Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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another point of view it is insisted that positive and negative
electrons can only differ skew-symmetrically, one being like
the image of the other in a mirror, and that the mode in
which they are grouped to form an atom remains for future
discovery. But no one doubts that electricity is ultimately
atomic." The Atom, it appears, must be thought of as
made up of electrons which are electrical units. But
electricity is defined as ether-strain or ether-shear, and,
without going into technicalities, it is ether modified in
some way or another. From all of which it follows that,
in the last analysis, all matter is modified ether, inter-
penetrated by unmodified ether as mentioned in the previous

It is quite clear that this conception is one of vast im-
portance and that, if established, it means an extraordinary
simplification of our ideas of matter. When we come to
take this theory into consideration a question naturally
arises in our minds ; what is the exact kind of modification
which differentiates the modified ether of matter from the
unmodified ether by which it is interpenetrated ? Is it a
condensation of ether or a rarefaction, or what is the modi-
fication with which we have to do ? On this point Sir Oliver
Lodge writes as follows : " The ether being incompressible,
and an electron being supposed composed simply and solely
of ether, it follows that it cannot be either a condensation
or a rarefaction of that material, but must be some singu-
larity of structure, or some portion otherwise differentiated.
It might, for instance, be something analogous to a vortex


ring, differentiated kinetically, i.e. by reason of its rotational
motion, from the remainder of the ether ; or it might be
differentiated statically, and be something which would
have to be called a strain-centre or a region of twist, or
something which cannot be very clearly at present imagined
with any security ; though various suggestions have been
made in that direction. The simplest plan for us is to think
of it somewhat as we think of a knot on a piece of string.
The knot differs in no respect from the rest of the string
except in its tied-up structure ; it is of the same density
with the rest, and yet it is differentiated from the rest ;
and, in order to cease to be a knot, would have to be untied
— a process which as yet we have not learned how to apply
to an electron. If ever such a procedure becomes possible,
then electrons will thereby be resolved into the general
body of the undifferentiated ether of space — that part which
is independent of what we call ' matter.' The important
notion for present purposes is merely this : that the density
of the undifferentiated or simple ether, and the density of
the tied-up or be-knotted or otherwise modified ether con-
stituting an electron, are one and the same." 1

If we assimilate this idea together with that which deals
with the interpenetration of matter by ether we shall see
our way through the next difficulty which confronts us,
namely : Unmodified ether is the densest entity known.
Modified ether or matter is not an attenuation or rarefac-
tion of it. How is it then that we must think of matter as
being of a texture comparable with gossamer ?

Matter is " gossamer " in the same sense as a cobweb
is gossamer ; not because the actual substance of each fibre
is of specially light material, but because the whole average
of the cobweb is so. So it is in matter : the space actually
filled by electrons is remarkably small. The space " oc-
cupied " by them in the sense in which soldiers occupy a
country, is large and is what appeals to us as matter : in a
word, it is the cobweb of the illustration. The particles
themselves, being composed of ether, must be of the same
density as ether. The average or group density is small,
simply because the particles really fill so small a proportion

1 " Ether of Space," p. 82.


of the space, a point which we have yet to deal with. The
rest of the space is occupied by unmodified ether, which
forms no part of the matter. The interstices of a cobweb
are filled with air, yet the air is no part of the cobweb. The
analogy is not fully accurate, but it may serve to clear up
the point we are dealing with. At any rate we may pass on
to our next point, namely, the relative size of some of the
objects with which we have been dealing in this chapter
and the relative proportions of the electrons and the un-
differentiated ether which surrounds them.

The molecule of Hydrogen, which is the lightest known,
may serve for a starting-point. It would require that
about two million such molecules should be set side by
side in a row in order to occupy one millimetre, or, in
other words, one twenty-fifth of an inch. It requires fifteen
thousand million million million of them to make up one
single grain in weight. This is minute enough in all con-
science, but it is relatively to the electron positively enor-
mous. For, as Sir J. J. Thomson has shown, the electron
possesses a mass about one-thousandth of the atom of hy-
drogen — the lightest atom of all, as we have already learnt.

In the words of Sir Oliver Lodge, "It may be
convenient here to emphasize the dimensions of an
electron, for the arguments in favour of that size
are very strong though not absolutely conclusive : we
are sure that their mass is of the order one-thousandth
of the atomic mass of hydrogen, and we are sure that if
they are purely and solely electrical their size must be one-
hundred thousandth of the linear dimensions of an atom ; a
size with which their penetrating power and other behaviour
is quite consistent. Assuming this estimate to be true, it
is noteworthy how very small these electrical particles are,
compared with the atom of matter to which they are
attached. If an electron is represented by a sphere an inch
in diameter, the diameter of an atom of matter on the same
scale is a mile and a half. Or if an atom of matter is repre-
sented by the size of this theatre 1 an electron is represented

1 The Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, a building capable of accommo-
dating a large number of persons, in which this,] the Romanes Lecture for
1903, was delivered.



on the same scale by a printer's full stop." 1 And as regards
the relations of the electrons within the atom he adds :
" An atom is not a large thing, but if it is composed of
electrons, the spaces between them are enormous compared
with their size — as great, relatively, as are the spaces be-
tween the planets in the solar system."

