|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
ET us light a shovelful of charcoal in the kitchen
stove. The charcoal catches fire, turns red, and is
consumed, while at the same time producing heat. Before
many minutes there is nothing left but a handful of
ashes weighing but a trifle compared with the quantity
of charcoal burned. What, then, has become of the
"It has been consumed," answered Jules; "it is burnt
"Agreed. But being consumed—does that mean being
reduced to nothing? Does charcoal, when once it has
been burned, become nothing at all, absolutely
"It has turned to ashes," Jules replied.
"You haven't hit it yet, for the ashes left after
combustion amount to very little compared with the
quantity of charcoal consumed."
"Your question, dear Uncle," Marie here interposed,
"puzzles not only Jules, but me too, very much indeed.
If there isn't any more than a handful of ashes left
after the charcoal is burnt up, I should say the rest
has been destroyed."
"If that is your opinion I would have you know that in
this world nothing is ever entirely destroyed, not a
particle of matter ever becomes nothing after
 having been something. Try to annihilate a grain of
sand. You can crush it, convert it into impalpable
powder; but reduce it to nothing—never. Nor could
the most skilful of men, men equipped with more varied
and more powerful appliances than ours, succeed any
better. In defiance of every exertion of ingenuity or
violence the grain of sand will still continue to exist
in some form or other. Annihilation and accident, two
big words that we use at every turn, really do not mean
anything. Everything obeys laws: everything persists,
is indestructible. The shape, aspect, appearance,
changes; the underlying substance remains the same.
"So the charcoal that is burned is not annihilated.
True, it is no longer in the stove; but it is in the
air, dissipated and invisible. When you put a lump of
sugar into water the sugar melts, is disseminated
throughout the liquid, and from that time ceases to be
visible even to the keenest scrutiny. But that sugar
has not ceased to exist. The proof is that it
communicates to the water a new property, a sweet
taste. Furthermore, nothing stands in the way of its
ultimate reappearance in its original form. All we have
to do is to expose the sweetened water to the sun in a
saucer; the water will disappear in vapor and the sugar
"Charcoal behaves in like manner. In burning it is
dissipated in the air and becomes invisible. This
dissipation is called combustion. What do we do when we
wish to make the fire burn faster? With the bellows we
blow air on the fuel. With each puff the fire revives
and burns brighter. The live coals,
 at first dull red, become bright red and then
white-hot. Air breathes new life into the bosom of the
burning mass. If we wish, on the other hand, to prevent
a too rapid consumption of fuel, what do we do? We
cover the fire with ashes, thus keeping out the air.
Under this layer of ashes the live coals retain their
heat and remain red for a long time without being
consumed. Thus it is that a fire in a grate is
maintained only by the constant admission of air,
which makes the coal burn; and the faster it burns, the
greater the amount of heat given off."
"Then that must be why the stove gets so hot when it
roars," remarked Claire. "Air is let in between the
bars of the grate and then goes roaring through the
red-hot coals. But if the air is prevented from
circulating by closing the door of the ash-pit, the
heat subsides at once."
"When the air is impregnated with carbon it acquires
new properties, just as water does on becoming charged
with salt or sugar. This new element is an injurious
substance, a harmful gas, all the more to be feared
because it does not reveal its presence, having neither
smell nor color. We do not take note of it any more
than we do of ordinary air.
"But let any one breathe this formidable gas, and
immediately the brain becomes clouded, torpor
supervenes, strength fails, and unless help arrives
death soon follows. You have all heard of unfortunate
persons who inadvertently—sometimes, alas!
designedly—have met death in a closed room by
lighting a brazier. The fact that the air becomes
impregnated with the dissipated carbon from the
 burning charcoal explains these lamentable accidents.
Inhaled even in a small quantity, this deadly gas
induces first a violent headache and a general sense of
discomfort, then loss of feeling, vertigo, nausea, and
extreme weakness. If this state continues even a very
little while, life itself is endangered.
"You see to what a risk charcoal exposes us when the
products of its combustion do not escape outside
through a chimney, but spread freely indoors,
especially if the room is small and tightly closed.
Under these conditions you cannot be too distrustful of
a brazier. Whether burning brightly or half
extinguished, whether covered with ashes or not, these
embers exhale a deadly gas which does not announce its
presence by any sign that we can recognize, but, like a
traitor, always takes us by surprise. Death may occur
even before danger is suspected.
"Again, it is very imprudent to close the damper of a
bedroom stove for the sake of maintaining a moderate
heat during the night. The stovepipe being closed by
the damper, there is no longer any outlet for the
products of combustion, which are sent out into the
room and asphyxiate the sleepers, so that they pass
from life to death without even waking up.
"If the apartment is small and without openings for
changing the air, a simple foot-warmer is enough to
cause a headache and even lead to more serious
 "Now I understand," said Marie, "the headaches I
sometimes have in winter when I am sewing in my little
room, all shut up with a foot-warmer under my feet. It
was the burning charcoal that gave me those headaches.
That is a good thing to know, and I will be careful in
"Be just as careful with charcoal when you are ironing.
Keep the heater for the irons under the chimney or in a
well-ventilated place, so that the dangerous
exhalations from the embers may be carried out into the
open air. Those who do ironing often complain of an
uncomfortable feeling which they attribute to the smell
of the iron, whereas it is due to the deleterious gas
given off by the burning charcoal. It can be avoided by
keeping the heaters under a chimney or in a current of
air that drives away the injurious gas."
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