Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/59

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49
SCIENCE AND REVELATION.

posed not to rest in the elasticity of gases as an ultimate property beyond which we can not go, but to regard it as itself a consequence of the molecular constitution of bodies, and of the motions and mutual collisions of the ultimate molecules of a gas. Respecting the attraction of gravitation we have not at present made a similar advance. Speculations, indeed, have not been wanting on the part of those who have endeavored to account for it. But none of these so fits into the known phenomena of Nature as to carry with it a conviction of its truth. Yet there is one indication that though we can not at present explain the cause of gravitation, yet it may be explicable by what are called second causes. The mass of a body is measured by its inertia; and, though we commonly think of a body of large mass as being heavy, and though we compare the masses of two bodies most easily and accurately through the intervention of weight, yet the idea of mass may be acquired, and means might easily be suggested by which the ratio of the masses of two bodies might be experimentally determined, without having recourse to gravitation at all. Now, according to the law of gravitation, the force with which a given body attracts another at a given distance is strictly proportional to the mass of the latter. If we suppose the attracting body to be the earth, and the attracted bodies to be in one case a brass weight, and in the other a piece of marble, it follows that if they make equilibrium when placed in the pans of a true balance—I make abstraction of the effect of the buoyancy of the air—their masses are strictly equal, and, accordingly, that weight is a true measure of mass. But there is no reason a priori, so far as with our present knowledge we can see, why this should be so. We know that if the bodies in the scale-pans were formed, one of brass and the other of iron, and there were a magnet concealed under the table on which the operator placed his balance, the masses would not be equal when there was equilibrium. But that the law is true, and that, accordingly, weight is a true measure of mass, follows with the highest probability from the third of Kepler's laws, and was proved experimentally by Newton, by experiments with pendulums. Newton's experiment has since been repeated by Bessel, with all the refinements of modern appliances, with the result that, so far as the most exact experiments enable us to decide, the law is strictly true. This is perhaps the only instance, as Sir William Thomson remarked to me in conversation, in which there is an exact agreement between two quantities, and yet we are unable to give any reason why they should agree. That such is the case, holds out some prospect of scientific men being able some day to explain gravitation itself—that is, to explain it as the result of some still higher law.

Such is the nature of our progress in scientific investigation. We collect facts; we endeavor to co-ordinate them and ascertain the laws which bind them together; we endeavor to refer these laws to their proximate causes, and to proceed step by step upward in the chain of