Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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More and more is society becoming indebted for
the necessities of its continuance to a peculiar class
brought into existence by the operation of a corrupt
code of laws and government derived from a darker
intellectual age. Highly skilled as are the advocates
of this code in making black look white, they are
scarcely equal to the task of masquerading the debts
of the community as its wealth.

The multiplication rather than the competitive
acquisition of the means of livelihood would be the
paramount concern of any community worthy of the
name, and, as the obvious preliminary thereto, the
study and interpretation of the laws of nature, under
which men thrive or starve, would be fostered and
honoured above the amassing and expenditure of
wealth, above even the profession of arms. The
creative element, whether the discoverer and orig-
inator at the one end or the artificer and labourer
at the other, may well ask how is the world the gainer
for all their splendid thought and magnificent achieve-
ments. This element has never yet ruled the com-
munity, and according to the elements who have made
such disastrous attempts to do so, it never will. But
the same was said, by the same type of mind, about
flying before men flew, and probably of every new
and difficult step so far accomplished in the ascent
of man.



PHYSICAL FORCE MAN'S SERVANT
OR HIS MASTER? 1

THE words "physical force" in my title probably
convey to you the correct notion of what is the main
subject of my address without any further explana-
tion. As a matter of fact, the term "force," in a
strictly scientific sense, is slightly different from that
in which it is popularly employed. The word in the
title is to be taken in its popular meaning, which is
not the passive force or pressure exerted, for example,
by a column supporting a roof, but force actively at
work, moving something against a resistance ; or, if
passive, like the force of a coiled spring, or of an
explosive, waiting, as it were, the opportunity to
become active and do work. In scientific language
energy is the term now used to signify what once
was, and still is, popularly called force. Energy is
the power of doing work (kinetic energy), or anything
which can be converted into work (potential energy).
When a gun is fired, for example, the potential
energy of the explosive is converted into the kinetic
energy of the bullet, and this bullet possesses then
the power of doing work, of moving itself against a
resistance the resistance of the air and the resistance
of the target it strikes.

In ordinary language physical force is often
referred to as "brute force," but science does not

1 Address to the Independent Labour Party, Aberdeen, I7th
November 1915.



26 PHYSICAL FORCE

now put much, if any, weight on the various origins
of force, or, if you will allow me henceforth to use the
proper word, the various origins of energy. The
energy is the important thing, whether it is brute
energy or not the power of working and battling
against resistance, either of a living animal or of a
mass of dead matter in motion. This theory of
energy, or doctrine of work work in the strictly
physical sense, not, for example, brain work or
artistic work is of vital importance in fields very
remote from science. A living being is distinguished
from a dead one because it is working every second
of its life, and death is the stoppage of that work.
But it is not only living things that work continu-
ously. A running river, a waterfall, is doing the
same. When we speak of this as a live world in
distinction to the moon, which is often spoken of as
a dead one, we mean not only that there is no life on
the moon, but also no movement of anything, and no
change of any kind.

Energy, in general, is due to motion. If the
things moving are masses large enough to see, we
speak of their mechanical energy. If the things
moving are too small to see, even with the micro-
scope the molecules or smallest particles of matter
that exist we speak of their energy as heat energy.
If the particles are still smaller, not matter at all, but
electrons or particles of electricity, we speak of their
energy as electrical energy. But everything that
moves, or has in it the potentiality of movement,
possesses energy, and if we trace this energy to its
source we find that, in almost every case, it comes
from the sun. Trains and ships bear their burdens
across land and sea, living creatures run or swim or
fly by virtue of energy that comes to us from the sun
in the form of radiation, that is, light and heat. In
the processes of agriculture this radiant energy is



THE SOURCE OF ENERGY 27

converted into the potential energy of food, and so is
utilised by life. But the steam and oil engine also
work by virtue of the energy of the sun, which, in
bygone times, was stored up by great masses of
vegetation, and is now preserved in coal and fuel.
Potential energy, or energy on the leash, is not
capable of being apprehended until it is converted
into kinetic energy. Ignite coal and its potential
energy a form of chemical energy turns, like that
of a released spring, into kinetic, and the molecules
of the burning coal are suddenly thrown into a state
of intense chaotic motion, which we call heat. But
vital energy or vital force, the energy of a man
working or living, are not special and peculiar to life.
They are one with the great flow of inanimate energy
reaching us from the sun, which bears the whole
world along.

