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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/690

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

the aid of the balance the phenomena of combustion were rendered intelligible. The foundations of chemistry were laid, and upon them the nineteenth century has built. Lavoisier, the greatest of the founders, fell a victim to the guillotine; the judge who condemned him refused all appeals for mercy, saying "the republic has no need for savants," but the necessity which judicial ignorance could not foresee presently made itself felt. France, at war with all Europe, her ports closed to supplies from without, fell back upon her own resources. Saltpeter was needed for her guns, alkali for her industries, and the chemist was called upon for help. The stress of continued warfare stimulated intellectual activity, and one result was the creation of chemical processes which revolutionized more than one industry. The dependence of modern civilization upon science then began to be recognized—a dependence which is, perhaps, the chief characteristic of the present century.

With the opening of the new century a period of great activity began. The constancy of matter was well established, and the fundamental distinction between elements and compounds was clearly recognized; two starting points for exact research had been gained. Only a small number of elements, however, had been identified as such; of some substances it was doubtful whether they were elementary or not, but the mine was open and a rich body of ore was in sight. Furthermore, the utility of research had become evident, so that intellectual curiosity received a new stimulus and a new direction. Theory and practice became partners, and have worked together to this day.

Between the years 1803 and 1808 one of the greatest advances in scientific chemistry was made, when John Dalton announced and developed his famous atomic theory. In this we find a notable illustration of the difference between metaphysics and science. The conception of matter as made up of atoms, as discrete rather than continuous, was a commonplace of philosophical speculation. It had been taught by Democritus and Lucretius; it was the theme of wordy wrangles during centuries; Swedenborg, Higgins, and other writers had sought to apply it to the discussion of chemical phenomena; but it remained only a speculation, unfruitful for discovery. Up to the time of Dalton it had led to nothing but intellectual gymnastics.

A good scientific theory is never a product of the unaided imagination; it must serve some purpose in the correlation of phenomena which suggest it to the mind. This was the case with Dalton's discovery, which grew out of his observations upon definite and multiple proportions. That every chemical compound has a fixed and definite composition was recognized by Lavoisier, and by