Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/July 1906/Are the Elements Transmutable, The Atoms Divisible and Forms of Matter But Modes of Motion?

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By Professor S. L. BIGELOW


THE advance workers in chemistry and physics are constantly accumulating new facts and propounding new theories which must be digested and incorporated in the body of the sciences. The process of assimilation is often slow, and it is right that new and important facts should be vouched for by more than one investigator, and that a new theory should prove its usefulness before being placed beside old and tried facts and theories. But too often the effects of the advances are unduly delayed through a reluctance to revise old text-books or old lectures, perhaps not so much because of mere laziness, as because of a failure to appreciate the full force of the evidence in favor of new views, or of the advantages to be obtained by their adoption. The fact that the arguments for an innovation, for a time at least, are scattered through many journals, leads to an underestimate of their cumulative force.

It is the purpose of this article to gather the main facts, some old, many recent, most of them fairly generally known, which are compelling us to alter our old definitions, and to show what a strong argument they make in favor of believing in the transmutation of the elements, the divisibility of the atoms and that what we call matter is simply a mode of motion.

It is interesting to note the caution with which text-books express themselves when it is necessary to give definitions for these terms. By a careful choice of words most authors avoid making false statements, but they certainly do frequently lead their readers to unjustifiable conclusions. For instance, in Roscoe and Schorlemmer's 'Treatise on Chemistry,' issued in 1891, we find the definition, 'An atom is the smallest portion of matter which can enter into a chemical compound.' As is the usual custom, the ideas of the alchemists regarding the possibility of transmuting metals is held up to ridicule, and thus, by implication at least, the ultimate nature of the elements and the idea that the atom is indivisible are infallibly conveyed to the reader. A more recent instance is to be found even in the late editions of one of the most widely used texts on general inorganic chemistry. In this book, on page 4, we read, 'Molecules may be defined as the smallest particles of matter which can exist in the free state'; on page 5, 'Atoms are the smallest particles of matter which can take part in a chemical change'; on page 6, 'Molecules consisting of atoms of the same kind are termed elementary molecules, and substances whose molecules are so constituted are known as elements.' The numbers of the pages on which these statements occur are also significant. This reminds one of the methods of the old Greek philosophers, who pretended to solve all questions of science by pure deduction, positing some hypothesis, and then developing everything else by meditation in their closets, disdaining to disturb the order of their thoughts by experiments. But it is unworthy of the present age of inductive science, wherein every thought has, or should have, experimental evidence as its starting point. It can not be said that this particular author has made a false statement, but he has left the subject incomplete; cautiously reserving a loophole for his own escape, he fairly traps his readers. For it is inevitable that, with such didactic phraseology, and without having his attention called to the hypothetical, the tentative, nature of these definitions, the student should become convinced that the most fundamental facts of chemistry are that there are about eighty substances so simple that they can never be broken up into simpler things, and that all substances are composed of ultimate particles, called atoms, eternally indivisible.

A student started out with this hodgepodge of fact and theory thoroughly implanted in his mind as the basis for all his future knowledge is sadly handicapped, indeed he is intellectually maimed, and it may take him years to overcome the habit of confusing fact and theory, and to learn how to think straight; perhaps he never succeeds in overcoming it. This confusing of facts with theories is a vicious habit, which grows till it colors all one's thoughts, hinders the free play of the intellect, diminishes the power of right judgment and starts the ossification of the wits even before the age set by Dr. Osler.

It is not necessary to consider a student of chemistry as an infant in arms to be fed on predigested food. He may be assumed to have a digestive apparatus of his own. Give him the benefit of any doubt and ascribe to him at least a dawning intelligence, which, properly stimulated, may some day shed some light of its own. It is the characteristic course of a lazy teacher, and one pleasing to lazy students as well, to supply a lot of personal opinions in the shape of cut and dried definitions, so easy to memorize and, unfortunately, so hard to forget; phrases which do not require the intellect to bestir itself and exercise its faculty of criticism, to pass judgment for itself between alternative or conflicting views. Strictly speaking, nothing should be presented in the form of a definition except what is, in itself, a statement of experimental facts, as, for instance, we describe or define a unit of measurement in terms of other units. When dealing with a subject where more than one opinion is permissible, all should be stated, or at least the attention should be directed to the fact that others draw different conclusions from the same premises.