Energy, someone may say, is a mere abstraction,
a mere term, not a real thing. As you will. In
this, as in many another respect, it is like another
abstraction no one would deny reality to, and that
abstraction is wealth. Wealth is the power of
purchasing, as energy is the power of working. I
cannot show you energy, only its effects. I cannot
show you wealth, only its effects and its purely
conventional symbol, money. Money is not wealth
to a starving man in a deserted place. It is both a
symbol and a measure of wealth earned, as work
done is a measure of energy expended. Heat energy,
mechanical energy, chemical energy, and so on, are
different forms rather than different kinds of energy,
just as coins, bank-notes, cheques, and so on, are
forms of money. The bank-teller totals up a hetero-
geneous collection of coins, paper money, securities
of various kinds and currencies, all as one sum of
money, and then thinks of that sum, not of the
sovereigns and shillings, notes and cheques he was



28 PHYSICAL FORCE

handling the moment before. So the scientific man
looks into the processes of nature, sunshine and fire,
storm and lightning and tempest, the battling of
the elements, the rushing tumult of man and his
machinery, the majestic circling of the moon and
planets ; stranger still, the silent, sleeping powers of
coal, explosives, food and fertilisers. He is no more
lost among them than the bank-teller is among his
miscellaneous collection of monies. He totals them
all in terms of energy, the power of working. The
enormous variety of activities they display bother
him not at all.

Now, just as strict watch as the bank-teller keeps
on the credit and debit sides of the accounts of all his
customers, nature keeps over the energy accounts of
all its manifold processes. There is no work done
for which the energy required does not have to be
supplied, just as no money can be withdrawn from a
bank into which none has been paid. Money cannot
be spent twice, more must be forthcoming, and so it
is with energy. It can only be spent once, and,
whether spent usefully or uselessly, whether doing
enduring work or dissipated doing nothing perma-
nent, once spent it cannot be recovered. Very easy
indeed it is to waste energy. The performance of
any work demands so much energy, but any amount
more may be demanded if the worker is inefficient.
Abstraction or not, energy is as real as wealth, I
am not sure that they are not two aspects of the same
thing. The one drives the commercial and industrial
activities of men, and the other the whole physical
activities of the entire universe.

Human beings and beasts of burden were at first
almost the sole sources of useful energy, the only
available labourers to overtake the heavy work of
the world. For countless ages the inanimate energy
of nature, of wind, waterfall and fire, proved too



THE CONTROL OF INANIMATE ENERGY 29

difficult to harness and control. It is only a century
since the new era of inanimate energy began, since
science drilled the tumultuous rush of the swarms of
molecules, too small to be seen, and out of their
infinite variety of motions in all directions at once
out of heat made the working motion of the steam
engine. Animate energy, "brute force," became
dwarfed indeed beside the working- giant whose food
was fuel. What is more, it had to recognise that it
indeed was no divinity, no "vital spark" of origin
divine animating a mass of clay. It was just energy,
no more no less, to that bank-teller keeping count,
and it made a very humble sum compared with the
accounts of his inanimate customers.

At once there came about an enormous increase
in the world's work, done no longer by living workers
but by the inanimate labourers, water-power, coal
and oil, which science had enslaved. So that to-day
a single machine puts forth a continuous round of
labour which an army of men could not keep going
for an hour.

