Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/27

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17
THE RADIOMETER.

different surfaces exposed to one and the same medium? and jour question is a perfectly legitimate one; for it is just here that the new phenomena seem to belie all our previous experience. If, however, you followed me in my very partial exposition of the mechanical theory of gases, you will easily see that on this theory it is a more difficult question to explain why such a difference of pressure does not manifest itself in every gas medium and under all conditions between any two surfaces having different temperatures.

We saw that gas-pressure is a double effect, caused both by the impact of molecules and by the recoil of the surface attending their rebound. We also saw that when molecules strike a heated surface they rebound with increased velocity, and hence produce an increased pressure against the surface, the greater the higher the temperature. According to this theory, then, we should expect to find the same atmosphere pressing unequally on equal surfaces if at different temperatures; and the difference in the pressure on the lampblack and mica surfaces of the vanes, which the motion of the radiometer-wheel necessarily implies, is therefore simply the normal effect of the mechanical condition of every gas medium. The real difficulty is, to explain why we must exhaust the air so perfectly before the effect manifests itself.

The new theory is equal to the emergency. As has been already pointed out, in the ordinary state of the air the amplitude of the molecular motion is exceedingly small, not over a few ten-millionths of an inch—a very small fraction, therefore, of the height of the inequalities on the lampblack surfaces of the vanes of a radiometer. Under such circumstances, evidently the molecules would not leave the heated surface, but simply bound back and forth between the vanes and the surrounding mass of dense air, which, being almost absolutely a nonconductor of heat, must act essentially like an elastic solid wall confining the vanes on either side. For the time being, and until replaced by convection-currents, the oscillating molecules are as much a part of the vanes as our atmosphere is a part of the earth; and on this system, as a whole, the homogeneous dense air which surrounds it must press equally from all directions. In proportion, however, as the air is exhausted, the molecules find more room and the amplitude of the molecular motion is increased, and when a very high degree of exhaustion is reached the air-particles no longer bound back and forth on the vanes without change of condition, but they either bound off entirely like a ball from a cannon, or else, having transferred a portion of their momentum, return with diminished velocity, and in either case the force of the reaction is felt.[1]

  1. The reader will, of course, distinguish between the differential action on the opposite faces of the vanes of the radiometer and the reaction between the vanes and the glass which are the heater and the cooler of the little engine. Nor will it be necessary to remind any student that a popular view of such a complex subject must be necessarily partial. In the present case we not only meet with the usual difficulties in this respect, but,