The average student is better able to face issues and weigh arguments than most of us realize, and it is more important to educate those falling below the average in this particular than in any other. We should state the facts and then reason in such a way as to teach students how to think. It is indispensable for them to learn to think for themselves. Great stores of chemical facts are of but little real use, unless accompanied by an ability to adapt and to apply them in new conditions, unforeseen by either teacher or student in school or university days, but surely coming in after life. It is the prime necessity for research work or for originality of any kind, and we all are willing to admit that originality is what should be cultivated.

There is a great difference between the phrases, 'elements are substances which can not be broken up' and 'elements are substances which we have not as yet succeeded in breaking up'; and we should mark well the difference. This caution, lest we slip into the error of stating as fact more than we really know, is the distinguishing difference between the chemistry of to-day and the chemistry of a few years ago. It is more than this, it expresses concisely the difference between the way in which any science should be taught and studied, and the way in which it should be neither taught nor studied.

This particular differentiation between two definitions of the term element has been more than justified by the results which have followed the last ten years' work in pure chemistry, spectroscopy, radioactivity and Röntgenology (a term which has been seriously proposed by one of that fraternity which seems to consider its main function in life to be the coinage of new words).

The main arguments which may be marshaled in favor of considering the elements as ultimates, and the atoms as indivisible consist:

First, of all those facts which Dalton condensed into the laws of definite and multiple proportions, and to which there have been as many additions as there have been analyses and syntheses made before or since his time.

Second, Dulong and Petit's law that the atomic heats of all solid elements are the same.

Third, the isomorphism of many compounds containing similar elements, a phenomenon discovered by Mitscherlich.

Fourth, Faraday's law, that equivalent quantities of the elements are deposited at the electrodes during electrolysis.

Truly, an imposing array of evidence, and more than sufficient to justify us in making the assumption that atoms exist. But curiously enough, there is not one item amongst all these facts compelling us to believe that these atoms are the ultimate constituents, or that they are indivisible. These latter hypotheses are purely gratuitous, tacked on by Dalton and retained by succeeding chemists and physicists for no good reason. Perhaps because imitation is a characteristic inherited from our simian ancestry, and is so much easier for us than originality. Many a chemist looks askance at any tampering with the atoms, apparently fearing that it may hurt them, or even destroy them utterly and the atomic weights with them. Or he trembles for his spidery and tenuous structural formula?, knowing full well that if deprived of these he will be irretrievably lost in a labyrinth, without a thread to guide him. While, if he is not permitted to think of the carbon atom as a little chunk of matter, tetrahedral in form, he thinks he is launched on a sea of troubles.

, But all this apprehension arises from a misunderstanding. That the atomic weights remain unharmed and unaltered, as the units for chemical calculations, and that nothing which is good or useful about the atomic theory is destroyed or even assailed by the new ideas, that the trend of these new ideas is unmistakably constructive and not destructive, are best shown by a review of the arguments in favor of the hypothesis that the atom is divisible, and that our elements are not elements in the true sense of the word.

There is nothing new in this view; it formed the first article of the faith of the alchemists. It was unqualifiedly denied by Dalton, and fell into such disrepute that even within recent years one risked being called a dreamer, or even a fool, if he dared to consider it possible. Here again is an instance of the desirability of being as precise as possible in the use of terms. Many believe experimental evidence of the complexity of 'elementary atoms' and the existence of one 'mother substance' must be followed immediately by directions for transforming elements into one another; by the transmutation of baser metals into gold. But these are two wholly distinct propositions. An astronomer might locate a mountain of gold on the surface of the moon, but there would still be a goodly chasm to bridge before he derived much material benefit from his discovery!