Steam engines, locomotives, electric trams, and
petrol-driven motor cars have made some of the
main aspects of inanimate energy very familiar. We
all know that if we want such energy or power in any
form we have to pay for it, whether we get it as a
finished product, as the electrical energy laid on to
consumers' houses and paid for by the unit, or in a
partially-manufactured state as coal gas, or in its
raw state as coal. In neither case do we care at all
for the electricity or gas or coal we buy ; we are
buying energy, the power of doing so much work,
the power of producing so much heat, light, and so
on, as the case may be. We are all aware how
largely this inanimate power has replaced animal
labour. Whether at the docks or on ships or trains
or cars, some animal man, horse, mule or ox has



30 PHYSICAL FORCE

been emancipated and his place taken by his tireless
competitor. But it will be less familiar to some of
you that this energy can not only displace, it can
replace animate energy, and as time goes on it will
more and more replace it. Conceivably, some future
race of men, instead of sitting down to dinner, will
attach themselves to something akin to an electric
lamp-socket and draw thence from the public mains
the supply of pure physical energy required for the
day's work without any necessity of absorbing at the
same time the useless husks the material wrappings
in which this energy is done up that constitute our
present food.

Now, though less generally appreciated at its true
human significance than other scientific developments
of the nineteenth century, this is probably the most
fundamental and important. The doctrine of organic
evolution cut away some of our most cherished
notions about ourselves on the biological side.
Fallen man a discredited creature with eyes ever
turned backwards into his alleged more glorious past,
a feeble and ineffective imitator of bygone days,
dressed up by myth and poetic fancy to appear
divine, gave place to the truer and more robust
conception of man ascending from the animal world,
a creature of hope and promise, with eyes ever
forward on the future, and with reason gradually
growing and developing to the point of comprehend-
ing the terms on which he stands with universal
nature. Simultaneous with this profound reversal
of mental outlook came the realisation that the
physical strength in which he gloried was, even less
than his body, of divine origin, but was borrowed
from the inanimate world and could be augmented
therefrom without the agency of life at all. Never
before in his long history had any fundamental factor
of his existence so suddenly and completely changed.



THE MECHANISTIC VIEW OF LIFE 31

His physical necessities became a problem completely
apprehended, a problem of energy, pure and simple.
Life, the mystifier, scarcely complicated it. The pale,
pursuing spectre which has dogged the ages and
dragged them down is to be exorcised, not by
mystical philosophy and religions, but by physics,
chemistry and engineering.

But even on the purely philosophical side the gain
is not inconsiderable. In constructing a machine
which will run and perform continuous work, the
scientific man has most nearly approached an imita-
tion of the living body. Conversely, the living body
has been often likened to a machine. If we regard
merely the physical attributes of life and ignore
the moral, aesthetic and spiritual aspects, then, un-
doubtedly, the body is a machine. Especially during
sleep is the parallel exact. It is a machine set to run
automatically whilst the engineer, the brain, has for
the time being vacated the controlling platform.
The pumping of the blood by the heart, the pumping
of air by the lungs, the digestion of food, with their
attendant sub-conscious regulations and adjustments,
go on in the living body, both asleep and awake, in a
definite round of themselves, much as a machine runs
in its appointed cycles by virtue of its automatic
valves and regulators. Awake and alert, it is a
machine with the engineer at the helm, continually
opening and closing non-automatic valves, making
it vary in its actions, not over one or two, or possibly
a dozen different combinations of motion, but over a
practically infinite variety. But, whatever the com-
plexities introduced by wakefulness, the sub-conscious
regulation of the human machine does not cease for
an instant. If we go further, beyond the physical
realm of motion and forces, and trespass upon the
intellectual activities of the brain, and the still finer
moral, esthetic and spiritual activities of the soul,



32 PHYSICAL FORCE

then, in spite of these further complexities, the
mechanical aspect of the body can still no more be
ignored than can the prime mover of a loom produc-
ing the most wonderful and artistic textiles. For
good or ill, that machine has as much or little a right
to be considered the man as his soul or brain. The
attempt to amputate the spiritual from the physical
world paralyses both.