From what has just been said we can now begin to form
a better idea of what has already been insisted upon —
namely, the gossamer nature of matter ; since, relatively
speaking, the interstices are so enormously greater than the
particles themselves. Some have thought that these
electrons within the atom not only occupy towards one
another positions which have been compared to those of
the planets of our system in space but have further thought
that they may revolve around some centre as the planets
do in space, thus forming a kind of microcosm comparable
with that portion of the Universe to which we belong, which
again may quite possibly be but a very small fragment of
the Universe as known to its Maker. These are, of course,
only surmises ; but they serve to intensify the feeling of awe
and amazement with which any person gifted with the very
slightest shred of imagination must contemplate the won-
derful ideas just brought under his notice. One thing, at
least, is not an imaginary statement : the atoms are in
motion. This is perhaps one of the most difficult of all the
ideas concerning matter, for nothing less movable or,
more correctly put, less possessed of motion in itself than a
huge block of marble one can hardly conceive. Yet nothing
can be more certain than that its atoms are in a state of
even violent motion. We get some clear proof to our
minds that what we call solid matter does move when we
learn that, if a block of gold and a block of lead be placed
side by side and left in that position, it will be found after
lapse of time that the originally pure block of gold has
come to contain some lead, whilst the block of lead in its
turn has become, so to speak, infected with gold — in other
words, some of the gold has moved into the lead and vice
versa. Finally, we have to learn that matter, even its
molecules, can and does undergo spontaneous change or

1 Lodge, " Modern Views on Matter," Romanes Lecture, 1903, p. 8.


evolution. This fact completely upsets all that was believed
but a few years ago. The statement on this point made by
Clerk Maxwell, one of the most distinguished physicists
of his time, in the ninth edition of the " Encyclopaedia
Britannica " has frequently been quoted as giving the final
— so it was thought — and definite opinion as to the fixity
of molecules. Even at the risk of bringing this under the
notice of those already familiar with it, it may not be amiss
to quote it, especially in view of certain matters which will
come under consideration in the next chapter.

Clerk Maxwell in the article in question details fully
the characteristics of the atom or molecule. Having
drawn special attention to the rates of its vibrations which
the spectroscope reveals, he continues : "It is the equality
of these spaces and time-constants for all molecules of the
same kind which we have next to consider. We have seen
that the very different circumstances in which different
molecules of the same kind have been placed have not,
even in the course of many ages, produced any appreciable
difference in the value of these constants. If, then, the
various processes of nature to which these molecules have
been subjected since the world began have not been able in
all that time to produce any appreciable difference between
the constants of one molecule and those of another, we are
forced to conclude that it is not to the operation of any of
these processes that the uniformity of the constants is due.
The formation of a molecule is therefore an event not be-
longing to that order of nature under which we live. It is
an operation of a kind which is not, so far as we are aware,
going on on earth or in the sun or the stars, either now or
since these bodies began to be formed. It must be referred
to the epoch, not of the formation of the earth or of the
solar system, but of the establishment of the existing order
of nature, and till not only these worlds and systems, but
the very order of nature itself is dissolved, we have no
reason to expect the occurrence of any operation of a similar
kind. In the present state of science, therefore, we have
strong reason for believing that in a molecule, or if not in
a molecule in one of its component atoms, we have some-
thing which has existed either from eternity or at least


from times anterior to the existing order of nature. But
besides this atom, there are immense numbers of other
atoms of the same kind, and the constants of each of these
atoms are incapable of adjustment by any process now in
action. Each is physically independent of all the others."

The meaning of this is perfectly clear ; in the last quarter
of the last century, less than fifty years ago, it was the
doctrine of science that the so-called elements were abso-
lutely distinct each from the other, and more, that they
had been so from the beginning. Further, it was held that
in no way could one of them become transmuted into

All this view of nature was upset by the discovery of
radium and the establishment of the Disintegration Theory
of Radioactivity by Rutherford and Soddy, occurrences
which practically belong to the present century.

