Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/13

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.

Galileo encountered more than half a century later, were due solely to the circumstance that the new theory tended to subvert the popular faith in the cosmography of the Church. In modern times, with the many popular expositors of science, the diffusion of new truth is more rapid; but even now there is always a long interval after any great discovery in abstract science before the new conception is translated into the language of common life, so that it can be apprehended by the mass even of educated men.

I have thus dwelt on what must be familiar facts in the past history of astronomy, because they illustrate and will help you to realize the present condition of a much younger branch of physical science: for in the transition-period I have described there exists now a conception which opens a vision into the microcosmos beneath us as extensive and as grand as that which the Copernican theory revealed into the macrocosmos above us.

The conception to which I refer will be at once suggested to every scientific scholar by the word molecule. This word is a Latin diminutive, which means, primarily, a small mass of matter; and although heretofore often applied in mechanics to the indefinitely small particles of a body between which the attractive Or repulsive forces might be supposed to act, it has only recently acquired the exact significance with which we now use it.

In attempting to discover the original usage of the word molecule, I was surprised to find that it was apparently first introduced into science by the great French naturalist, Buffon, who employed the term in a very peculiar sense. Buffon does not seem to have been troubled with the problem which so engrosses our modern naturalists—how the vegetable and animal kingdoms were developed into their present condition but he was greatly exercised by an equally difficult problem, which seems to have been lost sight of in the present controversy, and which is just as obscure to-day as it was in Buffon's time, at the close of the last century, and that is, Why species are so persistent in Nature; why the acorn always grows into the oak, and why every creature always produces of its kind. And, if you will reflect upon it, I am sure you will conclude that this last is by far the more fundamental problem of the two, and one which necessarily includes the first. That of two eggs, in which no anatomist can discover any structural difference, the one should, in a few short years, develop an intelligence like Newton's, while the other soon ends in a Guinea-pig, is certainly a greater mystery than that, in the course of unnumbered ages, monkeys, by insensible gradations, should grow into men.

In order to explain the remarkable constancy of species, Buffon advanced a theory which, when freed from a good deal that was fanciful, may be expressed thus: The attributes of every species, whether of plants or of animals, reside in their ultimate particles, or, to use a more philosophical but less familiar word, inhere in these particles, which