The mechanistic notion of life, the representation
of the body as primarily and fundamentally a machine,
is often bitterly and not very intelligently opposed.
We are told that the machine the scientist's imi-
tation of life is not merely a purely inanimate
mechanism. In its cunning combination of valves
and regulators it has a brain, part of the brain of its
designer. The partial likeness is that of the machine
to the man, of the limited imitation to the original ;
not the other way about, which is true enough. But
let us bear in mind one essential and undeniable fact.
Machine or man, inanimate mechanism with the
mechanical imitation of a brain, or brain controlling
an animate mechanism, what of the power? The
power to live, the power to do work, is not in the
brain nor in the body, not in the valves nor the
moving parts. The power, whether of life or of
mechanism, is external. That is the real ground of
the analogy.

Inanimate energy, which before ran to waste or
lay in the ground unused, began to be guided by
human intelligence and shaped for human ends.
What this energy can do for good and evil the world
is everywhere now the witness. Primitive man froze
on the site of what are now coal mines, and starved
within the sound of the waterfalls that now are
working to provide our food. The energy was there,
the knowledge to utilise it was not. So while we are
leading cramped lives and fighting among ourselves,



THE ORIGIN OF COSMICAL ENERGY 33

whether in peace or war, for a modicum of the means
of existence, science tells us that, in the commonest
materials that make up the framework of the world,
there is energy of a magnitude of which we have no
experience, and the means of livelihood upon a scale of
which we have no standard. The energy is there.
The knowledge that can utilise it is not not yet.

If the nineteenth century is destined to be
remembered in history on account of the establish-
ment of the doctrine of energy, to the twentieth,
young as it still is, belongs the credit of elevating and
extending that doctrine to the extent that makes it
of universal human interest. One simple question
concerning the source of energy the nineteenth
century quite failed to answer. Divorcing from the
problem everything but its purely physical aspect,
and putting it in its widest form, there remained
unanswered the problem of its origin. How is it
that the world is not yet grown old and "dead,"
though geologists dispute among themselves whether
its history, in much the same condition as at present,
can be traced back a hundred million or a thousand
million years ? Or, look up on a clear night at the
same stars as those that greeted the gaze of the cave-
dweller and the mastodon when man was young.
How can nature, the bank- teller, account for such
a large expenditure of energy, over so prolonged
a period, without long ago having become bankrupt ?
The sun and stars do not burn coal. Even if they
did, Lord Kelvin computed that the combustion of
a mass of coal the size of the sun would only suffice
for 5000 years of the present rate of output of
solar energy. Though, without any new source of
energy, it was found by him to be possible to account
for solar radiation over a period of some millions of
years, the claims of the geologists for hundreds or
thousands of millions could not be satisfied. What



34 PHYSICAL FORCE

is the origin of the stream of energy pouring- out into
space from stars so numerous that every living person
in the world might claim a separate one as his own ?
That is the problem that has stared us in the face
since we began to understand the laws of energy, an
academic problem, perhaps, until it is realised that it
is necessary for us to be able to get our hands on the
levers controlling the primary sources of energy, or,
when our fuel supplies are exhausted, relapse into
barbarism.

At the close of the nineteenth century an extra-
ordinary series of discoveries in physics and chemistry
put into our hands a scrap of a material called
radium, which asked us precisely the same question
as the stars, but at point-blank range. It is a new
element discovered by M. and Mme. Curie in
a uranium - containing mineral, pitchblende. It
possesses the outstanding property of emitting
energy, in relatively large amount, and in new and
surprising forms, spontaneously and continuously.
All we have learned of this new property, radio-
activity, shows that this steady emission of energy is
going on in the rocks, from which the radium is
extracted, at precisely the same rate as from the
radium after it has been extracted, and has been
going on for hundreds of millions of years. The
explanation follows from the discovery that these
radioactive elements are undergoing slow changes
into other elements, changes of precisely the same
kind as the alchemist sought to effect when he strove
in vain to transmute the base metals into gold.
Modern chemistry is unable to achieve such changes,
but they are now known to be going on slowly and
spontaneously in the radioactive elements. We can
at present only watch and follow them. We have
not yet succeeded in interfering with them or
quickening their rate.



