Heroes of Science Part 19

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(see pp. 334, 335 of that book), it has been shown that these prominences are in rapid motion: at one moment they shoot up to heights of many thousand miles, at another they recede towards the centre of the sun.

We thus arrive at a picture of the solar atmosphere as consisting of layers of very hot gases, which are continually changing their relative positions and forms; sometimes ejections of intensely hot, glowing gases occur,--we call these prominences; sometimes down-rushes of gaseous matter occur,--we call these spots. Among the substances which compose the gaseous layers we recognize hydrogen, iron, magnesium, sodium, nickel, chromium, etc., but we also find substances which can at present be distinguished only by means of the wave-lengths of the light which they emit; thus we have 1474 stuff, 5017 stuff, 5369 stuff, etc.

Let us now turn to another part of this subject. By a special arrangement of apparatus it is possible to observe the spectrum of the light emitted by a glowing vapour, parts of which are hotter than other parts, and to compare the lines in the spectrum of the light coming from the hottest parts with the lines in the spectrum of the light coming from the cooler parts of the vapour. If this is done for sodium vapour, certain lines are apparent in all the spectra, others only in the spectrum of the light coming from the hottest parts of the sodium vapour: the former lines are called "long lines," the latter "short lines." A rough representation of the long and short lines of sodium is given in Fig. 7.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Fig. 7.--Long and short lines of sodium.]

Now, suppose that the lines in the spectrum of the light emitted by glowing manganese vapour have been carefully mapped, and cla.s.sed as long and short lines: suppose that the same thing has been done for the iron lines: now let a little manganese be mixed with much iron, let the mixture be vaporized, and let the light which is emitted be decomposed by the prism of a spectroscope, it will be found that the long lines of manganese alone make their appearance; let a little more manganese be added to the mixture, and now some of the shorter lines due to manganese begin to appear in the spectrum. Hence it has been concluded by Lockyer that if the spectrum of the light emitted by the glowing vapour of any element--call it A--is free from the long lines of any other element--say element B--this second element is not present as an impurity in the specimen of element A which is being examined. Lockyer has applied this conclusion to "purify" various elementary spectra.

The spectrum of element A is carefully mapped, and the lines are divided into long and short lines, according as they are noticed in the spectrum of the light coming from all parts of the glowing vapour of A, or only in the spectrum of the light which comes from the hotter parts of that vapour. The spectra of elements B and C are similarly mapped and cla.s.sified: then the three spectra are compared; the longest line in the spectrum of B is noted, if this line is found in the spectrum of A, it is marked with a negative sign--this means that so far as the evidence of this line goes B is present as an impurity in A; the next longest B line is searched for in the spectrum of A--if present it also is marked with a negative sign; a similar process of comparison and elimination is conducted with the spectra of A and C. In this way a "purified" spectrum of the light from A is obtained--a spectrum, that is, from which, according to Lockyer, all lines due to the presence of small quant.i.ties of B and C as impurities in A have been eliminated.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Fig. 8.]

Fig. 8 is given in order to make this "purifying" process more clearly understood. But when this process has been completed there remain, in many cases, a few short lines common to two or more elementary spectra: such lines are called by Lockyer _basic lines_. He supposes that these lines are due to light emitted by forms of matter simpler than our elements; he thinks that at very high temperatures some of the elements are decomposed, and that the _bases_ of these elements are produced and give out light, which light is a.n.a.lyzed by the spectroscope. Such short basic lines are marked in the spectra represented in Fig. 8 with a positive sign.

Now, if the a.s.sumption made by Lockyer be admitted, viz. that the short lines, or some of the short lines, which are coincident in the "purified"

spectra of various elements, are really due to light emitted by forms of matter into which our so-called elements are decomposed at very high temperatures, it follows that such lines should become more prominent in the spectra of the light emitted by elements the higher the temperature to which these elements are raised. But we know (see p. 308) that the prominences around the sun's disc are hotter than the average temperature of the solar atmosphere; hence the spectrum of the light coming from these prominences ought to be specially rich in "basic" lines: this supposition is confirmed by experiment. Lockyer has also shown that it is the "basic,"

and not the long lines, which are especially affected in the spectra of light coming from those parts of the solar atmosphere which are subjected to the action of cyclones, _i.e._ which are at abnormally high temperatures. And finally, a very marked a.n.a.logy has been established between the changes in the spectrum of the light emitted by a compound substance as the temperature is raised, and the substance is gradually decomposed into its elements, and the spectrum of the light emitted by a so-called elementary substance as the temperature of that substance is increased.

But it may be urged that Lockyer's method of "purifying" a spectrum is not satisfactory; that, although all the longer lines common to two spectra are eliminated, the coincident short lines which remain are due simply to very minute quant.i.ties of one element present as an impurity in the larger quant.i.ty of the other. Further, it has been shown that several of the so-called "basic" lines are resolved, by spectroscopes of great dispersive power, into groups of two or more lines, which lines are not coincident in different spectra.