The idea that there is one fundamental substance would not down. The hypothesis of the English physician, Prout, is a familiar one. When the atomic weight of hydrogen is set equal to unity, the atomic weights of all the other elements come out remarkably close to whole numbers. There exist numerous groups of three elements, commonly called Döbereiner's triads, the individual members of one group being similar in their chemical properties, and so related that the atomic weight of the middle member is the arithmetic mean of the atomic weights of the extreme members. These are the facts which led Prout to suggest that there was but one element, namely, hydrogen, the others being complexes containing different quantities of this ultimate substance. It followed that the differences between the atomic weights and whole numbers were to be ascribed to experimental errors in the determination of these values. The desire to test this hypothesis was one of the chief motives for some of the most careful determinations of atomic weights which have ever been made. These determinations resulted in proving that the divergences of the atomic weights from whole numbers were greater than could be accounted for on the basis of experimental errors. This precluded the possibility that the atom of hydrogen was the common ultimate unit, but did not dispose of the possibility that a half, or quarter, or some other fraction, of the hydrogen atom might play that rôle.

In 1901 Strutt[1] applied the mathematical methods of the theory of probabilities to the most accurately determined atomic weights, and calculated that the chance that they should fall as close to whole numbers as they do was only one in one thousand. The inference from this is that it is not a matter of chance, but that there is a regularity in the atomic weights which we do not understand; a regularity which points to the probability that our elements are complex substances, constructed according to some system, from some simpler substance.

All the facts comprised in that great generalization, the periodic law, which states that the properties of the elements, both chemical and physical, are functions of their atomic weights, and most of them are periodic functions, point unmistakably to the same conclusion.

The evidence from spectroscopic analysis is so abundant that it is not easy to compress it into a few general statements.

In the first place, the spectrum of each of our elements consists of numerous lines, a fact not exactly compatible with the notion of extreme simplicity of the particles emitting the light.

In the second place, one and the same element, contrary to common belief, frequently has two or three distinctly different spectra, the particular spectrum which appears depending upon the pressure and the temperature at which the element is while emitting the light. In fact the extraordinary spectroscopic results obtained when highly rarefied gases enclosed in tubes (variously called Plücker, Hittorf, Geissler or Crookes tubes) were made luminous by the passage of high potential electricity, induced Crookes to suggest in 1887 a theory that the elements were all built up by gradual condensation with falling temperature from a fundamental substance to which he gave the name protyl.[2]

In the third place, the lines in the spectrum of one element may be separated out into several series. Each line corresponds, as is well known, to light of a definite wave length. The wave lengths of the lines comprised in one series are related to each other in such a way that a general formula may be derived for them. This means that, given some of the lines, the wave lengths, and thus the positions, of other lines belonging in the same series may be calculated. In this way the positions of certain lines for certain elements were foretold. Search failed to reveal all of them in light emitted by the element at any temperature producible in the laboratory. But some of the missing lines have been found in the spectra of the hottest stars, stars far hotter than our sun. At the same time many of the lines obtained by terrestrial means are lacking in the spectra of these stars. We have ample experimental evidence that many complex substances dissociate, as we call it, into less complex substances within the temperature range readily controlled in the laboratory. The inference is right at hand that at extreme, at stellar, temperatures our elements themselves are dissociated into simpler substances. To these substances, our elements, in this other condition, have been given their customary names, but with the prefix proto. Thanks to the introduction of Rowland's diffraction gratings for the study of these spectra, we have observations indicating the existence of proto hydrogen, proto calcium, proto magnesium, proto iron and so on through a list of a dozen or more 'proto' elements.[3]

