agreed in recognising a sulphurous smell.

"The person who accompanied me then shared and still holds this opinion, for I have not been able to convince him. And yet I can affirm that the very penetrating odour which the burnt parts of the pear-tree gave out, when I examined it, was not at all sulphurous. This smell recalled precisely what is perceived in the manufactories where vinegar is made by distilling wood; there was no mistaking it.

" I have had frequently to do with lightning. A negro was once killed by my side; the house that I inhabited at Zupia was set on fire during a storm ; seven times I have seen trees struck iu my presence; in Europe, a thunder-bolt fell in my room. Placed so often as I have been in circumstances most favourable for making good observations, is it not astonishing that I have never been able to perceive the smell of sulphurous acid ? I think that people generally are too apt to take for sulphurous all penetrating vapours that are necessarily developed every time that an organic body is submitted to the intense heat that may accompany the passage of electricity."
" Q.—Why does lightning sometimes produce a sulphurous smell ?

" A.—Because some vapor, possessing a sulphurous odor, is formed or brought from the higher regions of the air by the operation of lightning."

How a sulphurous odor explains a sulphurous smell, it might be as difficult to say, as what is the operation by which lightning brings sulphur from regions in which we should not, unguided by the doctor, attempt to seek it; but in a note the doctor adds: —

" Some chemists have conceived it to be merely nitrous acid gas, a combination," &c., and so the sulphurous odor has not a particle even of heaven-caught sulphur in it; and this, by the way, is a fair specimen of much of the scientific information which the doctor gives.
And a summary of the ancient account for lightning, from Out of the Blue:

And read on from there.

Now, does the fact that I think Clericus got his science wrong, by relying on contemporary scientific theories, mean that I look down at Clericus, and think that he is a moron? Of course not! I can have respect for his intelligence, and for his methodology, and for his ideas, even though in the end he seems to have relied on faulty science.

I can even defend his theory. It doesn't matter whether lightning is really formed of sulfur. All that matters is that the ancients believed it to be so. And dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam, the Torah talks using human speech patterns. And thus the idiom can be used, even if in reality there is no sulfur involved.

Of course, there is a major distinction between a 17th century Christian theologian and Biblical exegete, on the one hand, and Rishonim and Chazal on the other. Because of our religious sympathies, and because of their holiness, we might like to be less fallible in matters of science. Indeed, some people might take it as a religious obligation to believe this of Chazal and of Rishonim, and assert that they knew all their science from ruach hakodesh or masorah. Other people (including Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch and others) would disagree, and assert that they relied on contemporary science, and that that is a strength, rather than a weakness.

But the reason I took the time to present it in terms of Clericus is that often, people can see better when not clouded by "frum" biases. And those frum biases would not come into play for a Christian theologian. And once it is established for him, and we demonstrate that we are not denigrating him for this belief, perhaps we can understand those who apply a similar approach to Chazal and science, or Rishonim and science, and understand that they are not chas veShalom trying to denigrate Chazal.

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