Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/840

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

are simply causing the oxygen to recombine with these energetic vegetable substances, and the result is, that we get once more the carbonic acid and water with which we started. But we all know that such burning yields not only heat, but also visible motion. This motion is clearly seen even in the draught of an ordinary chimney, and may be much more distinctly recognized in such a machine as the steam engine.

At first sight, all this seems to have very little connection with hyacinth-bulbs. Yet, if we look a little deeper into the question, we shall see that a bulb and an engine have really a great many points in common. Let us glance first at a somewhat simpler case, that of a seed, such as a pea or a grain of wheat. Here we have a little sack of starches and albumen laid up as nutriment for a sprouting plantlet. These rich food-stuffs were elaborated in the leaves of the parent pea, or in the tall haulms of the growing corn. They were carried by the sap into the ripening fruit, and there, through one of those bits of vital mechanism which we do not yet completely understand, they were selected and laid by in the young seed. When the pea or the grain of wheat begins to germinate, under the influence of warmth and moisture, a very slow combustion really takes place. Oxygen from the air combines gradually with the food-stuffs or fuels—call them which you will—contained in the seed. Thus heat is evolved, which in some cases can be easily measured with a thermometer, and felt by the naked hand—as, for example, in the malting of barley. At the same time motion is produced; and this motion, taking place in certain regular directions, results in what we call the growth of a young plant. In different seeds this growth takes different forms, but in all alike the central mechanical principle is the same: certain cells are raised visibly above the surface of the earth, and the motive power which so raised them is the energy set free by the combination of oxygen with their starches and albumens. Of course, here, too, carbonic acid and water are the final products of the slow combustion. The whole process is closely akin to the hatching of an egg into a living chicken. But, as soon as the young plant has used up all the material laid by for it by its mother, it is compelled to feed itself just as much as the chicken when it emerges from the shell. The plant does this by unfolding its leaves to the sunlight, and so begins to assimilate fresh compounds of hydrogen and carbon on its own account.

Now, it makes a great deal of difference to a sprouting seed whether it is well or ill provided with such stored-up food-stuffs. Some very small seeds have hardly any provisions to go on upon; and the seedlings of these, of course, must wither up and die if they do not catch the sunlight as soon as they have first unfolded their tiny leaflets; but other wiser plants have learned by experience to lay by plenty of starches, oils, or other useful materials in their seeds; and, wherever such a tendency has once faintly appeared, it has given such an advan-