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Response to Exultant Democracy (Reply #2)

Sat Nov 15, 2014, 05:04 PM

5. There seems to be some bibliographic debate about whether Dedalus's original...

...papers, which do not survive, relating to his materials science investigations of wax were destroyed in the Julian or in the Aurelian sacks of Alexandria during both of which, the great library was partially destroyed, however contemporary surviving references to those papers suggest that Dedalus had, in fact, conducted an extensive differential scanning calorometric investigation of the waxes he utilized in the wings construction, and was, in fact, fairly confident that they would survive a fairly wide temperature gradient.

Of course, the phase systems associated with waxes are notoriously difficult, even today, some 4000 years later, to pin down definitively, as is noted in this publication: Energy, Vol. 29, Issue 11, 1785-1804 (2004)

It is therefore quite possible that Dedalus's instruments did not undergo the same rigorous calibration as instruments might be today in a ISO 14001 compliant manufacturing process.

Thus it is sometimes argued (cf. Stalin, Josef V. Journal of Mythological Physical Chemistry and Biology, Vol 15, Pages 1812-1878, March 19, 1953 ) that the claim that Dedalus warned Icarus not to fly to close to the sun was actually put forth by other engineers who were hostile both to Dedalus and Icarus owing to jealousy towards the widely applauded engineering successes of the father and son team. In many ways, Icarus, although he died young, was a true peer of his father, and thus it is unlikely that he would have been unaware of the limitations of his wings.

It is interesting to note that Ptolemy reports that the two sets of wings were originally melted, for the fabrication process, in two different vats. Some have speculated that one of the vats may have been cast iron, while the other was brass. Brass, of course, can contain significant quantities of zinc. The waxes themselves may have been obtained by the exhaustive fractional distillation of olive oils, which were common in the Greek provinces at the time. Although the wax fraction of olive oils is relatively small, the large industrial system supported by the father and son's large patent portfolio made them extremely wealthy, meaning that they certainly had the resources to effect such a distillation in order to obtain their wax. Since, as you probably know, olive oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids it is quite possible that the failure of Icarus's wings was related to ozonolysis of double bonds in the waxes, the decomposition of which may have been catalyzed by residual zinc extracted from the brass vessel in which the wax was melted. Thus the wax molecules may have decomposed to give shorter chained dialdehydes and alcohols which may have become porous, causing the wings to fail. Icarus thus may have not been done in by heating, but rather the atmospheric distribution of ozone.

This may account for the fact that in the depiction included in the OP, the wax feathers do not seem to have melted much.

Regrettably, purported original samples of the failed wings apparently disappeared in 1941 during the German invasion of Crete, so it is no longer possible to check this hypothesis.

There are those of course, who consider that the story of Icarus is merely allegorically relevant to modern scientific and technological practice, but I'm glad that you agree that the physical chemistry of the wing structure raises relevant issues that any discussion of the topic must involve.

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