Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/410

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

clipping under the sea, it passes through Europe, and finally furnishes the marble quarries of Greece. Heat, water, and chemical action give a ceaseless variety to the forms of the limestone, but wherever found it shows the former seat of an ocean.

As soon as the "ooze" was lifted from below the sea it began to change. Some has been exposed to heat and has crystallized into marble, but for our purposes the most interesting changes have been wrought by water. Chalk, limestone, and marble—for these are chemically the same—are almost insoluble in pure water. But water is rarely pure; it dissolves many things, and among them the carbonic-oxide gas that every fire, every animal, every decaying scrap of wood is pouring into the atmosphere. The rain, charged with this gas, dissolves the limestone, but when the gas escapes the lime falls, as you know happens when "hard" water is boiled, for the heat drives off the gas. By this solution, however, the lime is scattered widely through the soil, and is rarely lacking in unfilled earth.

Besides lime, phosphorus is necessary in a good soil. This is widely spread in Nature, but its great reservoir is the ocean, that boundless mine of wealth. Many marine animals have the power of building it into their tissues, and the shells of oysters and other mollusks, the bones of nearly all animals, terrestrial and marine, and parts of other organisms, are composed of phosphates to a greater or less degree. In the ceaseless changes of level the primal oyster beds and coral reefs are raised to the surface or far above it, and the slow action of time begins to tear down the deposits and spread them widecast. Since that far-off time "in the beginning" no new matter has been put on earth save the small amounts of the meteorites, and the economy of Nature can allow not one atom to lie in idleness, but calls on each one to play its part ceaselessly, "without haste and without rest." A certain amount of a substance is disseminated through the earth; by rains it is washed into the streams, and thence to the sea. Here plants or animals eagerly await it, and by means of them it is again restored to the land, to begin again its endless round.

The metals most necessary for plant life are potassium, sodium, and iron; indeed, the very name of the first shows its importance. If the ashes which contain all the mineral constituents of plants be put in a vessel and water poured on them, a solution of lye will percolate through the mass. The word lye is an abbreviation for alkali, and when chemistry became sufficiently advanced, a metal was discovered in this lye to which the name potassium—i. e., potash-metal—was given. If seaweeds be burned and leeched in the same way we can obtain from the lye another metal, sodium, that is much like potassium, and that is one of the most widely spread substances on earth as its chloride, or common salt.