And moreover it is possible to give a fairly satisfactory explanation of the phenomena of solar chemistry without the aid of the hypothesis that our elements are decomposed in the sun into simpler forms of matter.

Nevertheless this hypothesis has a certain amount of experimental evidence in its favour; it may be a true hypothesis. I do not think we are justified at present either in accepting it as the best guide to further research, or in wholly rejecting it.

The researches to which this hypothesis has given rise have certainly thrown much light on the const.i.tution of the sun and stars, and they have also been instrumental in forcing new views regarding the nature of the elements on the attention of chemists, and so of awakening them out of the slumber into which every cla.s.s of men is so ready to fall.

The tale told by the rays of light which travel to this earth from the sun and stars has not yet been fully read, but the parts which the chemist has spelt out seem to say that, although the forms of matter of which the earth is made are also those which compose the sun and stars, yet in the sun and stars some of the earthly elements are decomposed, and some of the earthly atoms are split into simpler forms. The tale, I say, told by the rays of light seems to bear this interpretation, but it is written in a language strange to the children of this earth, who can read it as yet but slowly; for the name given to the new science was "_Ge-Urania_, because its production was of earth and heaven. And it could not taste of death, by reason of its adoption into immortal palaces; but it was to know weakness, and reliance, and the shadow of human imbecility; and it went with a lame gait; but in its going it exceeded all mortal children in grace and swiftness."

There are certain little particles so minute that at least sixty millions of them are required to compose the smallest portion of matter which can be seen by the help of a good microscope. Some of these particles are vibrating around the edge of an orb a million times larger than the earth, but at a distance of about ninety millions of miles away. The student of science is told to search around the edge of the orb till he finds these particles, and having found them, to measure the rates of their vibrations; and as an instrument with which to do this he is given--a gla.s.s prism! But he has accomplished the task; he has found the minute particles, and he has measured their vibration-periods.

Chemistry is no longer confined to this earth: the chemist claims the visible universe as his laboratory, and the sunbeams as his servants.

Davy decomposed soda and potash by using the powerful instrument given him by Volta; but the chemist to-day has thrown the element he is seeking to decompose into a crucible, which is a sun or a star, and awaits the result.

The alchemists were right. There is a philosopher's stone; but that stone is itself a compound of labour, perseverance, and genius, and the gold which it produces is the gold of true knowledge, which shall never grow dim or fade away.



We have thus traced some of the main paths along which Chemistry has advanced since the day when, ceasing to be guided by the dreams of men who toiled with but a single idea in the midst of a world of strange and complex phenomena, she began to recognize that Nature is complex but orderly, and so began to be a branch of true knowledge.

In this review we have, I think, found that the remark made at the beginning of the introductory chapter is, on the whole, a just one. That the views of the alchemists, although sometimes very n.o.ble, were "vague and fanciful" is surely borne out by the quotations from their writings given in the first chapter. This period was followed by that wherein the accurate, but necessarily somewhat narrow conception of the Lavoisierian chemistry prevailed. Founded for the most part on the careful, painstaking, and quant.i.tative study of one phenomenon--a very wide and far-reaching phenomenon, it is true--it was impossible that the cla.s.sification introduced by the father of chemical science should be broad enough to include all the discoveries of those who came after him. But although this cla.s.sification had of necessity to be revised and recast, the genius of Lavoisier enunciated certain truths which have remained the common possession of every chemical system. By proving that however the forms of matter may be changed the ma.s.s remains unaltered, he for the first time made a science of chemistry possible. He defined "element" once for all, and thus swept away the fabric of dreams raised by the alchemists on the visionary foundation of _earth_, _air_, _fire_ and _water_, or of _mercury_, _sulphur_ and _salt_. By his example, he taught that weighings and measurements must be made before accurate knowledge of chemical reactions can be hoped for; and by his teaching about oxygen being _the acidifier_--although we know that this teaching was erroneous in many details--he showed the possibility of a system of cla.s.sification of chemical substances being founded on the actually observed properties and composition of those substances.

Lavoisier gained these most important results by concentrating his attention on a few subjects of inquiry. That chemistry might become broad it was necessary that it should first of all become narrower.

The period when the objects of the science were defined and some of its fundamental facts and conceptions were established, was succeeded, as we saw in our sketch, by that in which Dalton departed somewhat from the method of investigation adopted by most masters in science, and by concentrating his great mental powers on facts belonging to one branch of natural knowledge, elaborated a simple but very comprehensive theory, which he applied to explain the facts belonging to another branch of science.

Chemistry was thus endowed with a grand and far-reaching conception, which has been developed and applied by successive generations of investigators: but we must not forget that it was the thorough, detailed work of Black and Lavoisier which made possible the great theory of Dalton.

