Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/18

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
8
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

atmosphere move, on an average, nearly four (3.8) times slower than those of hydrogen under the same conditions; but then they weigh, on an average, fourteen and a half times more than hydrogen-molecules, and therefore strike with as great energy. And do not think that the effect of these blows is insignificant because the molecular projectiles are so small; they make up by their number for what they want in size.

Consider, for example, a cubic yard of air, which, if measured at the freezing-point, weighs considerably over two pounds. That cubic yard of material contains over two pounds of molecules, which are moving with an average velocity of 1,605 feet a second, and this motion is equivalent, in every respect, to that of a cannon-ball of equal weight, rushing along its path at the same tremendous rate. Of course, this is true of every cubic yard of air at the same temperature; and, if the motion of the molecules of the atmosphere around us could by any means be turned into one and the same direction, the result would be a hurricane sweeping over the earth with this velocity—that is, at the rate of 1,094 miles an hour—whose destructive violence not even the Pyramids could withstand.

Living as we do in the midst of a molecular tornado capable of such effects, our safety lies wholly in the circumstance that the storm beats equally in all directions at the same time, and the force is thus so exactly balanced that we are wholly unconscious of the tumult. Not even the aspen-leaf is stirred, nor the most delicate membrane broken; but let us remove the air from one of the surfaces of such a membrane, and then the power of the molecular storm becomes evident, as in the familiar experiments with an air-pump.

As has already been intimated, the values of the velocities both of hydrogen and of air molecules given above were measured at a definite temperature, 32° of our Fahrenheit thermometer, the freezing-point of water; and this introduces a very important point bearing on our subject, namely, that the molecular velocities vary very greatly with the temperature. Indeed, according to our theory, this very molecular motion constitutes that state or condition of matter which we call temperature. A hot body is one whose molecules are moving comparatively rapidly, and a cold body one in which they are moving comparatively slowly. Without, however, entering into further details, which would involve the whole mechanical theory of heat, let me call your attention to a single consequence of the principle I have stated.

When we heat hydrogen, air, or any mass of gas, we simply increase the velocity of its moving molecules. When we cool the gas, we simply lessen the velocity of the same molecules. Take a current of air which enters a room through a furnace. In passing it comes in contact with heated iron, and, as we say, is heated. But, as we view the process, the molecules of the air, while in contact with the hot iron, collide with the very rapidly-oscillating metallic molecules, and fly back as a billiard-ball would under similar circumstances, with a greatly-in-