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Anaxagoras more than four centuries before the Christian era, and in the philosophy of Aristotle the same ideas are found. Theories of matter. But some phenomena are difficult to reconcile with this view; for example, a cubic foot of air can be compressed into less than one five-hundredth of a cubic foot, or, if allowed to expand, the air originally occupying the cubic foot can be made to fill, apparently uniformly, a space of a million cubic feet or more. This enormous capacity for expansion and contraction is astonishing if we believe matter to be continuous, but if we imagine air to be made up of little particles separated by relatively large empty spaces the changes in volume are more easily conceivable. Moreover, if we attribute such a structure to gases, we are led to attribute it to liquids and to solids also, since gases can be liquefied without any abrupt change, and many substances usually solid can be converted into gases by heating them. This conception of the grained structure of matter is very ancient; traces of it are to be found in Indian philosophy, perhaps twelve centuries before the Christian era, and the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, in the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C., taught it very definitely. Their view was that “matter is not indefinitely divisible, but that all substances are formed of indivisible particles or atoms which are eternal and unchangeable, that the atoms are separated from one another by void, and that these atoms, by their combinations, form the matter we are conscious of.” The Roman poet Lucretius (De Rerum Natura) was an eloquent exponent of this theory, but throughout the middle ages, indeed until the 17th century, it was eclipsed by the prestige of Aristotle. In the time, however, of Boyle[1] and Newton, we again find an atomic theory of matter; Newton[2] regarded a gas as consisting of small separate particles which repelled one another, the tendency of a gas to expand being attributed to the supposed repulsion between the particles.

Let us consider some common phenomena in the light of these rival theories as to the nature of matter. When a few lumps of sugar are added to a glass of water and stirred, the sugar soon disappears and we are left with a uniform liquid resembling water, except that it is sweet. What has become of the sugar? Does it still exist? The atomist would say, “Yes, it is broken up into its atoms, and these are distributed throughout the spaces between the particles of water.” The rival philosopher, who believes water to be continuous and without spaces between its particles, has a greater difficulty in accounting for the disappearance of the sugar; he would probably say that the sugar, and the water also, had ceased to exist, and that a new continuous substance had been formed from them, but he could offer no picture of how this change had taken place. Or consider a well-marked case of what we are in the habit of calling chemical combination. If 127 parts of iodine, which is an almost black solid, and 100 parts of mercury, which is a white liquid metal, be intimately mixed by rubbing them together in a mortar, the two substances wholly disappear, and we obtain instead a brilliant red powder quite unlike the iodine or the mercury; almost the only property that is unchanged is the weight. The question again arises, what has become of the original substances? The atomist has an easy answer; he says that the new body is made up by the juxtaposition of the atoms of iodine and mercury, which still exist in the red powder. His opponent would be disposed to say that the iodine and the mercury ceased to exist when the red powder was formed, that they were components but not constituents of it. The fact that the two components can be recovered from the compound by destroying it does not decide the question. It is remarkable that pure chemistry, even to-day, has no very conclusive arguments for the settlement of this controversy; but the sister science of physics is steadily accumulating evidence in favour of the atomic conception.

1911 Britannica - Atom - Dalton.png
From Dalton’s New System of Chemical Philosophy.
Hydrogen Gas. Nitrous Gas. Carbonic Acid Gas.

1911 Britannica - Atom - Daltonian symbols.png

Until the time of John Dalton, the atomic conception remained purely qualitative, and until then it does not appear to have advanced chemistry or to have found further confirmation in the facts of chemistry. Dalton (1803) gave the atomic theory a Dalton. quantitative form, and showed that, by means of it, a vast number of the facts of chemistry could be predicted or explained. In fact, he did so much to make the atomic theory of matter probable that he is popularly regarded as its originator. Dalton lived in a period marked by great advances in experimental chemistry. Rather before the commencement of the 19th century the work of Lavoisier had rendered it very probable that chemical changes are not accompanied by any change in weight, and this principle of the conservation of matter was becoming universally accepted; chemists were also acquiring considerable skill in chemical analysis, that is, in the determination of the nature and relative amounts of the elements contained in compounds. But Sir H. E. Roscoe and A. Harden, New View of the Atomic Theory (1896), have shown, from a study of Dalton’s manuscript notes, that we do not owe his atomic theory to such experiments. If their view is correct, the theory appears to be a remarkable example of deductive reasoning. Dalton, who was a mathematical physicist even more than a chemist, had given much thought to the study of gases. Following Newton, he believed a gas to be made up of particles or atoms, separated from one another by considerable spaces. Certain difficulties that he met with in his speculations led him to the conclusion that the particles of any one kind of gas, though all of them alike, must differ from those of another gas both in size and weight. He thus arrived at the conception of a definite atomic weight peculiar to the particles of each gas, and he thought that he could determine these atomic weights, in terms of one of them, by means of the quantitative analysis of compounds. The conclusion that each element had a definite atomic weight, peculiar to it, was the new idea that made his speculations fruitful, because it allowed of quantitative deduction and verification. He drew simple diagrams, three of which, taken from Dalton’s New System of Chemical Philosophy, part ii. (1810), are reproduced here, in which gases are represented as composed of atoms. Knowing that the gas which he called “nitrous gas” was composed of oxygen and nitrogen, and believing it to be the simplest compound of these two elements, he naturally represented its atom as formed of an atom of oxygen and an atom of nitrogen in juxtaposition. When two elements form more than one compound, as is the case with oxygen and carbon, he assigned to the compound which he thought the more complex an atom made up of two atoms of the one element and one atom of the other; the diagram for carbonic acid illustrates this, and an extension of the same plan enabled him to represent any compound, however complex its structure. The table here given contains some of Dalton’s diagrams of atoms. They are not all considered to be correct at the present time; for example, we now think that the ultimate particle of water is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, and that that of ammonia contains three atoms of hydrogen to one of nitrogen. But these differences between Dalton’s views and our present ones do not impair the accuracy of the arguments which follow.

  1. Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist (1661); The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy (1663).
  2. Sir Isaac Newton, Principia, bk. ii. prop. 23.