The fairy tales of science/The Life of an Atom

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The fairy tales of science by John Cargill Brough
The Life of an Atom
"The Life of an Atom"

The Life of an Atom.




"Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alex-
ander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?"—Hamlet.




The particles of matter are subject to strange vicissitudes. Every atom has its peculiar history. In all probability the countless molecules of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen which are aggregated into this lump of white sugar, met together for the first time in the juice of the cane. Where were they before the sugar-cane was planted? Who can tell? One of these atoms of carbon may have coursed through the veins of a Hottentot, another may have existed in the brain of a Laplander!

The old story-tellers never scrupled to endow inanimate objects with the faculty of speech. Let us follow in their footsteps, and create a talking atom. Such a gifted entity might thus recount his adventures in the three kingdoms of nature:—

"I am an atom of carbon. The members of my family are innumerable, and are disseminated throughout the universe. Some of my brethren are grouped together in those diamonds which are so much prized by the strange atomic fabrics called human beings. These jewel-forming atoms are much to be pitied, though they give themselves great airs, and sneer at their unaristocratic relations. I would a hundred times rather be the roving atom that I am, than one of the molecules of the Koh-i-noor itself.

"When the world was young I led a very steady life. I remember forming part of a huge mass of rock which was built up of atoms of carbon, oxygen, and calcium.[1] For ages I never saw the light, and remained in ignorance as to the existence of anything besides the atoms which surrounded me. Fortunately I was situated very near the surface of the rock, and in course of time the atoms above me were removed, probably by the drops of water which fell from the heavens.

"Never shall I forget the delight I experienced on first beholding the outer world! I thought I should never be able to bear the brilliant sunlight, which dazzled me so that it was some time before I could make out the separate features of the scene. How beautiful, how grand everything seemed! and yet the landscape that was then unfolded before me was unenlivened by organic forms; there was not a tree to be seen—not so much as a blade of grass—life had but just dawned upon the globe. The rock of which I was a constituent, was part of an island, and from my station I could see the ever-restless ocean, whose atoms danced about so joyously that I longed to be among them. At the foot of the rock ran a little stream, which probably conveyed some atoms like myself into new scenes of existence.

"Night came on, and new wonders were revealed. Those marvellous celestial atoms, the stars, looked down upon me with their sparkling eyes; and the silvery light of the moon gave fresh grandeur to the ocean and my rocky island. As I gazed upon the glittering waters I thought of my poor brethren who were deep down in the rock, and sighed!

"Next day the sun was obscured by clouds, and large drops of water fell from the sky. The stream became a river, and dashed through the valley at a headlong pace. The atoms constituting the raindrops buffeted me very severely, and at length their blows detached me, with a few old friends, from the mass of my brother atoms. The friends who clung to me in the hour of adversity were three atoms of oxygen and one atom of calcium. For countless ages we had been united, and now the rain-drops, with all their bluster, could not sever us.

"No sooner were we detached, than a stream of moving atoms impelled us down the sloping sides of the rock and hurled us into the river. There could be no rest for us there. The rapid current carried us through numerous valleys and gorges, and finally launched us into the ocean.

“We now began to lead a new kind of life. The atoms of the ocean were not fixed, like those of the rock. They glided over each other with perfect ease, and were continually in motion. As a matter of course, these atoms communicated their motion, to us. It would be impossible for five little molecules to stand still while myriads were pushing them. We performed some wonderful voyages during the ages that we spent among the oceanic atoms. Sometimes we passed from the Equator to the Poles; but our usual course was from west to east, in which direction a mighty stream of atoms constantly flowed round the globe.

“A strange mishap forced us to relinquish our roving habits. In traversing a chain, of rocks we were sucked into the stomach of a tiny plant-like animal,[2] whose frame was built tip of numberless atoms, most of them members of the carbon family. A place was found for us in this living organism beside certain atomic groups, each composed of five individuals exactly like ourselves.

“In course of time the vital force which had aggregated the various molecules into such a wondrous system ceased to act; in other words, the animal died. The atoms which formed the soft portions of the body now began to change their position, and in a very short time they were all carried away by the wandering atoms of the ocean. As for me, I was still surrounded by my four friends, and still associated with numerous five-fold groups. The creature who had robbed us of our liberty was now no more, but for all that we were unable to move. We were fixed to the rock upon which the organism had nourished; indeed, incredible as the statement may appear, the entire reef, which extended for some hundreds of miles, was composed of atoms that had been snatched from the ocean by innumerable generations of those gelatinous little animals.[3]

“I cannot say how long I existed as a constituent of this marine rock. An atom takes no heed of time, and a few millions of years pass by very quickly. Time affects only those compound entities called plants and animals.