Continuation of the work upon which Crookes was engaged resulted in the discovery of the X-rays by Röntgen in 1895. This date may be said to mark a new era in many of our conceptions regarding the universe about us. To J. J. Thomson, professor of physics at Cambridge, England, we owe the greater part of our present knowledge of the cathode rays. He devised most of the experiments and the ingenious, but strictly logical, reasoning which justify us in supposing that these cathode rays consist of swarms of minute particles, which he called corpuscles (reviving an old term and an old theory of Isaac Xewton's); particles moving with velocities approaching that of light, each one carrying a charge of what we call negative electricity. He, and those working with him, determined the quantity of this electrical charge to be the same on each corpuscle, and to be the same as the charge we have good reason to suppose is carried by any monovalent ion in solution. By several methods the approximate number of these particles in a given volume and the weight of the individual particle were estimated. This weight appears to be about one eight-hundredth of the weight generally ascribed to the hydrogen atom, the lightest of all the atoms. It may be objected that there is no positive proof of the existence of these corpuscles, nor do we know the weight or mass of one of them. That is very true, but neither have we positive proof of the existence of atoms, nor do we know the weight of one atom. ^Ye can only say that the evidence makes the existence of these minute individuals, atoms and corpuscles extremely plausible, and makes one as plausible as the other.

Grant that we have discovered particles—in round numbers one thousandth part the size and weight of the hydrogen atom—the argument is still not complete for the divisibility of the atom. Perhaps we have found a new element. But cathode rays were produced under circumstances where they must have arisen from the cathode itself, and it is hard to escape from the conclusion that the atoms of the cathode disintegrated to a certain extent to furnish these particles. Furthermore, rays have been studied having as their sources different metals under the influence of electrical currents, different metals heated to incandescence, flames of different kinds and ultra-violet light; and these rays appear to consist of corpuscles of the same weight, no matter what their source. This makes it difficult to escape from the further conclusion that atoms of a great variety of natures are capable of disintegrating and of furnishing the same product by the disintegration;[4] and this is as much as to say that instead of about eighty different elements we have one 'mother substance,' and Prout's hypothesis is once more very much alive, somewhat modified, it is true, and in a new garb, better suited to the present fashions.

It remains to rehearse briefly the evidence to be obtained from radio-active phenomena. In the first place, the rays incessantly sent out from these extraordinary substances consist, at least in part, of rays like the cathode rays, and are streams of the same kind of corpuscles, but, on the whole, traveling with greater velocities than the corpuscles of the cathode rays. It has been proved by Rutherford and Soddy that the emission of the radiations from these substances is accompanied by a disintegration, or decay, as they describe it, of the substances themselves. These investigators have caught some of the products of this decay and have studied their properties. These products themselves decay, some slowly, some rapidly, sending forth other rays and furnishing new products to decay in turn. Indeed each new issue of a scientific journal for the past few years seems to chronicle the birth, life and death of a fresh radio-active substance. The rate at which new offspring of radium, thorium and allied elements are discovered and studied during their fleeting existences reminds one of nothing so much as the genealogy of Noah as given in the fifth chapter of Genesis.[5]

These products appear to be elements, and this idea that some elements may have existences of but short duration, from a few seconds to many years, is a decidedly novel one. It has been suggested that this may account for some of the vacant spaces in our periodic table of the elements, particularly in the neighborhood of thorium, radium and uranium. Perhaps these spaces never will be occupied except by transients. Indeed it is not impossible that all our elements are mere transients, mere conditions of things, all undergoing change. But there is no immediate danger of their all vanishing away in the form of rays and emanations. Rutherford has calculated that radium will be half transformed in about 1,300 years, that uranium will be half transformed in years, and thorium in about years. We may safely say the other elements are decaying much more slowly, so we may continue to direct our anxieties towards the probable duration of our coal beds and deposits of iron ore as matters of more present concern.