At the time when Dalton was thinking out his theory of atoms, Davy was advancing as a conqueror through the rich domain which the discovery of Volta had opened to chemistry. Dalton, trained to rely on himself, surrounded from his youth by an atmosphere in which "sweetness and light"

did not predominate, thrown on the world at an early age, and obliged to support himself by the drudgery of teaching when he would fain have been engaged in research, and at the same time--if we may judge from his life as recorded by his biographers--without the sustaining presence of such an ideal as could support the emotional part of his nature during this time of struggle,--Dalton, we found, withdrew in great part from contact with other scientific workers, and communing only with himself, developed a theory which, while it showed him to be one in the chain of thinkers that begins in Democritus and Leucippus, was nevertheless stamped with the undeniable marks of his own individuality and genius, and at the same time was untouched by any of the hopes or fears, and unaffected by any of the pa.s.sions, of our common humanity.

Davy, on the other hand, was surrounded from childhood by scenes of great natural beauty and variety, by contact with which he was incited to eager desire for knowledge, while at the same time his emotions remained fresh and sensitive to outward impressions. Entering on the study of natural science when there was a pause in the march of discovery, but a pause presageful of fresh advances, he found outward circ.u.mstances singularly favourable to his success; seizing these favourable circ.u.mstances he made rapid advances. Like Lavoisier, he began his work by proving that there is no such thing in Nature as trans.m.u.tation, in the alchemical meaning of the term; as Lavoisier had proved that water is not changed into earth, so did Davy prove that acid and alkali are not produced by the action of the electric current on pure water. We have shortly traced the development of the electro-chemical theory which Davy raised on the basis of experiment; we have seen how facts obliged him to doubt the accepted view of the composition of hydrochloric acid and chlorine, and how by the work he did on these subjects chemists have been finally convinced that an element is not a substance which _cannot be_, but a substance which _has not been_ decomposed, and how from this work has also arisen the modern theory of acids, bases and salts.

We found that, by the labours of the great Swede J. J. Berzelius, the Daltonian theory was confirmed by a vast series of accurate a.n.a.lyses, and, in conjunction with a modification of the electro-chemical theory of Davy, was made the basis of a system of cla.s.sification which endeavoured to include all chemical substances within its scope. The atom was the starting-point of the Berzelian system, but that chemist viewed the atom as a dual structure the parts of which held together by reason of their opposite electrical polarities. Berzelius, we saw, greatly improved the methods whereby atomic weights could be determined, and he recognized the importance of physical generalizations as aids in finding the atomic weights of chemical substances.

But Berzelius came to believe too implicitly in his own view of Nature's working; his theory became too imperious. Chemists found it easier to accept than to doubt an interpretation of facts which was in great part undeniably true, and which formed a central luminous conception, shedding light on the whole ma.s.s of details which, without it, seemed confused and without meaning.

If the dualistic stronghold was to be carried, the attack should be impetuous, and should be led by men, not only of valour, but also of discretion. We found that two champions appeared, and that, aided by others who were scarcely inferior soldiers to themselves, they made the attack, and made it with success.

But when the heat of the battle was over and the bitterness of the strife forgotten, it was found that, although many pinnacles of the dualistic castle had been shattered, the foundation and great part of the walls remained; and, strange to say, the men who led the attack were content that these should remain.

The atom could no longer be regarded as always composed of two parts, but must be looked on rather as one whole, the properties of which are defined by the properties and arrangements of all its parts; but the conception of the atom as a structure, and the a.s.surance that something could be inferred regarding that structure from a knowledge of the reactions and general properties of the whole, remained when Dumas and Liebig had replaced the dualism of Berzelius by the unitary theory of modern chemistry; and these conceptions have remained to the present day, and are now ranked among the leading principles of chemical science; only we now speak of the "molecule"

where Berzelius spoke of the "atom."

Along with these advances made by Dumas, Liebig and others in rendering more accurate the general conception of atomic structure, we found that the recognition of the existence of more than one order of small particles was daily gaining ground in the minds of chemists.

The distinction between what we now call atoms and molecules had been clearly stated by Avogadro in 1811; but the times were not ripe. The mental surroundings of the chemists of that age did not allow them fully to appreciate the work of Avogadro. The seed however was sown, and the harvest, although late, was plentiful.

We saw that Dumas accepted, with some hesitation, the distinction drawn by Avogadro, but that failing to carry it to its legitimate conclusion, he did not reap the full benefit of his acceptance of the principle that the smallest particle of a substance which takes part in a physical change divides into smaller particles in those changes which we call chemical.

