Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 87.djvu/145

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141
THE CONSTITUTION OF MATTER

similar chemical properties with increasing atomic weight is to be anticipated on the general theory that an atom is an electrical structure.

 

Evolution of the Elements

It has long been thought probable that the elements are all built up of some fundamental substance, and Prout's well-known hypothesis that all atoms are composed of hydrogen is one of the best known examples of this idea. The evidence of radioactivity certainly indicates that the heavy radioactive elements are in part composed of helium, for an atom of the latter appears as a result of many of the radioactive transformations. No definite evidence, however, has been obtained that hydrogen appears as a result of such transformations; but as previously pointed out, helium may prove to be an important secondary unit in the structure of heavy atoms. While we have thus undoubted evidence of the breaking up of heavy atoms, no indication has yet been observed that the radioactive processes are reversible under ordinary conditions. Many investigations have been made to test whether new elements appear in strong electric discharges in vacuum tubes. While some of the results obtained are difficult of interpretation, no reliable evidence has yet been adduced that one element can be transformed into another under such conditions.

The question of the evolution of the elements has been attacked from another side. Sir Norman Lockyer and others have suggested that the elements composing the star are in a state of inorganic evolution. In the hottest stars the spectra of hydrogen and helium predominate, but with decreasing temperature, the spectra becomes more complicated and the lines of heavier elements appear. On this view, it is supposed that the light elements combine with decreasing temperature to form the heavier elements.

There is no doubt that it will prove a very difficult task to bring about the transmutation of matter under ordinary terrestrial conditions. The enormous evolution of energy which accompanies the transformation of radioactive matter affords some indication of the great intensity of the forces that will be required to build up lighter into heavier atoms. On the point of view outlined in these lectures, the building up of a new atom will require the addition to the atomic nucleus of either the nucleus of hydrogen or of helium, or a combination of these nuclei. On present data, this is only possible if the hydrogen or helium atom is shot into the atom with such great speed that it passes close to the nucleus. In any case, it presumes there are forces close to the nucleus which are equivalent to forces of attraction for positively charged masses. It is possible that the nucleus of an atom may be altered either by direct collision of the nucleus with very swift electrons or atoms of helium such as are ejected from radioactive matter. There is