The objection may be raised that perhaps radium should not be classed as an element, but rather should be considered as an unstable compound in the act of breaking down into its elements. But the answer to this objection is at hand. The evolution of energy accompanying these changes is far in excess of that obtainable from any known chemical process, so far in excess that it is certain we are dealing with a source of energy hitherto unknown to us, with a wholly new class of phenomena. The following quotation from Whetham[6] will convey an adequate conception of the magnitude of the forces at work here:

It is possible to determine the mass and the velocity of the projected particles, and. therefore, to calculate their kinetic energy. From the principles of the molecular theory, we know that the number of atoms in a gram of a solid material is about . Four or five successive stages in the disintegration of radium have been recognized, and, on the assumption that each of these involves the emission of only one particle, the total energy of radiation which one gram of radium could furnish if entirely disintegrated seems to be enough to raise the temperature of 10 s grams, or about 100 tons, of water through one degree centigrade. This is an underestimate; it is possible that it should be increased ten or a hundred times. As a mean value, we may say that, in mechanical units, the energy available for radiation in one ounce of radium is sufficient to raise a weight of something like ten thousand tons one mile high.


the energy liberated by a given amount of radioactive change. . . is at least 500,000 times, and may be 10,000,000 times, greater than that involved in the most energetic chemical action known.

The theory that the source of most of the sun's energy is a decay of elements analogous to radium, to disintegration of atoms, is acknowledged to account better than any previous theory for the great quantity of this energy which we observe, and for the length of time during which it must have been given off according to the evidences of geology.

There is no chemical reaction which is not hastened or retarded by a change in temperature. In general, the velocity of a chemical reaction is increased by an elevation of the temperature and diminished by a reduction of the temperature. But radium compounds emit their rays undisturbed, at an even, unaltered rate, whether they be heated to a high temperature or cooled by immersion in liquid hydrogen and, what is perhaps equally striking, whether they are in the solid state or dissolved in some solvent.

In view of such facts as these, it is idle to suppose that radium is an unstable compound decomposing into its elements, using the terms compound and element in their usual sense. Conflict as it may with preconceived opinions, we seem forced to concede, not only that the transmutation of the elements is possible, but also that these transmutations are going on under our very eyes.

As has already been pointed out, this does not mean that we shall shortly be able to convert our elements into each other. Far from it, up to the present time we have not the slightest idea how to initiate such a process nor how to stop it. We can not, by any means known to us, even alter the rate at which it proceeds.

Now how shall we fit all these new facts and ideas in with our old ones regarding the elements and atoms, and how many of the old ideas must be discarded? Brief consideration is enough to convince us that very few of the old ideas, in fact none of value, need be sacrificed. We must indeed grant that Dalton's fundamental assumption is false, that the atom, in spite of its name, is divisible, and consequently that our elements are not our simplest substances, but decidedly complicated complexes. But all the facts included in the laws of definite and multiple proportions remain fixed and reliable, as indeed must all facts, expressions of actual experimental results, no matter what else varies. And there is not the least necessity for altering the methods of using atomic weights in calculations, nor for ceasing to use structural diagrams and models for molecules. We must merely modify our ideas and definition of an atom, and this modification is in the direction of an advance. We know more about an atom, or think we do.

Assume the inferences from the evidence just reviewed to be correct, and how do they affect our conception of the atom? First of all, our smallest, lightest, simplest atom, that of hydrogen, becomes an aggregation of about eight hundred smaller particles or corpuscles, and the atoms of other elements become aggregations of as many corpuscles as are obtained by multiplying the atomic weight of the element by eight hundred. Thus the atom of mercury must be thought of as containing 800 times 200, or 160,000, corpuscles. Next, the methods by which we believe we can calculate the approximate size of atoms and corpuscles give us values which enable us to make such comparisons as the following, suggested by Sir Oliver Lodge: 'The corpuscle is so small as compared to the atom that it, within the atom, may be likened to a mouse in a cathedral,' or 'the corpuscle is to the whole atom as the earth and other planets are to the whole solar system.'

These corpuscles are probably gyrating about each other, or about some common center, with velocities approaching that of light. It seems needful to suppose this, for it is hard to imagine that the enormous velocities observed could be imparted to a corpuscle at the instant it leaves the atom to become a constituent of a cathode ray. It is more reasonable to imagine that the corpuscle already had this velocity and that it flew off at a tangent owing to some influence we do not understand.

