Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/502

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498

THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

ception makes no response, like the electric waves of wireless telegraphy,[1] intrinsically differ, not in kind but in magnitude alone.

This, however, is not all, nor nearly all. If we jump over the century which separates 1804 from 1904, and attempt to give in outline the world picture as it now presents itself to some leaders of contemporary speculation, we shall find that in the interval it has been modified, not merely by such far-reaching discoveries as the atomic and molecular composition of ordinary matter, the kinetic theory of gases, and the laws of the conservation and dissipation of energy; but by the more and more important part which electricity and the ether occupy in any representation of ultimate physical reality.

Electricity was no more to the natural philosophers in the year 1700 than the hidden cause of an insignificant phenomenon,[2] It was known, and had long been known, that such things as amber and glass could be made to attract light objects brought into their neighborhood; yet it was about fifty years before the effects of electricity were perceived in the thunderstorm. It was about one hundred years before it was detected in the form of a current. It was about one hundred and twenty years before it was connected with magnetism; about one hundred and seventy years before it was connected with light and ethereal radiation.

But to-day there are those who regard gross matter, the matter of every-day experience, as the mere appearance of which electricity is the physical basis: who think that the elementary atom of the chemist, itself far beyond the limits of direct perception, is but a connected system of monads or subatoms which are not electrified matter, but are electricity itself; that these systems differ in the number of monads which they contain, in their arrangement, and in their motion relative to each other and to the ether; that on these differences, and on these differences alone, depend the various qualities of what have hitherto been regarded as indivisible and elementary atoms; and that while in most cases these atomic systems may maintain their equilibrium for periods which, compared with such astronomical processes as the cooling of a sun, may seem almost eternal, they are not less obedient to the law of change than the everlasting heavens themselves.

But if gross matter be a grouping of atoms, and if atoms be systems of electrical monads, what are these electrical monads? It may be that, as Professor Larmor has suggested, they are but a modification of the universal ether, a modification roughly comparable to a knot in a medium which is inextensible, incompressible and continu-


  1. First known through the theoretical work of Maxwell and the experiments of Hertz.
  2. The modern history of electricity begins with Gilbert, but I have throughout confined my observations to the post-Newtonian period.