SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — Two scientists in the early and mid-1800s discovered two connected theories that are the basic building blocks of modern climate science, but one has mostly been forgotten, and the other scientist had their work stolen by a man who edited the research paper.
To tell this story, we’ll start off back in the early 1820s with a scientist who was a math whiz, a physicist, and was obsessed with ancient Egypt.
Joseph Fourier was many things, one of them being French.
His claim to fame should be that he calculated the amount of heat that reaches the surface of the earth from the sun and realized, in 1824 mind you, that something wasn’t right.
The earth’s temperature should be 33 degrees (Celsius) cooler, Fourier explained to others in the early 1800s. And then he took things further and began to try his best to understand why the earth was warmer than his calculations predicted.
“The establishment and progress of human society, and the action of natural powers, may, in extensive regions, produce remarkable changes in the state of the surface, the distribution of the waters, and the great movements of the air,” wrote Fourier in. the. early. 1800s.
And he was right, too.
(But he couldn’t prove it.)
(Don’t worry–someone else will.)
Fourier’s hypothesis is proven true
We’re jumping ahead in time a few decades to land in the mid-1800s in New York State where an amateur scientist made a major discovery that proved Fourier correct.
But there was one little problem: said scientist was not accepted into the tight-knit circles of professional scientists. And it was dang near impossible to gain worldwide attention for the theory while few scientists were paying attention to E. N. Foote’s experiments.
Foote was about to learn that thieves don’t just steal television sets, cars, and savings accounts. Ideas can be stolen, too.
And that’s exactly what happened to Foote’s work.
Here’s what happened.
Foote’s initial idea was to test and see if the temperature of gasses changed when the gasses were exposed to sunlight versus being exposed to shade.
To quench the thirst for curiosity, Foote filled cylinders with different types of gases and placed the cylinders in the sun’s heat, checking the temperature of each cylinder after it was exposed to the sun for a while. Then Foote placed the same cylinders in the shade and repeated the process.
Foote’s work proved that something strange was happening in the cylinder with carbonic acid. The air in that cylinder became hotter than the air around it, and the cylinder retained that heat for a very long time. (Even when placed in the shade.)
Foote had discovered Fourier’s heat-trapping gas!
After that, everything was wonderful. Foote went around to members of the scientific community and explained that this easily repeatable experiment proved that if we have too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the planet will become too warm. And everyone changed the way they did business, and a major catastrophe was averted, and everyone was happy, and there were no more wars.
(The previous paragraph was sarcastic in every possible way.)
In actuality, after Foote’s discovery, there were a few major reasons why the scientific community did not want to listen.
For one, Foote was a full-fledged member of the child-bearer’s club.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Foote also lived next door to (and was friends with) a very controversial figure in those days: Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
But Foote was also a direct descendant of Sir Isaac Newton, and the apple didn’t fall too far from the proverbial tree.
Her first name, by the way, was Eunice. And Eunice Newton Foote really wanted to get her point across.
“An atmosphere of that gas would give our earth a high temperature,” she wrote while trying to explain her findings.
And everything might have worked out for the best of the entire planet if there hadn’t been an unfortunate incident at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where women were not even allowed to speak.
So there was Foote, a distant relative of Sir. Isaac Newton, whose maiden name was Newton, hanging out at the AAAS meeting with the nation’s scientific royalty. She had to listen to a man read her work aloud because women were not allowed to talk. Once her work was read aloud, there was seemingly little reaction.
Nonetheless, Foote published her findings in the American Journal of Science. Her scientific achievements were not celebrated in her lifetime, but she was the first person on planet Earth to comprehend that carbon dioxide emissions create global warming.
Unfortunately for Foote, the editor of her paper in the American Journal of Science, John Tyndall, later presented her work as his own.
That means that Tyndall is not the father of modern climate science; rather, Eunice Foote is the mother of modern climate science.
(She just wasn’t given credit at the time.)
But has society come far enough along that we can give Eunice Newton Foote credit for her discovery now, in the modern era?
And just as importantly, is it too late for us to comprehend the work of Joseph Fourier?