This may appear, after all, to be little more than pushing back our questions one stage, so that the position occupied in our thoughts but yesterday by the atom is now occupied by the corpuscle. Quite true, but this is in itself a great step, for the advancement of knowledge consists of nothing else than such pushing back of the boundaries. We dare not assume the end is reached, for there is no proof that the corpuscles are ultimate. They mark the present limit of our imaginings based on experiment, but no one can say but what the next century may possibly witness the shattering of the corpuscles into as many parts as it now appears to take to make an atom.

The question is a legitimate one, do we know any more about these 'new-fangled' corpuscles than we did about the old atoms? The answer is, yes, we probably do. We can go further in our reasoning on the basis of the properties of the corpuscles, and arrive at results which are startling when heard for the first time.

Lenard[7] has shown that the absorption of cathode rays by different substances is simply proportional to the specific gravity of those substances and independent of their chemical properties. It is even independent of the condition of aggregation, i. e., whether the absorbing substance be investigated as a gas, as a liquid or as a solid. This is another strong argument in favor of the view that there is but one 'mother substance' which consists of corpuscles. The corpuscles of the cathode rays must be considered as passing unimpeded through the interstices between the corpuscles of the atom. Lenard calls the corpuscles dynamides and considers them as fields of electrical force with impenetrable central bodies which then constitute actual matter. He calculates the diameter of this center of actual matter as smaller than millimeter. Applying these results to the case of the metal platinum, one of the most dense of the metals, one of those with the highest specific gravity, he concludes that a solid cubic meter of platinum is in truth an empty space, with the exception of, at the outside, one cubic millimeter occupied by the actual matter of the dynamides.

If we can thus reasonably and mathematically eliminate the matter of a cubic meter of one of our densest metals to such an extent, it should not be very difficult to make one more effort and eliminate that insignificant little cubic millimeter still remaining, and say, with cogent reasons behind us for the statement, that there is no matter at all, but simply energy in motion. This is exactly what has been done by many who occupy high and authoritative positions in the scientific world.

Long before experimental evidence of the existence of corpuscles had been obtained, it was demonstrated that an electrically charged body, moving with high velocity, had an apparent mass greater than its true mass, because of the electrical charge. The faster it moved the greater became its apparent mass or, what comes to the same thing, assuming the electrical charge to remain unaltered, the greater the velocity the less the mass of the body carrying the charge needed to be to have always the same apparent mass. It was calculated that when the velocity equaled that of light, it was not necessary to assume that the body carrying the charge had any mass at all! In other words, the bit of electric charge moving with the velocity of light would have weight and all the properties of mass.

This might be looked upon as an interesting mathematical abstraction, but without any practical application, if it were not for the fact that Kaufmann[8] determined the apparent masses of corpuscles shot out from a radium preparation at different velocities, and compared them with the masses calculated on the basis that the whole of the mass was due to the electric charge. The agreement between the observed and calculated values is so close that it leads Thomson to say: "These results support the view that the whole mass of these electrified particles arises from their charge."[9]

Then the corpuscles are to be looked upon as nothing but bits of electric charge, not attached to matter at all, just bits of electric charge, nothing more nor less. It is this view which has led to the introduction of the term electron, first proposed by Stoney, to indicate in the name itself the immaterial nature of these ultimates of our present knowledge. We have but to concede the logical sequence of this reasoning, all based on experimental evidence, and the last stronghold of the materialists is carried, and we have a universe of energy in which matter has no necessary part.

If we accept the electron theory, our atoms are to be considered as consisting of bits of electric charge in rapid motion, owing their special properties to the number of such bits within them, and also, no doubt, to the particular orbits described by the electrons. If space permitted it would be interesting to show how admirably the periodicity of the properties of the elements, as expressed in Mendelejeff's table, can be accounted for on the basis of an increasing number of like electrons constituting the atoms of the successive elements. We have molecules consisting, at the simplest, of two such systems within the sphere of each other's attraction, perhaps something as we have double stars in the heavens.

