Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/60

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50
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

plying a special process of hydrogenization to the alkaloids of the peridic series, has pointed out a process of synthesis of the volatile vegetable alkaloids. He has obtained an alkaloid presenting the same composition as cicutine, differing from it only in a few physical and chemical properties, but possessing the same toxic action as the alkaloid of the hemlock.

These results, and others, were of a nature to cause hopes to rise; but still the synthesis of the sugars, and of the proteic substances which are the essential basis of protoplasm, seemed to defy the efforts of chemists.

To give an idea of the manner in which these results were regarded only yesterday by the partisans of the special, irreducible character of life, I quote a few lines from a book recently published (1886) by M. Denys Cochin, under the title Evolution et la Vie. After having recognized that modern chemistry entered with Wöhler and Berthelot into the way of synthesis; that it had made the synthesis of urea, formic acid, and ethylic alcohol; that these results had been for a long time regarded as contradictions of the laws of mineral matter and as impossibilities; and that, consequently, science has imitated some of the works of Nature, M. Denys Cochin adds (page 208): "These are arguments of which it would be wrong to exaggerate the weight. It is enough, to show this, to recall roughly the facts on which the discussion bears. Organic matter, vegetable or animal, is formed of very complex substances. The most complex, those which we may regard as the superior products of the synthesis performed by life, are the sugars and the albumens. These superior products are subjected during life to a slow combustion, which is fed by every effort and every expenditure of energy. The complex albumens are split and transformed into simpler albumens; the simplest of all is urea, a product of secretion, the waste of vital combustion; and urea itself splits into water and carbonate of ammonia. Organic matter thus returns to the mineral world. The sugars undergo a series of similar combustions and end by giving carbonic acid and water. . . . Now, the products of which chemistry performs the synthesis are always products of combustion, wastes of living matter, like alcohol, urea, and formic acid. They are never albumens of complex formula, not even sugars, the most perfect products of vital synthesis.

"Is there a line between superior and inferior organic products? Is there a characteristic that permits us to separate between them? Superior organic products are endowed with a curious power. Dissolved in water and traversed by a ray of polarized light, they cause the plane of polarization to turn at a certain angle to the right or the left. There is an unforeseen relation between this power of dissolved bodies and their crystalline