Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 46.djvu/47

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37
UNSOLVED PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE.

they vary in every degree. They seem to have as much relation to each other as the pebbles on a sea beach or the contents of an ancient lumber room. Whether you believe that Creation was the work of design or of inconscient law, it is equally difficult to imagine how this random collection of dissimilar materials came together. Many have been the attempts to solve this enigma, but up till now they have left it more impenetrable than before. A conviction that here was something to discover lay beneath the persistent belief in the possibility of the transmutation of other metals into gold, which brought the alchemy of the middle ages into being. When the immortal discovery of Dalton established that the atoms of each of these elements have a special weight of their own, and that consequently they combine in fixed ponderable proportions from which they never depart, it renewed the hope that some common origin of the elements was in sight. The theory was advanced that all these weights were multiples of the weight of hydrogen—in other words, that each elementary atom was only a greater or a smaller number of hydrogen atoms compacted by some strange machinery into one. The most elaborate analyses, conducted by chemists of the highest eminence—conspicuously by the illustrious Stas—were directed to the question whether there was any trace in fact of the theoretic idea that the atoms of each element consist of so many atoms or even of so many half-atoms of hydrogen. But the reply of the laboratories has always been clear and certain—that there is not in the facts the faintest foundation for such a theory.

Then came the discovery of the spectrum analysis, and men thought that with an instrument of such inconceivable delicacy we should at last find out something as to the nature of the atom. The result has been wholly disappointing. Spectrum analysis in the hands of Dr. Huggins and Mr. Lockyer and others has taught us things of which the world little expected to be told. We have been enabled to measure the speed with which clouds of blazing hydrogen course across the surface of the sun; we have learned the pace—the fabulous pace—at which the most familiar stars have been for ages approaching to or receding from our planet, without apparently affecting the proportions of the patterns which, as far as historical record goes back, they have always delineated on the evening sky. We have received some information about the elementary atoms themselves. We have learned that each sort of atom, when heated, strikes upon the ether a vibration, or set of vibrations, whose rate is all its own; and that no one atom or combination of atoms, in producing its own spectrum, encroaches even to the extent of a single line upon the spectrum that is peculiar to its neighbor. We have learned that the elements which exist in the stars, and especially in the sun, are