“The surface of the earth underwent some strange mutations while I was a rock atom. The relative position of land and water changed. Mountains were upheaved by the internal fires of the globe, and deep valleys were eroded by rivers. The waters of the ocean receded from the reef to which I belonged, and left it high and dry, as a chain of hills in the interior of a vast continent. None of these changes, however, disturbed my repose. The ties which bound me to my fellow atoms seemed indissoluble.

“At length the rock of which I was a constituent was subjected to a new mutation by volcanic agency. The pent-up fires of the earth burst through the ancient reef, and liberated myriads of its component atoms. For some time I remained unaffected by the commotion, but eventually I felt the disturbing effects of the intense heat, and found that my bonds were loosened. I was no longer a rock atom, and the ascending stream of fiery particles bore me into the atmosphere.

“As for my old companions who had hitherto shared my reverses, only two of them attended me now, for the atom of calcium had persuaded one of the atoms of oxygen to remain with him in the rock. The metal was not fitted for an aërial life, and did not care to be separated from all his friends. What a marvellous difference the absence of those two atoms made in the group to which I belonged. When there were five of us we constituted a solid molecule; now we formed a compound gaseous atom.[4]

“Who can describe the joys of an aërial atom? I have never yet been a part of a poet’s brain, and it is therefore quite out of my power to set forth in appropriate language the varied pleasures of an atmospheric existence. My roving life as an atom of the ocean had its charms, but it was not to be compared with the life I now led among the sportive atoms of the air. My two friends remained true to me. Indeed, had it not been for their constant watchfulness I should have fallen to the earth, for I was not buoyant enough to float unsupported.

“Sometimes we soared to a great height, where the aërial atoms were very far apart, but we usually kept near the surface of the earth. How changed was the aspect of nature! When I first beheld the outer world all was barren and lifeless, now every scrap of dry land was covered with a luxuriant vegetation.[5] The plants were mostly of great magnitude, though, strange to say, some of them were closely allied to the humble ferns and tiny mosses of the age of man. I have seen many wondrous things in my time, but nothing to surpass those ancient forests, composed of ferns as large as oaks, and mosses seventy feet high!

“I was destined to become a part of one of these gigantic mosses. As I was passing through a forest with myriads of aërial atoms, I happened to strike against a leaf, which instantly absorbed me, but allowed my two companions, who had never been separated from me before, to pass on with the rest. For some time I circulated through the vessels of the living plant as a constituent of the sap, but at length I settled down among the atoms of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen which were aggregated into particles of wood. Such are the vicissitudes of an atom, now literally as free as the air, now a captive in the tissues of a living organism! A second time the hidden processes of life had compelled me to part with my liberty.

“I have already alluded to the mutability of the earth’s surface. The disturbances that took place during the time that I was a vegetable atom were of a very extraordinary character. The group of islands upon which the monster ferns and mosses flourished, sank beneath the waves, and in course of time they became overlaid with beds of rock, formed by the deposition of sand, clay, and other materials at the bottom of the ocean, the sedimentary matter being hardened by heat and pressure. Human beings talk of the stability of the earth, but we atoms know very well that its great characteristic is instability. Why! the crust of this so-called immovable earth is continually bulging out in some places and falling in others!

“I did not lead a very merry life in the depths of the earth, but still I did not repine. Experience had taught me that I was a creature of circumstance, and must submit to my destiny. How long I remained underground I cannot say. Millions of years may have flown by, but they brought me no change. Numberless atoms of oxygen and hydrogen that were associated with me in the living plant, forced their way between the molecules of the overlying rocks, and thus escaped from their subterranean prison. I was too firmly attached to my solid brethren to accompany these adventurous atoms, so I waited patiently for succour, assured that it would come sooner or later.

“My deliverance was effected by the agency of Man, that wondrous being, partly composed ot atoms like myself, and partly of an immaterial spirit, who now reigned supreme over the other organisms of the world. Having found that the compressed remains of the ancient forests[6] could be made to yield light and heat, agents which greatly contributed to his happiness, he sank deep pits through the rocks, and transferred me, with myriads of my brethren, from the earth’s gloomy depths to its sun-gilt surface.

