The New Revelation in Science

THE Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, meeting me on the street shortly before he left the world poorer in mirth and philosophy, said that he desired to ascend the scientific Mount Pisgah before he died ; he therefore wished to know how soon he would be able to buy a pint of horse power at the corner grocery.

This does not seem a mirage when we reflect upon the new revelation in physical science; the enormous energy stored up in the atom of radium. A bit of this new substance immersed in ice or in the intense cold of liquid air continues to give out heat and light apparently uninfluenced by its frigid surroundings. Its strange radiations or emanations extending beyond these surroundings make diamonds glow in the dark with a mysterious light, and exert a burning effect upon the human skin. The discoverers of radium believe that it would be dangerous to remain in a room with two pounds of pure radium. It would burn all the skin from the body, destroy the eyesight, and probably kill the occupant of the room.

These are some of the singular stories that come to us from those who have been the first to catch a glimpse from Mount Pisgah, which, like Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we are struggling to ascend. The first glimpses of the new revelation were obtained by those who followed Röntgen in the study of the X rays. When a discharge of electricity is prevented from passing across a highly rarefied space, — a space similar in its vacuity to that which intervenes between us and the sun,—it seems to gather itself together to make a supreme effort to break down the barrier; and in its success there is revealed a hitherto unsuspected light which cannot be seen by the human eye directly, but which reveals its presence by making certain phosphorescent bodies glow ; and photographic plates are darkened, even if they are protected from ordinary light by layers of wood a foot thick. The strange phosphorescent light caused by such discharges of electricity led various observers to study phosphorescence apart from electrical causes in the hope of detecting emanations similar to those discovered by Röntgen. Becquerel, a French physicist, found that the salts of the metal uranium gave off rays which were analogous to those produced in rarefied gases by electric discharges. He suggested to M. Curie and Madame Curie, two chemists, that it would be well to investigate the chemical constitution of the oxides of uranium called pitch-blende in the hope of finding the active material which caused the radiations.

After working over more than a ton of the pitch-blende these chemists succeeded in isolating perhaps a quarter of a teaspoonful of a new metal which possessed the sought for properties in a remarkable degree; and they gave it the name of radium. The patience necessary in the scientific explorer is well illustrated by the discovery of this substance. The amount of gold in several tons of salt water is analogous to the amount of radium in a ton of pitchblende : and the processes by which the latter is extracted call for all the refinements of science.

The properties of radium are so strange that by some it is called already the “miracle of science,” and the new revelation threatens to upset the most cherished tenets of Physics. How does the bit of radium obtain its great source of energy, — a source which appears to be unlimited. It is computed that it can continue to give out energy unimpaired for millions of years. We have been led to believe that we cannot obtain heat without the consumption of fuel or the expenditure of work. Tyndall’s work entitled Heat a Mode of Motion marked an epoch in philosophic thought; and we have all been suckled in this creed. Will it prove a Pagan creed ?

Upon the doctrine of the conservation of energy is based all our steam engineering. The boilers and engines of our great steamships are designed upon the theory that there is an exact equivalence between the heat developed and the horse power produced. Our practical employments of electricity also require for their economy an acknowledgment of the truth of this law, which is known to scientific men as the second law of thermodynamics. The motion of the dynamo is transformed into an equivalent of heat and light.

In radium we apparently have a dynamo which affords energy without the expenditure of fuel. This is indeed a marvelous revelation: it does not seem to be connected with what may be called the Old Testament of Physics; there are no hints or physical prophecies which might have led us to hope for this new light.

A magnet, it is true, maintains its attracting power unchanged for ages ; the loadstone in the Continental museum whose strange properties puzzled the Phœnicians still holds iron to itself in a mysterious embrace with unimpaired force. A magnet, however, does not give out heat or light; its effect upon iron or steel is analogous to the attraction between the sun and the earth. No external work is done as long as the magnet remains at rest. A magnet embedded in ice or in the cold of liquid air does not give out heat. It is only when a coil of wire or a piece of metal is rapidly moved in its neighborhood, or the magnet is quickly moved about these latter objects, that heat is produced ; and this heat is the exact equivalent of the motion.

In order to save our long-cherished and apparently well proved law of the conservation of energy we are driven to the hypothesis that there is a transforming power in the radium atom which enables it to absorb some new radiations, and to give them forth in the recognizable forms of light and heat. The electrical transformers at Niagara Falls take the energy of the water and convert it into electricity. The electrical transformer feeds a furnace in which the most refractory substances can be made molten ; it produces a dazzling light; it can run trolley cars at a distance of many miles from the Falls ; and it can produce discharges which are comparable with those of lightning. These transformations result from the energy stored up in the water.

Is it possible that waves from the sun can start atomic engines in the atom of radium even when it is embedded in ice, and thus constitute it a transformer for radiations which have hitherto been concealed from mankind ? Is the atom of radium an earth or atomic universe placed in the cold of space and heated and illumined by some form of electrical waves ; waves which after a long, swift journey across the vacuity and cold of space are transformed by their contact with matter ? If the sun, too, were largely composed of radium, how simple would be the explanation of the infinite duration of solar heat and light; yet the explanation would supplant one mystery by another. In physical science a simple explanation is often the temporary sedative to the mind which had been long perplexed by unsolvable mysteries. The explanation in time ceases to be simple.

While the astronomers are inclined to limit the size of the universe, the physicists, delving in the region of the infinitely little, see no limits. There are corpuscles one thousandth the size of the smallest atom upon which for centuries the science of chemistry has been based, and there are waves of light only one thousandth the amplitude of those with which the astronomer deals.

Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace in the Fortnightly Review for March, 1903, brought forward evidence which seemed to him to conclusively limit the size of the stellar universe. He quoted the reasoning of the star gaugers who, in probing the depths of space with the largest telescopes, had found a diminution in the number of stars as the telescopic power had been increased. It has been shown that if there were an infinite number of stars uniformly distributed, the earth would be bathed in light both by night and by day ; the stars might be infinitely distant, but they would be infinite in number. This theory assumes that there is no absorption of light in space.

There is, however, no reason to suppose that there is not an absorption of light in the depths of the heavens. Wallace points to the existence of the dark rifts or canals in the Milky Way, and finds there a limit of stars. The universe, to his imagination, is like in form to a saucer. We are in the middle of the saucer, and looking toward the edges of it we see the crowding of stars which constitute the Milky Way, and looking upward at right angles to the saucer we see a space meagrely scattered with stars. But the imagination utterly fails to conceive of a limit to the universe, a barrier beyond the farthest star. Can there not be successive colonies of stars like colonies of bacilli in a fluid medium ? Our most powerful telescopes can never detect such colonies. Photography even now reveals stars which do not contribute evident light or heat; such stars far outnumber the visible stars ; and photography has its limits ; for the earth’s atmosphere forever cuts us off from the study of the shortest waves of light which, if detected, might reveal successive collections of stars in a universe far beyond the stars now revealed to us.

It is just in this region of the shortest waves of light that the physicist is now greatly extending his conceptions of the physical universe. I have said he can set no limits to the extent of this universe. This, then, is the new revelation in physical science; a world of atomic motions and an apparent absorption of some new radiation from the sun or from outer space. What a text for the theologian ! If matter can absorb physical influences from outer space, and transform them into useful agencies for mankind, why cannot spiritual influences be absorbed by the human atom and transmuted into beneficent influences ? Man can thus be likened to a transformer.

But are these new radiations beneficial to humanity ? What use can man make of them ? The shortest waves of light exert a remarkable effect upon certain diseases; forms of skin diseases which have resisted treatment for years are sometimes cured by the X rays, which are closely allied to the rays from radium.

It is thought that tuberculosis can be modified by breathing air which has passed over radium. It is certain that the qualities which radium possesses can be found in the atmosphere and in the water we drink. Like gold in the ocean, radioactive matter is universally distributed ; and it probably exerts an important action upon all living creatures. It does not seem beyond the range of possibility that we may be able to use some radioactive substance as a source of the X rays, and thus dispense with the bulky and expensive apparatus which is now used in surgical inquiries. A plaster of radium would simplify matters : but its cost to-day is many thousands of dollars.

This possible transference of the source of the X rays from electricity to a condition of matter constitutes a momentous epoch in the history of electricity. It may be said that our greatest revelations in the physical world have come through the manifestations of electricity. The first revelation came to Faraday and Henry more than sixty years ago in the discovery that a condition exists in the neighborhood of a magnet such that any change in the position of the magnet results in an exhibition of electricity in neighboring metals. From the scientific Mount Pisgah one can see cities lighted, mankind transported with the speed of the wind, and communication of intelligence opened between points separated by thousands of miles. It is no wonder that Dr. Holmes with the eye of imagination saw that the future would reveal still greater advances, and desired to catch a glimpse of them before he died. Although so much has been revealed in the subject of electricity, we are as completely ignorant of its inmost character as we are of the source of life. Yet knowledge of its practical applications is very great, and we can measure electricity more accurately than any other force. This fact has been shown in the discovery of the phenomena of radium. The conclusions which we have reached in regard to these manifestations were obtained by the use of an electrical instrument which is more than a thousand times as delicate as the most sensitive chemical balance : and even spectrum analysis, which has stood for forty years as the emblem of marvelous sensitiveness, must now give place to the electrometer. This instrument promises to increase our knowledge of the motion of infinitely small particles of matter; but the only inkling we have of the inmost character of electricity, it seems to me, resides in our positive knowledge of its periodic movement on its way from the sun to the earth. This periodic movement is also the chief part of our knowledge of the phenomena of light; and through it we link together the facts of electricity and those of heat and light. Our mathematical theories of electricity are hardly more than interesting collections of formulæ.

In the light of this new revelation must we modify our views of the origin of the sun’s heat, and, therefore, our views of the beginnings of life on this globe ? The only theory of the cause of the uniformity of the sun’s heat which is favored to-day by scientific men is the contraction theory of Helmholtz. According to this theory the loss of heat of the sun is compensated by a contraction of its gaseous mass. It is estimated that a diminution of two hundred and fifty feet in the sun’s diameter each year would maintain its present output of heat. This change in the size of the sun’s disk could not be observed even between periods ten thousand years apart.

The geologists, led by Huxley, require more time for geologic changes than this hypothesis would give ; for it is estimated that it has required twenty millions of years for the sun to shrink to its present size ; and hundreds of millions of years are apparently needed for the making of the habitable earth. If atoms of matter can give off for millions of years energy without sensible loss: or if atoms can absorb obscure electrical radiations, and having transformed them give them out as light and heat, are we not on the road to a new theory of the sun’s heat ? It has been discovered that radium gives off the gas helium, which is regarded as one of the chief constituents of the sun’s atmosphere. It is a curious thought to regard radium as a bit of the sun imprisoned on the earth.

The new revelation in science is certainly far reaching, and it is comforting in the sense that more is vouchsafed as man becomes ready to receive. The word revelation has hitherto had its chief significance in a religious sense ; and in this sense our forefathers were not accustomed to think that revelation is contingent upon our investigations. In the scientific world there are no revelations which do not result from a long-continued hopeful spirit. The intellectual qualities here are indispensable. There are epochs of revelation, however, and the student of the history of science can perceive a gradual uplifting of the state of our knowledge which is symbolized in the material world by the uplifting of continents.

John Trowbridge.