Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/32

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28
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

WHAT IS MATTER?[1]
By Professor S. E. MEZES

THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS

THIS question is at once the earliest and latest to excite scientific curiosity. It was asked at the dawn of science by Thales and Anaxemander, by Heracleitus, the gloomy, and Democritus, the smiling, philosopher. And to-day, with all the resources of modern science at their command, Thomson, Ramsay, Lodge and Rutherford are still asking, What is matter? What is the stuff of which the world is made? The great difference is that at last the solution seems about ready for acceptance, a solution so simple that we must marvel at the denseness of the human wit that so long failed, and in large measure still fails, to recognize it, though it was proclaimed, in dark words to be sure, by Heracleitus in the early fifth century b. c.

There is, of course, no question as to the reality of matter. That has never been seriously doubted. With the problem properly stated, even Bishop Berkeley would not have done so, though unquestionably he thought he did, and many since his day have been misled by his self-deception. Berkeley merely disagreed, rightly, with the common view of what matter is. Matter, he taught in effect, is very different from what the man in the street thinks it to be. And to Berkeley's real doctrine the doughty Dr. Johnson had no answer. By kicking the stone, he reassured himself that matter is real, which needed no proof, but failed to cast the faintest glow of light on what matter is, which is the real question.

Before reflection, all men think they know matter perfectly. Why, they say, matter is the commonest thing in the world; it is everywhere, which is, of course, true. And they are likely to add at that stage, Everything is matter, which is false as matter is ordinarily conceived. But, if you are still unsatisfied and press to be told definitely what matter is, the man in the street is likely to resort to the "when" definition, so dear to childhood, as did Dr. Johnson, that colossal wayfarer. Matter is "when" you kick a stone, or when you see a tree, or eat its fruit, or hear the thunder roll. Now, it goes without saying that matter is in fact there when you do each of these things. But so is much else besides, including yourself, the sorenes of your toe, if you kick hard enough, the color you see, the savor you taste, and the sound you hear. But matter, of course, is not pain, color, taste or sound, any more than it is yourself or any other self. All these experiences of

  1. Presidential address before the Texas Academy of Science, revised and adapted.