By this time everyone who reads the daily paper can
hardly fail to be aware of the fact that Radium pours out
energy ; slowly no doubt and perhaps fortunately so, for
the quiet pursuance of life on the earth, for it has been
estimated that if all the energy contained in fifteen grains
of radium could be suddenly developed it would suffice to
blow the entire British Navy a mile into the air. But energy
is developed and with that development there must be a
change in the element ; in other words, a transmutation.
As a matter of fact, this is what is now known to happen
in the case of Radium and some similar radioactive sub-
stances. It is a lengthy process in comparison with our
puny lives, for it takes two thousand years for radium itself
to fall to half-value ; but that is, of course, a brief period
when considered in relation to the age of the world. But
even Radium is not the first stage in the process of develop-
ment ; for, from what we know of the age of the world, it
has been stated that if the entire globe, at the beginning
of time, had consisted of nothing but Radium, the amount
now left in existence would have been quite insignificant.
This predecessor of Radium seems to have been an element
known as Uranium, from which is formed Ionium, a sub-
stance very slow in transmutation since it is asserted that
whereas Radium, as we have learnt, takes only two thousand


years to fall to half-value, Ionium requires two hundred
thousand. Radium itself passes through various stages
until, it would appear, it completes its history by becoming
lead. The transmutation, then, of one so-called element
into another is actually an event which is slowly taking
place every day in the laboratory of nature. No present-
day alchemist has yet discovered how to effect that trans-
mutation in his laboratory : he can only watch its progress.

But since it does take place it is clearly not impossible
that science may yet solve the question of how to effect
the transmutation, or, perhaps more properly should it be
said, to " speed it up " so that the slow processes of nature
may be replaced by the rapid transformations of the chemist.

At any rate, apart from the theories which have been all
too briefly touched upon in this and the preceding chapter,
we may allow the thought to sink into our minds that what
science firmly held some fifty years ago she has now dis-
carded in favour of a totally opposite group of theories. It
is a lesson which we shall learn from the history of other
scientific theories ; and it may at least teach us, as it has
begun to teach the men of science of to-day, that caution
and even scepticism must be exercised in face of all theories
of the past, the present, and the future.


THE lesson alluded to in the closing words of the last
chapter is one which should be carefully considered,
and a few of the matters of chief importance which have been
touched upon may here be recapitulated and expanded.

In the first place, then, an effort has been made to explain
the very real and all-important difference which exists
between a fact and a theory. That there is such a sub-
stance as gold, for example, is a fact if there are any reali-
ties external to ourselves. That it cannot be transmuted
by any means at present known to science into anything
but gold is a fact, so far as our present knowledge goes, but
it may not always remain a fact. It is, therefore, less cer-
tain than the fact that there is such a thing as gold. But,
as we have seen, it was also set down as a fact, and that
within our own lifetime, that gold and all the other so-called
elements were all of them ab initio and unalterably distinct
from one another and wholly incapable of being transmuted
into anything else but what they were. The lesson we learn
from all this is that it is not always easy to be quite certain
as to what is and what is not a fact. There are a vast
number of facts as to which no doubt can exist. Either no
knowledge of any kind is possible, or it is a fact that man
has an osseous vertebral column, and so on. There are
also a large number of opinions, such as the Electrical Theory
of Matter which we have just been discussing, which are
admittedly theories subject to discussion and finally to
confirmation or disproof. It is true that we may find many
a theory definitely set down as established by enthusias-
tic writers in the daily press which is not so regarded by
those who are really entitled to speak on the subject.



Unfortunately the "man in the street" usually learns of
these things from his newspaper and not from the scientific
expert, and is thus led to assume a certitude for such theories
which admittedly they do not possess, and which is in no way
claimed for them by those responsible for their formulation.
Further, no one can have failed to notice that as soon
as even the most tentatively enunciated theory is put
forward it is at once claimed as the last final and crushing
blow to the pretensions of religion, if in any conceivable
way it can appear to militate against belief. The age of
superstition is over — the absurd ideas of our fathers are
shown to be obsolete — there is no God, no future life, no
anything : all because someone has very cautiously and
very tentatively ventured to suggest that such and such an
explanation of such and such a physical or biological fact
may possibly be true. In all probability the theoriser
was not thinking about religion when he built his theory,
and it is more than likely that the theory in no way —
even if true — bears out the construction which has been
put upon it, and ultimately one or both of these facts
emerges. But by this time the populariser, without whom
the " man in the street " would never have heard of the
theory in question, has gone his way. He has got his little
bit of " copy " ; he has had his congenial little fling at
religion ; he is hunting some totally different hare, and his
readers hear no more of the theory and its developments.
In all fairness it must be admitted that another result
usually follows. The fly skilfully thrown seldom fails to
" rise " some ecclesiastical fish. Unwarned by or ignorant
of the history of these things he rushes into print, often
with a very imperfect knowledge of the theory and what it
involves, and thus succeeds in one thing only and that is
in persuading the " man in the street ' that things are
really looking black for religion. This is very far from saying
that the time does not sometimes arise when a definite word
must and should be said, but what is deprecated is the hasty
acceptance of newspaper accounts of theories with the
deductions therefrom made by the journalist. Readers
of the preceding pages at least will not require to be warned
against the too ready acceptance of theories, nor will they


need to be reminded that the theory loudly acclaimed to-day
may find itself on the scrap-heap to-morrow. Such has
been the history of many a theory in the past and no one
doubts that such will be the history of many another in
the future.

