Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/23

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
13
THE RADIOMETER.

and the only opening is then hermetically sealed. If, now, the sun's light or even the light from a candle shines on the vanes, the blackened surfaces—which are coated with lamp-black—are repelled, and, these being symmetrically placed around the wheel, the several forces conspire to produce the rapid motion which results. The effect has all the appearance of a direct mechanical action exerted by the light, and for some time was so regarded by Mr. Crookes and other eminent physicists, although in his published papers it should be added that Mr. Crookes carefully abstained from speculating on the subject—aiming, as he has since said, to keep himself unbiased by any theory, while he accumulated the facts upon which a satisfactory explanation might be based.

Singularly, however, the first aspect of the new phenomena proved to be wholly deceptive; and the motion, so far from being an effect of the direct mechanical action of the waves of light, is now believed to be a new and very striking manifestation of molecular motion. To this opinion Mr. Crookes himself has come, and in a recent article he writes: "Twelve months' research, however, has thrown much light on these actions; and the explanation afforded by the dynamical theory of gases makes, what was a year ago obscure and contradictory, now reasonable and intelligible."

As is frequently the case in Nature, the chief effect is here obscured by various subordinate phenomena, and it is not surprising that a great difference of opinion should have arisen in regard to the cause of the motion. This would not be an appropriate place to describe the numerous investigations occasioned by the controversy, many of which show in a most striking manner how easily experimental evidence may be honestly misinterpreted in support of a preconceived opinion. I will, however, venture to trespass further on your patience, so far as to describe the few experiments by which very early in the controversy I satisfied my own mind on the subject.

When two years ago I had for the first time an opportunity of experimenting with a radiometer, the opinion was still prevalent that the motion of the wheel was a direct mechanical effect of the waves of light, and therefore that the impulses came from the outside of the instrument, the waves passing freely through the glass envelope. At the outset this opinion did not seem to me to be reasonable, or in harmony with well-known facts; for, knowing how great must be the molecular disturbance caused by the sun's rays as shown by their heating power, I could not believe that a residual action, such as has been referred to, would first appear in these delicate phenomena observed by Mr. Crookes, and should only be manifested in the vacuum of a mercury-pump.

On examining the instrument, my attention was at once arrested by the lampblack coating on the alternate surfaces of the vanes; and from the remarkable power of lampblack to absorb radiant heat it was