“Now commenced the eventful period of my life. Hitherto my transitions had been few. Twice had I been a constituent of stone; twice, a part of a living organism; I had tasted the pleasures of a marine existence; I had floated joyously in the air; I had lain for ages in the bosom of the earth. But in the few short years that have elapsed since my release from bondage, I have passed through a far more wonderful series of changes.

“Let me now recount the chief incidents of my modern career. I will make use of as few words as possible, lest my narrative should be cut short by a new alteration in my condition.

“Soon after my arrival at the surface of the earth, I was separated from my brother atoms by the process of combustion, and carried aloft by two members of the great oxygen family. My freedom was of short duration. Nature had set innumerable traps for me, in the shape of living organisms, and by one of them I was soon made captive.

I now became a part of a grain of wheat, and in course of time I found myself in the stomach of a man. In the human frame I passed through a definite course of vicissitude, and was then breathed forth to make room for a new-comer. Once more I enjoyed the pleasures of an aërial life, which, I need scarcely say, were again shared by two atoms of oxygen.

“From the atmosphere I passed into the substance of a tree, which was destined to fall by the hand of man soon after my absorption. By a cunning process the wood was decomposed; its volatile atoms of oxygen and hydrogen were set free, and an aggregate of carbon atoms[7] remained.

“Man had not yet done with me and my dusky brethren; he had separated us from our companions in order that we might be at liberty to unite with certain atoms of iron, and thus produce a substance which he greatly prized.[8] This strange union was effected, and in course of time I became a part of one of those weapons with which man destroys his fellow man.

“I now witnessed some fearful scenes of bloodshed, and being an atom of a philosophical turn of mind, I often speculated upon the motives that induced those short-lived atomic structures called men to hasten each other’s dissolution. When I speak of these scenes as fearful, I make use of a human expression, for I need scarcely say that death can have no terrors for an undying atom.

“I was detached from the metallic mass by the agency of heat, and two friendly atoms again conveyed me into the atmosphere. My next transition was into the juice of a grape, where I remained in peaceful retirement, until man induced me to become a constituent of a bright and sparkling liquid, which he confined in strong glass bottles.[9] How long I remained a prisoner I cannot say, but as soon as my bottle was opened I made my escape in a bubble of gas. After a short flight through the air, I passed into a blade of grass, and thence into the huge frame of an ox.

“The next change in my condition was brought about by human agency, and I became a constituent of a volatile and colourless liquid, which was such a terrible poison that a few drops of it would suffice to kill the largest animal.[10] Now, it so happened that a foolish man swallowed a small quantity of this liquid. He grasped the little phial which contained the poison with a trembling hand, he raised it to his lips, and in another moment I found myself in his lifeless body. A simple atom can form no idea of the motives which induce composite beings to perform certain actions, but as far as I can judge, this self-destruction seems to be unworthy of a being like man.

“When I escaped from the dead body, I passed into the vegetable kingdom, where I became a part of a beautiful flower. Soon after, I found myself in the body of a bee, and in course of time I became a constituent of one of the waxen cells which the little artisan had so cleverly constructed. From the honeycomb I passed into a wax taper, from which I was released by the process of combustion.

“It was now my lot to spend some time among the aërial atoms; but at length I came in contact with the sugar-cane, and became a constituent of the sweet juice from which the lump of sugar was extracted.

“Such is the story of my life, or rather of a fragment of my life. I enjoy perpetual youth. Today I may be buried in a mass of corruption, but to-morrow I may form a part of a newly-opened rose. Time cannot reach me; his hour-glass may be broken and his scythe may be shattered, but still I shall exist. At the present moment I am joined to countless atoms, indestructible and eternal like myself, in a fragment of sugar, but who can tell where I shall be in a year’s time!”

This peroration has been cut short by our firstborn, who has run away with the lump of sugar, and we have every reason to believe that the atom is undergoing new transitions.


  1. Limestone, or Carbonate of Lime.
  2. The Coral Polype.
  3. The barrier reef along the north coast of Australia is composed of a chain of coral rocks, and is more than 1000 miles long, and from 10 to 90 miles in breadth, while it rises from depths which in some places certainly exceed 1800 feet. What a mausoleum for creatures so low in the scale of being!
  4. Carbonic Acid.
  5. The Carboniferous Period.
  6. Coal.
  7. Charcoal.
  8. Steel.
  9. Champagne.
  10. Prussic Acid.