RADIOACTIVITY AND TRANSMUTATION 35

Hitherto in the chemical changes, from which the
world derives its chief supplies of energy, such as the
combustion of fuel, different elements, such as carbon
and oxygen, combine together but do not suffer any
intrinsic or fundamental alteration. The compound
formed, carbon dioxide, can be decomposed by the
chemist to give back again the original carbon and
the oxygen, not entirely different elements. In other
cases, the decomposition of certain compounds may
give rise to the evolution of energy. Examples are
to be found in all the modern high explosives, such
as gun-cotton, nitroglycerine (dynamite), picric acid
(lyddite), and trinitro toluene (T.N.T.). But in
no case, except in the radioactive elements, has a
veritable transmutation of one element into others
been observed.

We have obtained evidence, in consequence of
these new discoveries, that in the atoms of matter
exists a store of energy beyond comparison greater
than any over which we have obtained control.
In the slow changes of the radioactive elements
there is known to be an evolution of energy
nearly a million times as great as has ever been
obtained from a similar weight of matter before.
The energy is there, but the knowledge of how to
liberate it at will and apply it to useful ends is not
not yet.

The problem will be solved when we have learned
how to transmute one kind of element into another at
will, and not before. It may well take science many
years, possibly even centuries, to learn how to do
this, but already the quarry is in full view and, by
numerous routes, investigators are starting off in hot
pursuit. We need only recall the past history of the
progress of science to be assured that, whether it
takes years or centuries, artificial transmutation and
the rendering available of a supply of energy as much



36 PHYSICAL FORCE

beyond that of fuel as the latter is beyond brute
energy will be eventually effected.

It is unlikely, but not impossible, that such a
discovery might be made almost at once. A
magnificent scientific achievement it would be, but,
all the same, I trust it will not be made until it is
clearly understood what is involved. Let us suppose
that it became possible to extract the energy, which
now oozes out, so to speak, from radioactive materials
over a period of thousands of millions of years, in as
short a time as we pleased. From a pound weight of
such substances one would get about as much energy
as would be obtained by burning 1 50 tons of coal.
How splendid! Or a pound weight could be made
to do the work of 1 50 tons of dynamite. Ah ! there's
the rub. Imagine, if you can, what the present war
would be like if such an explosive had actually been
discovered instead of being still in the keeping of the
future. Yet it is a discovery that conceivably might
be made to-morrow, in time for its development and
perfection for the use or destruction, let us say, of the
next generation, and which, it is pretty certain, will
be made by science sooner or later. Surely it will
not need this last actual demonstration to convince
the world that it is doomed, if it fools with the
achievements of science as it has fooled too long in
the past. Physical force, the slave of science, is it to
be the master or the servant of man ? The cold logic
of science shows, without the possibility of escape,
that this question if not faced now can have only
one miserable end.

From time immemorial man has boasted and
gloried in his physical prowess. He was a rude
animal, whose turbulent experience has preserved,
as a religion, this pride in force as the ultimate
arbiter. Christianity for two thousand years has
inculcated the opposite creed, but, while largely



SCIENCE AND WAR 37

adopted by civilised peoples as the ostensible
principle of their internal private relationships, it
has never been adopted by any nation in its inter-
national relationships. The principle of force as
ultimate arbiter in international quarrels remained
unchallenged through the nineteenth century, though
a strong, if politically impotent, revulsion against
it grew in this country, through the development of
a stronger public conscience, as it appeared to us,
through satiety in conquest and physical deteriora-
tion, as our enemies preferred to believe.

But do not make the fatal mistake of supposing
that what always has been, necessarily always will
be. When man rose to the intellectual stature at
which he could command the waterfall to do his
will, kindle a fire and marshal the chaos of motion
we call heat into the rhythmic working movement of
a fuel-fed engine, irrigate the desert and make two
grains of corn grow where one grew before, he
broke with his past, for good or evil, once for all.
The physical factors of life till the nineteenth century
had been practically stereotyped. But now a new
factor is at work in the world which alters its
whole economy, and in light of which everything old,


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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 3 of 18)