Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/A Little Matter

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THE original investigator in Nature's domains may not inaptly be likened to a pioneer who penetrates the primeval forest, and by the aid of his keen hatchet hews down the obstructions, marking out first a narrow path in the wilderness until he reaches a favorable camping-ground. He then clears a space, admitting sunlight and air; meanwhile, he is perhaps unconscious of, or indifferent to, the approaches of other adventurers, until, little by little, the clearings encroach upon each other; cultivated fields, orchards, vineyards, and gardens appear; the face of the landscape changes, and its every aspect becomes familiar, so that we cease to wonder at its sometimes strange and novel features.

This analogy is not a mere fancy; all the advances in scientific knowledge have been made in little detachments. Narrow lines of investigation have been projected and explored by patient toilers who dig out a few roots here and there, which are carefully garnered until their genus can be determined by further study. In this way, separate facts are being constantly stored up, to be collated and classified at a proper time.

The ideas which have prevailed in the past, in regard to the nature of the ultimate particles of matter out of which worlds are formed, reveal the speculative tendency as well as the intellectual status of the human mind in different epochs of the history of civilization. The present era might be designated as an interrogatory age, for the evident tendency is to question eagerly, to accept nothing on the evidence of tradition, and but little, comparatively, on the merits of faith.

Plausible explanations of various phenomena have so often been accepted with confidence, only to be overthrown and supplanted by others equally unstable, that the mind has become suspicious, and demands the most rigid physical tests to corroborate new theories. The experimental feature of scientific study has thus attained an importance and perfection never before approached, and this cause largely contributes to popularize even the most abstruse subject of inquiry. The object of this brief paper is to present, albeit in a feeble manner, the claims of one of these little paths of knowledge to the exploration of the general reader, who, like the summer tourist, sometimes prefers to leave the beaten track, to enjoy the novelty of a rougher road.

The learned judge who, being requested to define the distinction between mind and matter, replied, "One is no matter, the other—never mind," solved the difficulty in a terse if not very satisfactory or exhaustive way. The question, "What is matter?" is one that has exercised the intellects of the profoundest thinkers in all ages, and the conundrum is, apparently, as far from being definitely answered in this nineteenth century as in the classic days of the Greek philosophers. It would seem, indeed, that the modern views of matter, based upon strictly scientific data and mathematical reasoning, have approached very closely to those propounded by the Attic philosophers, which were evolved purely from the inner consciousness of the poetic sages, the ancient theories being rather expressions of sentiment or feeling than of observed realities or facts. We may find a parallelism to this in the grand musical compositions of the old masters: knowing nothing of the modern science of music or the laws of acoustics, they felt and recorded harmonious combinations which are now shown by analysis to conform to most rigid mathematical laws. The poetical fancies of Lucretius on "The Nature of Things," which have been preserved to us through a lapse of two thousand years, will receive new interest in the light of modern scientific revelation.

The delicacy of the apparatus devised by physicists and the refinement of experimental demonstration rendered possible thereby are among the greatest marvels of this wonderful age. The physicist is pushing his researches into paths which but a few years since were thought to be for ever hidden somewhere in the vast realm of the "unknowable," and the boundary line between so-called physical and metaphysical science is continually narrowing. Just as the skilled mountaineer or the aëronaut ascends gradually into the rarefied upper atmosphere, in order that the system may accommodate itself to its new environment, so the philosopher has advanced, step by step, until he seems almost to have grasped the ultimate particles which constitute the physical basis of the universe, and to have rendered visible to mortal unaided eyes particles of matter which are not only invisible by the aid of the most powerful microscope, but are too infinitesimal even for the mind's eye to conceive.

When that marvelous little instrument called the spectroscope was devised, it seemed that man had invaded fairy-land and stolen "a trap to catch a sunbeam," for such it is, in very truth: not only does it catch the dancing sheaf of light, but spreads it out into a band of exquisite colors and exhibits to our fascinated gaze Nature's palette of purest tints, out of which is woven the whole fabric of the gorgeous sunset, the variegated flowers, the bright plumage of the birds, the iridescence of mother-of-pearl, the sparkle and hue of gems, and, indeed, every variety of color in nature or in art.

But this little instrument is still more wonderful, for it combines with its qualities of a trap the advantages of a balance which we may suppose is fine enough for the most fastidious fairy to weigh the nectar distilled in the dew-drop, or other delicacy of the season.

Our ideas of weight and size are purely relative, and that which seems a small or light object, from one point of view, may become large and heavy by a different comparison. To most of us, perhaps, a "grain-weight" suggests a little thing; we know that the apothecary and a few other small dealers split up the grain into halves, quarters, tenths, and perhaps even hundredths, but then we regard them as homœopathic visionaries and laugh at their absurd little pellets; yet, strange to say, there is a vanishing-point in our minds, which, if an object is small, enough to pass, it becomes larger and more important by reason of our astonishment and wonder at its minuteness: the most ordinary specimen under the microscope is an evidence of this, but when we realize that the ability of the spectroscope to reveal small particles of matter begins where the finest microscope searches with its highest power in vain, that the grain of matter may be divided, not merely into hundredths, or thousandths, or tens of thousandths, but into millionths and tens of millionths, and that a single one of these particles may be readily detected by this little searcher and held up for our inspection, our wonder and amazement enhance our respect for its occult powers. The astronomer tells us that a comet often throws out a tail longer than the distance between the earth and the sun, and broad in proportion; yet the matter forming this tail is so attenuated that, if properly compressed, a gentleman's portmanteau, possibly his snuff-box, might take it in.[1] Yet we have merely to point this little tell-tale at the comet, and, presto! we know what the matter is. Think of it! Not merely can we grasp infinitesimal particles at our hand, but we may sweep the firmament, gather up the star-dust and tell its composition. But we have not yet reached the end of our excursion; indeed, we have only entered the threshold of the scientist's sanctum, and the wonders of the arcanum eclipse those of the portico. That mysterious agency or force called electricity has been utilized, not merely for the benefit of bulls and bears, or for hundreds of utilitarian purposes with which we are familiarized every day, but it has been used as a fairy-finger to probe Nature's hidden structure, and, as it were, enable us to feel what the spectroscope has revealed to sight.

Then, again, appliances for obtaining little samples of "stellar space" in the interior of glass bulbs—bottled vacuity—which we may examine at our pleasure, are in themselves curious. Think of a bulb about the size of a cricket-ball containing only one ten-millionth part of one atmosphere, and that part being subdivided into millions and millions and millions of individual portions, and these particles being captured and made to do visible, tangible work; think of a miniature engine with a propeller-wheel being made to revolve and a little rail-way run by projecting these minute particles against the driving-wheel; think of a piece of refractory metal like platinum being so terribly battered by hitting it in rapid succession with a charge of these little molecules that it is made to cry out in fervent heat, to glow with a bright light, and, if this molecular bombardment is continued, even to melt before it like wax; think of the commonest and most uninteresting materials, like burned oyster-shells, being made to shine with a luminosity rivaling the "great carbuncle," or the famous "Kohinoor"; of little pieces of glass outvying the finest emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, when under this marvelous influence—then, we will be ready to admit that, while we work-a-day, matter-of-fact people may not understand the motive that induces the original investigator to plod on in his narrow path, continually prying into some seemingly trivial corner of Nature's vast store-house of knowledge, we can nevertheless appreciate and enjoy the beautiful results which modern Science has to offer as rewards to her votaries, and we can not too greatly venerate the genius of those who could conceive the possibility of such results, and possess the ability to produce them.

  1. See "Fragments of Science," Tyndall, p. 444.