Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/485

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
469
THE TEACHINGS OF MODERN SPECTROSCOPY.

but also the possibly changed properties, under these conditions, of our terrestrial elements. The spectroscope is rapidly becoming our thermometer and pressure-gauge; it has become a physical instrument.

The application of the spectroscope to the investigation of the nature of celestial bodies has always had a great fascination to the scientific man as well as to the amateur; for in stars and nebulæ one may hope to read the past and future of our own solar system. But it is not of this application that I wish to speak to-day.

As there is no other instrument which can touch the conditions of the most distant bodies of our universe, bodies so large that their size surpasses our imagination, so is there no other instrument which equals it in the information it can yield on the minute particles at the other end of the scale, particles which in their turn are so small that we can form no conception of their size or number. The range of the spectroscope includes both stars and atoms, and it is about these latter that I wish to speak.

The idea that all matter is built up of atoms, which we can not further divide by physical or chemical means, is an old one. As a scientific hypothesis, however—that is, an hypothesis which shall not only qualitatively, but also quantitatively, account for actual phenomena—it has only been worked out in the last thirty years. The development of molecular physics was contemporaneous with that of spectroscopy, but the two sciences grew up independently. Those who strove to advance the one paid little attention to the other, and did not trouble to know which of their conclusions were in harmony, which in discordance, with the results of the sister science. It is time, I think, now that the bearing of one branch of inquiry on the other should be pointed out: where they are in agreement, their conclusions will be strengthened, while new investigations will lead to more perfect truths where disagreement throws doubt on apparently well-established principles.

What I have ventured to call modern spectroscopy is the union of the old science with the modern ideas of the dynamical theory of gases, and includes the application of the spectroscope to the experimental investigation of molecular phenomena, which without it might for ever remain matters of speculation or of calculation.

A body, then, is made up of a number of atoms. These are hardly ever, perhaps never, found in isolation. Two or more of them are bound together, and do not part company as long as the physical state of the body remains the same. Such an association of atoms is called a molecule. When a body is in the state of a gas or vapor, each molecule for the greater part of the time is unaffected by the other molecules in its neighborhood, and therefore behaves as if these were not present. The gaseous state, then, is the one in which we can best study these molecules. They move about among each other, and