To Gerhardt and Laurent we owe the full recognition, and acceptance as the foundation of chemical cla.s.sification, of the atom as a particle of matter distinct from the molecule; they first distinctly placed the law of Avogadro--"Equal volumes of gases contain equal numbers of molecules"--in its true position as a law, which, resting on physical evidence and dynamical reasoning, is to be accepted by the chemist as the basis of his atomic theory. To the same chemists we are indebted for the formal introduction into chemical science of the conception of types, which, as we found, was developed by Frankland, Kekule, and others, into the modern doctrine of equivalency of groups of elementary atoms.

We saw that, in the use which he made of the laws of Mitscherlich, and of Dulong and Pet.i.t, Berzelius recognized the importance of the aid given by physical methods towards solving the atomic problems of chemistry; but among those who have most thoroughly availed themselves of such aids Graham must always hold a foremost place.

Graham devoted the energies of his life to tracking the movements of atoms and molecules. He proved that gases pa.s.s through walls of solid materials, as they pa.s.s through s.p.a.ces already occupied by other gases; and by measuring the rapidities of these movements he showed how it was possible to determine the rate of motion of a particle of gas so minute that a group of a hundred millions of them would be invisible to the una.s.sisted vision.

Graham followed the molecules as in their journeyings they came into contact with animal and vegetable membranes; he found that these membranes presented an insuperable barrier to the pa.s.sage of some molecules, while others pa.s.sed easily through. He thus arrived at a division of matter into colloidal and crystalloidal. He showed what important applications of this division might be made in practical chemistry, he discussed some of the bearings of this division on the general theory of the molecular const.i.tution of matter, and thus he opened the way which leads into a new territory rich in promise to him who is able to follow the footsteps of its discoverer.

Other investigators have followed on the general lines laid down by Graham; connections, more or less precise, have been established between chemical and physical properties of various groups of compounds. It has been shown that the boiling points, melting points, expansibilities by heat, amounts of heat evolved during combustion, in some cases tinctorial powers of dye-stuffs, and other physical constants of groups of compounds, vary with variations in the nature, number and arrangements of the atoms in the molecules of these compounds.

But although much good work has been done in this direction, our ignorance far exceeds our knowledge regarding the phenomena which lie on the borderlands between chemistry and physics. It is probably here that chemists look most for fresh discoveries of importance.

As each branch of natural science becomes more subdivided, and as the quant.i.ty of facts to be stored in the mind becomes daily more crushing, the student finds an ever-increasing difficulty in pa.s.sing beyond the range of his own subject, and in gaining a broad view of the relative importance of the facts and the theories which to him appear so essential.

In the days when the foundation of chemistry was laid by Black, Priestley, Lavoisier and Dalton, and when the walls began to be raised by Berzelius and Davy, it was possible for one man to hold in his mental grasp the whole range of subjects which he studied. Even when Liebig and Dumas built the fabric of organic chemistry the ma.s.s of facts to be considered was not so overpowering as it is now. But we have in great measure ourselves to blame; we have of late years too much fulfilled Liebig's words, when he said, that for rearing the structure of organic chemistry masters were no longer required--workmen would suffice.

And I think we have sometimes fallen into another error also. Most of the builders of our science--notably Lavoisier and Davy, Liebig and Dumas--were men of wide general culture. Chemistry was for them a branch of natural science; of late years it has too much tended to degenerate into a handicraft. These men had lofty aims; they recognized--Davy perhaps more than any--the n.o.bility of their calling. The laboratory was to them not merely a place where curious mixtures were made and strange substances obtained, or where elegant apparatus was exhibited and carefully prepared specimens were treasured; it was rather the entrance into the temple of Nature, the place where day by day they sought for truth, where, amid much that was unpleasant and much that was necessary mechanical detail, glimpses were sometimes given them of the order, harmony and law which reign throughout the material universe. It was a place where, stopping in the work which to the outsider appeared so dull and even so trivial, they sometimes, listening with attentive ear, might catch the boom of the "mighty waters rolling evermore," and so might return refreshed to work again.

Chemistry was more poetical, more imaginative then than now; but without imagination no great work has been accomplished in science.

When a student of science forgets that the particular branch of natural knowledge which he cultivates is part of a living and growing organism, and attempts to study it merely as a collection of facts, he has already Esau-like sold his birthright for a mess of pottage; for is it not the privilege of the scientific student of Nature always to work in the presence of "something which he can never know to the full, but which he is always going on to know"--to be ever encompa.s.sed about by the greatness of the subject which he seeks to know? Does he not recognize that, although some of the greatest minds have made this study the object of their lives, the sum of what is known is yet but as a drop in the ocean? and has he not also been taught that every honest effort made to extend the boundaries of natural knowledge must advance that knowledge a little way?

It is not easy to remember the greatness of the issues which depend on scientific work, when that work is carried on, as it too often is, solely with the desire to gain a formal and definite answer to some question of petty detail.

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Heroes of Science Part 19 summary

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