Sunday, February 22, 2015

Chemists and Esperanto

Did Ramsay ever speak to
Ostwald in Esperanto?
A short item in the Aberdeen Herald of Aberdeen, Washington (not Scotland) makes a connection between Esperanto and chemistry.[1] Some of the early advocates of Esperanto were prominent chemists, including Professor Wilhelm Ostwald, whose advocacy of Esperanto helped establish a group at Harvard University. Ostwald even funded a prize for composition in Esperanto, although ironically, soon after it was given for the first time, he left the Esperanto movement and became an equally fervent supporter of Ido.[2]

But another prominent early-twentieth-century chemist remained in the Esperanto movement, Sir William Ramsey. Like Ostwald, Ramsey became an Esperantist before he became a Nobel laureate (but unlike Ostwald, was still an Esperantist at the time he received the medal). Ramsay was the first Esperantist to win a Nobel, but not the last.

On February 22, 1906, when the Aberdeen Herald dropped his name into things, Sir William Ramsay was the only Esperantist with a Nobel prize. His had been awarded on December 12, 1904. However, Ramsay was already an Esperantist at that point.
Esperanto, the artificial “universal language,” has a new following in this country, owing to the interest in this very modern tongue of Prof. Wilhelm Ostwald, the German chemist who is lecturing at Harvard. An Esperanto club has been formed, and any day one may hear amid the babble of the old savage tongues in the college yard sentences that sound like this: “Piedpilko ne estas la sole interesa afero en Harvard.” This high sentiment translated into English means, “Football is not the only interesting thing at Harvard.” Esperanto can be learned, they say, in a few hours. Newspapers are printed in it. Classics have been translated into it. Professor Ostwald is not the only scientist to take it seriously, for Sir William Ramsay believes that “Esperanto has come to stay,” nor is Esperanto the only universal language that has not become universal. Where now is Volapuk?
Ramsay probably well understood the need for international communication in the sciences, as according to Wikipedia, his Ph.D. studies were at the University of Tübingen. I’m just going to hazard a guess that in 1873, an English-speaking doctoral student in Germany would be expected to read and write in German (just as a German-speaking doctoral student in the United States would be expected to use English).

Prior to his Nobel, Ramsay launched a science column in the pages of The Esperantist (later merged with The British Esperantist). Subsequent “Sciencaj Aferoj” were written by a frequent contributor, Esperantisto 8105, who was not Ramsay, but Perey Henry Howard of Surbiton. Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist the opportunity to quote a Nobel laureate in the original Esperanto, so here are the first two paragraphs of “Radiumo,” by Sir William Ramsay.[3]
De Sir William Ramsay, K.C.B., F.R.S.
La strangaj ecoj de radiumo, precipe ĝia brilo en la mallumo, kaj ĝia biligo je aliaj korkoj, altiras la atenton de la tuta mondo. Tiu ĉi radiumo estas metalo, ni kredas, kvankam ĝis nun oni ne produktis ĝin en metala stato, ĉar ĝiaj saloj estas similaj al la saloj de bariumo, blanka metalo, kaj bonekonata elemento. La kaŭzo estas ke oni posedas tiel malmulte da tiuj slaoj ke neniu deziras malŝpari ĝin eksperimente, por efektivigi la ŝanĝon el salo en metalon, ĉar la perdo estus granda. La plej bone konato salo, la bromido, kostas dek du ŝilingojn po miligramo, kvanto preskaŭ revidebla.

Ĉiuj metaloj havas siajn proprajn spektrojn; se iliaj saloj estas hejtataj en flamo, regardante ilin per spektrovidilo, oni vidas kolaratajn liniojn propraijn al ĉiu metalo, kiuj estas nomataj ĝia “spektro.” Tial metalo estas konebla per ĝia spektro. La radiumo posedas ĝian propran spektron, kiu estas simila al la spektro de bariumo, sed malsimila en la lokigo de la linioj. Ni kredas, sekve, ke la radiumo estas elemento simila al al aliaj metaloj.
It would seem that the Daily Herald was questioning Ramsay’s statement with their final question of “Where now is Volapuk?” But Ramsay didn’t proclaim a rapid victory for Esperanto, despite the number of claims made that the fina venko was around the corner. He was quoted as saying simply that “Esperanto has come to stay.” It has managed that. Ido and Volapük seem to have managed that much as well, though it’s far easier to find an Esperantist than an Idist or Volapükist.

One final language note. At that point in the history of Esperanto (1906), the word for chemistry was ĥemio. This was later altered to kemio, although the earlier form is still valid.

  1. Subjects that are dearly held in my house.
  2. Ostwald was on the committee that approved “Esperanto with changes” as “the” international language, a decision no one was obligated to abide by, and no one did.
  3. The entire thing is a bit long to transcribe. A translation exists (the Esperantist published this in double columns with a translation provided by the editor), however, I wanted to give a taste of Ramsay’s Esperanto, and I’ve decided to omit the English version. You can read the full thing here ↩

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1 comment:

  1. I didn't know so many chemists were proponents of Esperanto, although it makes sense given how international the discipline has always been. Also, football may be the least interesting thing at Harvard.


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