Trivia 039: The “fire-proof” salamander

When it comes to the history of science, we owe a lot to the ancient philosophers who spent their lives debating the nature of the world around them. There were some philosophers who were on the right track, millennia before the evidence vindicated them. For example, Aristarchus of Samos is the first known author to propose that the Earth orbited around the Sun, even correctly proposing the order the planets orbited in. Others, however, were often on the wrong track. Case in point, Aristarchus’s ideas were rejected because Ptolemy‘s geocentric theory was more popular. In some cases, we look back on these philosophers and laugh at just how wrong they were. Perhaps my favorite example of this is how Thales thought that all matter in the universe was just different forms of water. To be fair, watching water change back and forth between ice, liquid, and steam, and one may wonder if it could not take other forms. And these philosophers and early scientists were doing the best they could, with limited equipment and no giant shoulders to stand on.

In some cases, they made incredible strides forward. Eratosthenes was able to estimate the size of the Earth’s circumference to within 2.5% of the modern measurement. And he did all this in the 200s BCE with some very simple mathematics, a stick, and a keen and curious mind. (And yet, we still have people who believe the Earth is flat). Carl Sagan described his method quite excellently in the original run of Cosmos.

However, in many other cases these “scientists” were dead wrong. And yet, people believed them, leading science down the wrong path for centuries. In particular, whenever Aristotle comes up, you can basically assume anything he said was wrong. His understanding of physics was laughable, his conception of astronomy backwards, and his views on biology flawed. That’s not to say that he was wrong about everything – he did get some stuff right. For example, he correctly noted that geologic change happens incredibly slowly, too slowly for a person to witness. But a large percentage of his ideas were things that are demonstrably false. All he had to do was test his theories. However, although Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to insist that empirical evidence was the most important part of discovery, he seems to been more insistent on passive observation rather than direct experimentation. And some of his misconceptions ended up being repeated for centuries to come.

So here we get to the title of this post. Aristotle wrote that salamanders had the incredible ability not just to survive fire, but that they could actually put out fires. His reasoning was that because there are animals which come from the earth, air, and water, surely there must also be animals which come from fire. Fire is, after all, the fourth basic element. And here is the flaw with Aristotle’s methods. Rather than questioning his assumptions and considering that his premises may be incorrect, he goes ahead and says that salamanders are fireproof. All it would have taken was a quick test to see if salamanders could actually be burned, and he would have realized this was incorrect. Or, perhaps he wouldn’t have, since Pliny the Elder did just that, then still wrote that salamanders could put out fire. Most likely this myth got started due to the fact that salamanders like to hibernate in logs, and when people threw these logs into a fireplace, the salamanders would wake up and run away. However, due to authors like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, the stories persisted, even to the point where asbestos was referred to as “salamander fur“.

There are a couple of key takeaways from all this, I think. First, it’s important to note that you should always recognize where your assumptions are, and what premises you are basing your conclusions off of. You can’t build a good house on a shaky foundation after all. Second, before you confidently make a statement, consider doing your research first. Sometimes this means doing an experiment yourself, but in the modern age this can also mean doing some quick online research (but make sure the sources you use are credible). And finally, never trust Aristotle.

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