Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/290

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By Professor CLERK MAXWELL, F. R. S.

AN atom is a body which cannot be cut in two. A molecule is the smallest possible portion of a particular substance. No one has ever seen or handled a single molecule. Molecular science, therefore, is one of those branches of study which deal with things invisible and imperceptible by our senses, and which cannot be subjected to direct experiment.

The mind of man has perplexed itself with many hard questions. Is space infinite, and if so in what sense? Is the material world infinite in extent, and are all places within that extent equally full of matter? Do atoms exist, or is matter infinitely divisible?

The discussion of questions of this kind has been going on ever since men began to reason, and to each of us, as soon as we obtain the use of our faculties, the same old questions arise as fresh as ever. They form as essential a part of the science of the nineteenth century of our era, as of that of the fifth century before it.

We do not know much about the science organization of Thrace twenty-two centuries ago, or of the machinery then employed for diffusing an interest in physical research. There were men, however, in those days, who devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge with an ardor worthy of the most distinguished members of the British Association; and the lectures in which Democritus explained the atomic theory to his fellow-citizens of Abdera realized, not in golden opinions only, but in golden talents, a sum hardly equaled even in America.

To another very eminent philosopher, Anaxagoras, best known to the world as the teacher of Socrates, we are indebted for the most important service to the atomic theory, which, after its statement by Democritus, remained to be done. Anaxagoras, in fact, stated a theory which so exactly contradicts the atomic theory of Democritus that the truth or falsehood of the one theory implies the falsehood or truth of the other. The question of the existence or non-existence of atoms cannot be presented to us this evening with greater clearness than in the alternative theories of these two philosophers.

Take any portion of matter, say a drop of water, and observe its properties. Like every other portion of matter we have ever seen, it is divisible. Divide it in two, each portion appears to retain all the properties of the original drop, and among others that of being divisible. The parts are similar to the whole in every respect except in absolute size.

  1. Lecture delivered before the British Association at Bradford.