Torricelli's Vacuum

Scripps-Howard News Service 10.08.02
Balint Vazsonyi

Many moons ago, in what was definitely a very different world, I was growing up in Hungary. A significant part of that process was facilitated by reaching certain milestones in one's education. Whether through an older sibling or through novels about the topic, the life to be reached when one turned high-school age was contemplated, awaited, and feared for all the years of consciousness that preceded it.

Those milestones along the way were well known: gender rules of the third declension in Latin; the formula for solving mixed quadratic equations; last but not least, the Torricelli vacuum.

Italian scientist Evangelista Torricelli, as it was revealed to us in the fullness of time, did not agree with those who maintained that air had no weight. To prove his point, he filled a vessel, as well as a glass tube - 1 meter long, open at one end - with mercury. He then rested the glass tube in the vessel and demonstrated that, while some of the mercury in the tube did drain into the vessel, a column of the liquid metal measuring 760 millimeters remained in the tube, thus proving that air exerted enough pressure upon the mercury in the vessel to keep that much in the tube. The conclusion was clear: air does have weight.

The experiment gave birth to the barometer; the void between the top of the mercury column and the top of the glass tube became known as "Torricelli's vacuum."

Enter the honorable Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey's gift to the United States Senate. A brief study of his face, a cursory review of his utterances left little doubt that the contemporary version of Torricelli's vacuum was in the good senator's head. Even when he castrated the Central Intelligence Agency with what we know today were mind-bogglingly disastrous consequences, who could get angry at someone with a vacuum where most others have their brains?

But wait. We have a fresh one. Senator Torricelli's recent withdrawal from the 2002 elections created a whole new Torricelli's vacuum on the New Jersey ballot for November. Frantic efforts are underway to fill this one, for this one - unlike the previous - might be filled with an all-out push. Down with the law of the land! Up with the laws of physics!

(So say the governor and the courts of New Jersey.)

Meanwhile, the vacuum-in-the-head appears to have a bright future, one that promises never to run out of hosts. A recent red-letter event occurred when Barbra Streisand decided to quote extensively from the works of one Will Shakespeare. Of course, having grown up among musicians of all sort, I have always realized the importance of a vacuum in the head in cases of people with a pretty voice. Where else can the human body accommodate a reverberation chamber?

All the same, one should feel pity for Ms. Streisand for having made it obvious that she had never read anything by Shakespeare. Only a person embarrassingly unfamiliar with the bard's ways would have mistaken the Internet hackery she quoted for one of Shakespeare's utterances.

Another recently celebrated vacuum takes us right back to New Jersey. Apparently, governor of the state James E. McGreevey appointed a certain Amiri Baraka Poet Laureate for the state. Television talk shows and columns have been screaming their protest at Mr. Baraka's recently published I-hate-everybody-especially-Jews poem, entitled "Somebody blew up America." People have been livid about the poem, but even more so at the thought of such a person being named "poet laureate" in a state of the Union.

"Laureate," they protest, "how can any such person be poet laureate?"

Never mind laureate. I have looked at and listened to Mr. Baraka, and have read the poem. How did such a person end up being called a poet?

And how did we end up with members in the U.S. House of Representatives who engage in what many call the closest thing to treason in a long time?

To that, the answer is easy. It is not pleasant, but it's easy.

The members who went to Baghdad to comfort Saddam Hussein and to attack the president of the United States are all part of the so-called Progressive Caucus, American arm of the Socialist International. Anyone who wishes to know will realize that the primary tenet of socialist thought is its opposition and hostility toward the English-speaking world, in our time specifically toward the United States. Anyone who wishes to know could have - should have? - taken the Progressive Caucus seriously. Above all, Democrats should reject the idea that its 58 members call themselves by the venerable name of their party.

Anyone can embrace any political ideology in this land. And if some voters are comfortable sending socialists to the House of Representatives, so be it.

But they, and their supporters, should be required to call themselves what they truly are.

That would fill a lot of vacuum.