Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 3.djvu/727

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PRIMARY CONCEPTS OF MODERN SCIENCE.

Masses find their true and only measure in the action of forces, and the quantitative persistence of the effect of this action is the simple and accurate expression of the fact which is ordinarily described as the indestructibility of matter. It is obvious that this persistence is in no sense explained or accounted for by the atomic hypothesis. It may be that such persistence is an attribute of the minute, insensible particles which are supposed to constitute matter, as well as of sensible masses; but, surely, the hypothetical recurrence of a fact in the atom is no explanation of the actual occurrence of the same fact in the conglomerate mass. Whatever mystery is involved in the phenomenon is as great in the case of the atom as in that of a solar or planetary sphere. Breaking a magnet into fragments, and showing that each fragment is endowed with the magnetic polarity of the integer magnet, is no explanation of the phenomenon of magnetism. A phenomenon is not explained by being dwarfed. A fact is not transformed into a theory by being looked at through an inverted telescope. The hypothesis of ultimate indestructible atoms is not a necessary implication of the persistence of weight, and can at best account for the indestructibility of matter if it can be shown that there is an absolute limit to the compressibility of matter—in other words, that there is an absolutely least volume for every determinate mass. This brings us to the consideration of that general property of matter which probably, in the minds of most men, most urgently requires the assumption of atoms—its impenetrability.

"Two bodies cannot occupy the same space"—such is the familiar statement of the fact in question. Like the indestructibility of matter, it is claimed to be a datum of experience. "Corpora omnia impenetrabilia esse" says Sir Isaac Newton (Phil. Nat. Princ. Math., lib. iii., reg. 3), "non ratione sed sensu colligimus." Let us see in what sense and to what extent this claim is legitimate.

The proposition, according to which a space occupied by one body cannot be occupied by another, implies the assumption that space is an absolute, self-measuring entity—an assumption which I may have occasion to examine hereafter—and the further assumption that there is a least space which a given body will absolutely fill so as to exclude any other body. A verification of this proposition by experience, therefore, must amount to proof that there is an absolute limit to the compressibility of all matter whatsoever. Now, does experience authorize us to assign such a limit? Assuredly not. It is true that in the case of solids and liquids there are practical limits beyond which compression by the mechanical means at our command is impossible; but even here we are met by the fact that the volumes of fluids, which effectually resist all efforts at further reduction by external pressure, are readily reduced by mere mixture. Thus, sulphuric acid and water at ordinary temperatures do not sensibly yield to pressure; but, when they are mixed, the resulting volume is materially less than the aggre-