A possible explanation of the puzzling property of valence is offered, in that an atom less one electron, or plus one electron, may be considered as electrically charged, and therefore capable of attracting other bodies, oppositely charged, to form electrically neutral systems. An atom less two electrons, or with two electrons in excess, would have twice the ability to combine, it would be what we call divalent, and so on. An electronic structure of the atom furnishes a basis from which a plausible explanation of the refraction, polarization and rotation of the plane of polarized light may be logically derived. Hitherto explanations for the observed facts have been either wanting or more or less unsatisfactory. For instance, grant the actual existence of tetrahedral carbon atoms, with different groups asymmetrically arranged at the apices, and yet we can not see any good and valid reason why such a structure should be able to rotate the plane of polarized light. Grant that the molecule consists of systems of corpuscles traveling in well-defined orbits, and we see at once how light, consisting of other electrons of the same kind, traversing this maze, must be influenced.

Adopting this theory of corpuscles or electrons, not a concept of any value need be abandoned. On the contrary, the theory furnishes us with plausible explanations of many facts previously unexplained. Its influence is all in a forward direction towards a simplification and unification of our knowledge of nature.

A few words must be said regarding the old, the threadbare, argument which, of course, is cited against the electron theory. The materialist says he simply can not accept a theory which obliges him to give up the idea of the existence of matter; he says the table is there because he can see it and feel it and that must end the discussion for any one with common sense and moderately good judgment. Now it is the reverse of common sense to let that end the discussion, and our materialist is pluming himself on precisely those qualities which he most conspicuously lacks. He assumes the obnoxious theory to involve consequences which it does not involve and then condemns it because of those consequences. As a rule it is because he knows little about it, and has thought less, that he assumes the electron theory to be pure idealism in an ingenious disguise, that form of idealism which asserts that there is no universe outside ourselves and that everything is a figment of the imagination of the observer. The electron theory postulates a universe of energy outside ourselves. It does not deny the existence of the table; quite the reverse, it asserts it and then offers a detailed description of it, and why it has the properties which it has. This is more than any materialistic theory can do. The electron theory affirms the existence of what we ordinarily call matter. It defines, describes, explains these things, ordinarily called matter, in a clear and logical manner, on the basis of experimental evidence, as a mode of motion. It opposes the use of the word matter, solely because that word has come to stand, not only for the object, but also for the assumption that there is something there which is not energy.

Another groundless objection is offered by the materialists. They say this electron theory is clever, perhaps plausible, but very vague and hopelessly theoretical. Of course it is theoretical, but it is a theory more intimately connected with experimental facts than any other theory regarding the ultimate constituents. One departs further from known facts in assuming the existence of a something to be called matter. What is this matter which so many insist that we must assume? No one can define it otherwise than in terms of energy. But forms of energy are not matter as the materialist understands the word. Starting with any object and removing one by one its properties, indubitably forms of energy, we are finally left with a blank, a sort of a hole in creation, which the imagination is totally unable to fill in. The last resort is the time-honored definition, 'matter is the carrier of energy' but it is impossible to describe it. The assumption that matter exists is made then because there must be a carrier of energy. But why must there be a carrier of energy? This is an assertion, pure and simple, with no experimental backing. Before we have a right to make it we should obtain some matter 'strictly pure' and free from any energy, or, at least, we should be able to demonstrate on some object what part of it is the energy and what part the matter, the carrier of the energy. We have not done this, we have never demonstrated anything but forms of energy, and so we have no evidence that there is any such thing as matter. To say that it exists is theorizing without experimental evidence as a basis. The materialistic theory postulates energy and also matter, both theoretical if you will; the electron theory postulates energy only. Therefore the electron theory is the less theoretical and the less vague of the two.

