Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Pneuma
While this week?s element isn?t in the periodic table, it once denoted the breath of life. In fact, the name for this substance, Pneuma, comes from the Greek word for ?breath.? It was thought to occur only in living things and to transmit the soul to future generations.
To the ancient Stoic philosophers, pneuma was part material, part insubstantial vapor. It manifested itself in color, activity, and life. Pneuma was also crucial to early chemistry. The Egyptian alchemist, Zosimos, believed that pneuma was essential for the transmutation of substances?before a substance could be transformed, it had to be reduced back to its original state. The resulting body would then require the addition of pneuma, the life-giving force, to give it a new form?maybe gold, or maybe just something that ranked ?higher? in the order of things.
But the idea of pneuma didn?t last. By the 17th century, when William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood, the concept had disappeared. Mostly. Today, pneumatology is the Christian study of the Holy Spirit. In 1901, surgeon Duncan MacDougall placed dying tuberculosis patients on scales to register minute changes in weight at the instant of death. He found that people lose about 21 grams at the crucial moment, an amount, he reasoned, that indicated the weight of the departing soul. And that?s it for the Element of the Week. I?m Julia Erdosy.Back