Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 46.djvu/49

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39
UNSOLVED PROBLEMS OF SCIENCE.

entage. If they were organic beings, all our difficulties would be solved by muttering the comfortable word "evolution"—one of those indefinite words from time to time vouchsafed to humanity, which have the gift of alleviating so many perplexities and masking so many gaps in our knowledge. But the families of elementary atoms do not breed; and we can not therefore ascribe their ordered difference to accidental variations perpetuated by heredity under the influence of natural selection. The rarity of iodine, and the abundance of its sister chlorine, can not be attributed to the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. We can not account for the minute difference which persistently distinguishes nickel from cobalt, by ascribing it to the recent inheritance by one of them of an advantageous variation from the parent stock.

The upshot is that all these successive triumphs of research, Dalton's, Kirchhoff's, Mendeléeff 's, greatly as they have added to our store of knowledge, have gone but little way to solve the problem which the elementary atoms have for centuries presented to mankind. What the atom of each element is, whether it is a movement, or a thing, or a vortex, or a point having inertia, whether there is any limit to its divisibility, and, if so, how that limit is imposed, whether the long list of elements is final, or whether any of them have any common origin, all these questions remain surrounded by a darkness as profound as ever. The dream which lured the alchemists to their tedious labors, and which may be said to have called chemistry into being, has assuredly not been realized, but it has not yet been refuted. The boundary of our knowledge in this direction remains where it was many centuries ago.

The next discussion to which I should look in order to find unsolved riddles which have hitherto defied the scrutiny of science, would be the question of what is called the ether. The ether occupies a highly anomalous position in the world of science. It may be described as a half-discovered entity. I dare not use any less pedantic word than entity to designate it, for it would be a great exaggeration of our knowledge if I were to speak of it as a body or even as a substance. When, nearly a century ago. Young and Fresnel discovered that the motions of an incandescent particle were conveyed to our eyes by undulation, it followed that between our eyes and the particle there must be something to undulate. In order to furnish that something, the notion of the ether was conceived, and for more than two generations the main, if not the only, function of the word ether has been to furnish a nominative case to the verb "to undulate." Lately, our conception of this entity has received a notable extension. One of the most brilliant of the services which Prof. Maxwell has rendered