From the philosophical standpoint, having deprived an object of all that we know about it, all forms of energy, there remains what may be called the 'residuum of the unknown.' We are not justified in saying that nothing remains; we can only say nothing remains which affects, either directly or indirectly, any of our senses through which we become cognizant of the external universe. If the materialist takes the stand that this unknown residuum is what he calls matter, although any other name would be equally appropriate, it must be acknowledged that his position is at present impregnable, and that sort of matter exists. But it is nothing with which experimental science can deal. A fair statement would appear to be: The electron theory accounts for, or may be made to account for, all known facts. Besides these there is a vast unknown within whose precincts matter may or may not exist.

Michael Faraday is acknowledged to have been one of the ablest of experimenters and clearest of thinkers. His predominant characteristic may be said to be the caution which he used in expressing views reaching beyond the domain of experimental facts. His authority rightly carries great weight, and it is therefore of particular significance that he expressed himself more definitely upon these questions than appears to be generally known. In an article published in 1814[10] he says:

If we must assume at all, as indeed in a branch of knowledge like the present we can hardly help it, then the safest course appears to be to assume as little as possible, and in that respect the atoms of Boscovich appear to me to have a great advantage over the more usual notion. His atoms, if I understand aright, are mere centers of forces or powers, not particles of matter, in which the powers themselves reside. If, in the ordinary view of atoms, we call the particle of matter away from the powers a, and the system of powers or forces in and around it m, then in Boscovich's theory a disappears, or is a mere mathematical point, whilst in the usual notion it is a little unchangeable, impenetrable piece of matter, and m is an atmosphere of force grouped around it. . . . To my mind, therefore, the a or nucleus vanishes, and the substance consists of the powers or m; and indeed what notion can we form of the nucleus independent of its powers? All our perception and knowledge of the atom, and even our fancy, is limited to ideas of its powers: what thought remains on which to hang the imagination of an a independent of the acknowledged forces? A mind just entering on the subject may consider it difficult to think of the powers of matter independent of a separate something to be called the matter, but it is certainly far more difficult, and indeed impossible, to think of or imagine that matter independent of the powers. Now the powers we know and recognize in every phenomenon of the creation, the abstract matter in none; why then assume the existence of that of which we are ignorant, which we can not conceive, and for which there is no philosophical necessity?

There is a striking analogy between the present condition of our science and our discussions, and those prevailing in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the phlogiston theory was almost universally accepted. We all now believe that heat is a mode of motion and smile at the thought that there were those who considered heat as a material. The materialistic theory is the phlogiston theory of our day, and perhaps the time is not far distant when the same indulgent smile will be provoked by the thought that there were those unwilling to believe that matter is a mode of motion.

  1. R. J. Strutt, Philosophical Magazine, March, 1901, p. 311.
  2. 'The Genesis of the Elements,' W. Crookes.
  3. The methods, facts and reasonings relating to this spectroscopic evidence are interestingly given in 'Inorganic Evolution' by Sir Norman Lockyer.
  4. Experimental details, and also comprehensive treatments of the subject as a whole and of special parts, may be found in three books by J. J. Thomson: 'The Discharge of Electricity through Gases' (based on lectures given at Princeton University in October, 1896); 'Conduction of Electricity through Gases' (a larger book); 'Electricity and Matter' (lectures delivered at Yale University in 1903).
  5. It is an indication of the widespread interest in this subject, and of the activity of the workers in this field, that one journal, in the year 1905, contained no less than 167 abstracts of articles upon radioactive phenomena. E. Rutherford's book, 'Radio-activity,' 2d edition, 1905, is a masterly survey of the whole subject.
  6. 'The Recent Development of Physical Science,' W. C. D. Whetham.
  7. Wied. Annal., 56, p. 255 (1895), and Drudes Annul., 12, 714 (1903).
  8. Phys. Zeitschr., 1902, p. 54.
  9. 'Electricity and Matter,' p. 48.
  10. 'Experimental Researches in Electricity,' Michael Faraday, Vol. 2, pp. 289-91.