Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 66.djvu/37

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33
PROBLEMS OF INORGANIC CHEMISTRY.
THE PRESENT PROBLEMS OF INORGANIC CHEMISTRY.[1]
By Sir WILLIAM RAMSAY, K.C.B., F.R.S.

TO discuss the 'present problems of inorganic chemistry' is by no means an easy task. The expression might be taken to mean an account of what is being actually done at present by those engaged in inorganic research; or it might be taken to relate to what needs doing — to the direction in which research is required. To summarize what is being done in an intelligible manner in the time at my disposal would be an almost impossible task; hence I will choose the latter interpretation of the title of my address. Now, a considerable experience in attempting to unveil the secrets of nature has convinced me that a deliberate effort to discover some new law or fact seldom succeeds. The investigator generally begins unmethodically, by random and chance experiments; or perhaps he is guided by some indication which has struck his attention during some previous research; and he is often the plaything of circumstances in his choice. Experience leads him to choose problems which most readily admit of solution, or which appear likely to lead to the most interesting results. If I may be excused the egotism of referring to my own work, I may illustrate what I mean by relating the following curious coincidence: After Lord Rayleigh had announced his discovery that 'atmospheric nitrogen' was denser than 'chemical nitrogen' I referred to Cavendish's celebrated paper on the combination of the nitrogen and the oxygen the air by means of electric sparks. Fortified by what I read, and by the knowledge gained during the performance of lecture experiments that red-hot magnesium is a good and fairly rapid absorbent of nitrogen, it was not long before a considerable quantity of nearly pure argon had been separated from atmospheric nitrogen. Now it happened that I possess two copies of Cavendish's works; and some months afterwards I consulted the other copy and found penciled on the margin the words 'look into this.' I remembered the circumstance which led to the annotation. About ten years before, one of my students had investigated the direct combination of nitrogen and hydrogen, and I had read Cavendish's memoir on that occasion. I mention this fact to show that for some reason which I forget, a line of work was not followed up, which would have been attended by most interesting results; one does not always follow the clue

  1. An address at the International Congress of Arts and Science, St. Louis, September, 1904.