Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Chemist Promotes Esperanto

Wilhelm Ostwald
The early Esperanto movement had the support of many prominent figures of the scientific world, including the great German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. From 1905 to 1906 Professor Ostwald lectured at Harvard and Columbia. Judging from the statements made in the newspapers of the era, this kind of intentional exchange was rare, which isn’t a huge surprise for an era when traveling between Europe and the United States took a week or two.

Ostwald traveled on the SS. Blucher, which left Cuxhaven on September 21, 1905 and arrived in New York on October 2. Oswald made a series of visits to the United States, making less celebrated visits in 1903 and 1904. The shortest of these trips took a week, which made it impossible that any scientist would dash over to give a seminar on another continent and then dash back after.

While Ostwald was at Harvard University, he sparked an interest in Esperanto there, leading to a club being formed (with a chemist at its head) after Ostwald’s departure. The same does not seem to be true of Columbia University, and to date the earliest reference I have found to an Esperanto group at Columbia dates to 1962. The author somewhat erroneously states that the Columbia group would be the fourth at an American university.

If Professor Ostwald had had his way in 1906, there would have been Esperanto groups at many more American universities, but at this point, it’s best to let the account in the New York Sun of February 3, 1906 take over:
Dr. Ostwald Tells How Much Easier It Would Have Made His Lecture Tour Here.
Prof Wilhelm Ostwald, who has been in America for several months lecturing at Harvard and Columbia, was the guest of honor at a reception given by the American Electrochemical Society at the Chemists’ Club last night. Dr. Ostwald is to return to Germany in a few days and the occasion was really a farewell.

Prof. Loeb of New York University[1] made the speech of presentation. Profs. Chandler of Columbia and Richards of Lehigh, who preceded him, had jestingly spoken of Prof. Ostwald’s sacrifice in going to New England, where he had to live on pie and baked beans. Prof. Loeb, continuing in the same strain, said that the New England doughnut was the only real example of the vortex theory in captivity. After speaking of Prof. Ostwald’s great help to American scientists he said that in from of the album was a symbolic design. Ionic columns stood on either side of the page. These, the speaker said, represented the Ionic theory of which Dr. Ostwald is an ardent supporter. Between them was a design composed of parts of the German and American seals.

Dr. Ostwald, who found difficulty in expressing himself in rather broken English, spoke feelingly of his kind treatment in America, “where he had managed to live in spite of the baked beans,” and then plunged into a discussion of Esperanto, the universal language. He said his work here and been hard, because of the difficulty he had with the language, and that it would have been so much easier for him properly to thank his hosts of the evening if all understood Esperanto. One of his books, he said, had been translated into eight languages, an enormous waste of labor, that would have been unnecessary had Esperanto been in universal use.

“The interchange of professors between different nationals will remain a small affair,” he said, “while the present difficulty with language exists.”

Before the reception ended all those present wrote their names in Dr. Ostwald’s album at his request.
Now just what is wrong with baked beans and pie? (I was not aware that pie was somehow stereotypically New England, but so claimed the New York chemists of 1906.) Despite Ostwald’s “plea for Esperanto,” his time in the Esperanto movement was coming to an end. A year later, he would participate in the Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language, which endorsed Esperanto, but with changes. This modified version of Esperanto eventually became known as Ido. Ostwald threw himself into promotion of Ido as he had with Esperanto, eventually giving half of his 1909 Nobel Prize to the Ido movement. Harvard’s Esperanto Society, inspired by Professor Ostwald, did not follow him to the Ido movement.

If a chemist from a century in the future had arrived at that February 1906 gathering and announced that in 2006 almost all chemistry papers would be published in a single national language, many of those present probably would have concluded it was time to improve their German and that Professor Ostwald’s successors, when talking in New York, would be speaking the language of science, German. It would have made the evening easier of Ostwald if all chemists were fluent in German, after all.

Ostwald’s book may have appeared in eight languages, but there is no indication that Esperanto was among these languages. Professor Ostwald talked a good game on Esperanto, and even went so far as to use it himself, but perhaps the best thing he could have done for the Esperanto movement would have been to start publishing in Esperanto. Though he started an academic journal, there is no indication that he would have accepted papers in Esperanto or Ido, although a 1912 reference indicated a plan to start abstracts in Ido in the Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie.

The Chemists' Club building is now a boutique hotel. The decor does not, alas, reference chemistry.

  1. Morris Loeb, then chair of the NYU department of Chemistry. May 23, 1862 to October 8, 1912.  ↩

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  1. What kind of chemist and researcher was he?

    1. According to Wikipedia, Ostwald was one of the founders of modern physical chemistry. Wikipedia credits hims with several accomplishments, many of which are prefaced by his name (Ostwald process, ripening, rule, viscometer).

      His Nobel Prize (1909) was for "his work on catalysis and for his investigations into the fundamental principles governing chemical equilibria and rates of reaction."

      He wasn't the first Esperanto speaker to win a Nobel prize. That honor goes to Sir William Ramsay, the discover of the noble gases.


    2. Greg - He made some important contributions to understanding the fundamentals of crystal growth. Ostwald ripening is the process by which polycrystalline samples with many small crystals develop into ones with fewer larger crystals over time (i.e., why your ice cream gets dehydrated with big ice crystals on the inside of the lid when you leave it in the freezer too long.)


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