But there is a further matter to be borne in mind, and it
is this : — However imperfect some of these hypotheses have
now turned out to be, they were nevertheless invaluable as
working hypotheses from the time they were formulated
and still are of the utmost value to science, and this because
each of them was an approximation to the truth or what
now seems to us as likely to be the truth. Thus what were
known as elements, though not really " elementary " in
the sense which used to attach to that word, are neverthe-
less, so far as our present knowledge goes, unalterable by
any means that the chemist can bring to bear upon them
in his laboratory. So also the Atom, though it is no
longer to be regarded as the ultimate particle of matter, is
none the less a real thing from the chemist's point of view,
and the Atomic Theory, as has already been pointed out,
is just as indispensable to the chemist as it has been from
the time of its formulation. The same may be said about
the Molecule. Moreover, the same is true in other matters
which have not so far been touched upon. Thus, for ex-
ample, what is meant by Energy and by the term The Law
of the Conservation of Energy ? As to the latter, something
will have to be said in a later chapter, so we may leave it
for the present. Energy as used by the physicist is a general-
isation, and in order to make the law alluded to true, quite
a number of things have to be included under the term.
" Things as distinct from each other as light, heat, sound,
rotation, vibration, elastic strain, gravitative separation,
electric currents, and chemical affinity, have all to be
generalised under the same heading [the conservation of
energy] in order to make the law true. Until ' heat ' was
included in the list of energies, the statement could not be
made ; and a short time ago it was sometimes discussed
whether ' life ' should or should not be included in the
category of energy. I should give the answer decidedly
No, but some might be inclined to say Yes ; and this is


sufficient as an example to show that the categories of
energy are not necessarily exhausted ; that new forms may
be discovered ; and that if new forms exist, until they are
discovered, the law of conservation of energy as now stated
may in some cases be strictly untrue ; just as it would
be untrue, though partially and usefully true, in the theory
of machines, if heat were unknown or ignored." 1 " Partially
and usefully true," that is the point which we must keep
before our minds, that a theory, though it is only part of
the truth and therefore false as a complete explanation,
may yet be permanently valuable as a partial expression
of actual facts.

Further, so it would appear from the statements of
leaders in physical science, it is quite possible that if we had
grasped the significance of the law at the commencement,
it might never have been understood in its full complete-
ness, or even that if conceived in all its complexity it
might never have been formulated ; nor ever have been
accepted. On these points I must again make reference to
the writings of Sir Oliver Lodge, which are of especial
interest because his constant endeavour is to present his
readers with the general or philosophical bearings of his
subject, and not merely to acquaint them with the dry
bones of science, as too many do in this age of over-special-
isation. After alluding to the fact that it is the complexity
of the laws which our more exact knowledge of facts has
brought to our notice which is largely responsible for the
scientific scepticism which has already been alluded to, he
continues : " The simple laws on which we used to be working
were thus simple and discoverable because the full com-
plexity of existence was tempered to our ken by the rough-
ness of our means of observation. Kepler's laws are not
accurately true, and if he had had before him all the data
now available he could hardly have discovered them. A
planet does not really move in an ellipse but in a kind of
hypocycloid, and not accurately in that either. So it is
also with Boyle's law and the other simple laws in physical
chemistry. Even Van der Waal's generalisation of Boyle's

1 Lodge, " Life and Matter," London, Williams & Norgate, ed. 2,
1905, p. 21.


law is only a further approximation. In most parts of
physics simplicity has sooner or later to give place to com-
plexity : though certainly I urge that the simple laws were
true, and are still true, as far as they go, their inaccuracy
being only detected by further real discovery. The reason
they are departed from becomes known to us ; the law
is not really disobeyed, but is modified through the action
of a known additional cause. Hence it is all in the direction
of progress." And he quotes from Poincare on the same
point : " Take, for instance, the laws of reflection. Fresnel
established them by a simple and attractive theory which
experiment seemed to confirm. Subsequently, more accurate
researches have shown that this verification was but approx-
imate ; traces of elliptic polarisation were detected else-
where. But it is owing to the first approximation that the
cause of these anomalies was found, in the existence of a
transition layer ; and all the essentials of Fresnel's theory
have remained. We cannot help reflecting that all these
relations would never have been noted if there had been
doubt in the first place as to the complexity of the objects
they connect. Long ago it was said : If Tycho had had

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 8 of 38)