Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/561

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557
JOSIAH WILLARD GIBBS

investigation of soils. "The soil is the stomach of the plant," being in effect a complex system in three phases, of which the liquid phase furnishes the nutrient solution to the plant. The bacteria, molds and enzymes in the soil make its relation to the plant a complicated and difficult problem,[1] but the application of physical chemistry to its solution of Cameron, Bell, Briggs and other chemists in the United States Department of Agriculture is clearly in the right direction. Recently Bancroft has shown how the phase rule may be applied to photochemistry when the radiant energy of absorbable light such as ultraviolet is converted into chemical energy. The light acts as another variable requiring n + 3 phases in an invariant system while in general we may have as many additional degrees of freedom as there are kinds of light.[2] The application of the phase rule to organic chemistry is difficult owing to "passive resistance to change." Most of the reactions in organic chemistry are reversible, i. e., proceed to equilibrium, and if sufficient time be allowed will reverse backwards like a Carnot cycle, to some approximation of their initial state. Many reactions with organic substances, however, seem to stop short of equilibrium, and the chemist, in working with colloids, ferments, gums, etc., is balked by certain passive forces, which do not, like friction or viscosity, merely retard chemical change, but actually prevent it. Even such explanations as the hypothesis of reversibility in infinite time or Duhem's theory of false equilibria and pseudoreversible reactions, do not entirely account for these mysterious phenomena, and it is probably through new methods of laboratory procedure that organic chemistry will ultimately pass into the hands of the physical chemists.

In physiological chemistry the doctrine of phases opens out a new perspective, a new qualitative way of envisaging problems which, approached quantitatively, are a severe task even for an Emil Fischer. Recently the Dutch physiologist Zwaardemaker has proposed the application of the phase rule and the second law to general physiology.[3] "The task of an energetic histology," he says, "would be to give the number of phases and their relations, while an energetic physiology would determine the equilibria and reversible processes by direct experimentation."[4] Zwaardemaker proposes to regard the human body at rest as a complicated system of coexistent phases in equilibrium, the metabolic, reproductive and other processes of which are irreversible. The animal cell he holds to be a system of heterogeneous phases, the equilibrium of which can be disturbed by experimental removal of the nucleus. The red blood corpuscles are probably divariant, four component systems of four phases, while the endothelial cells of the ven-


  1. Cameron, ibid., 1904, VIII., 642.
  2. Bancroft, ibid., 1906, X., 721.
  3. Zwaardemaker, "Ergebnisse d. Physiol.," Wiesbaden, 1906, V., 108.
  4. Loc. cit., 154.