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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/311

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PHASES OF THE EARTH'S DEVELOPMENT.

required. From the decomposition of the nitrides and phosphides below the surface, ammonia and phosphine were escaping into the ocean and into the air. The conditions then during long periods of time were especially favorable for marine life, and as sand and mud accumulated on the rocky surface of the earth, for land plants; the absence of a thick soil being more than compensated for by the abundance of plant food, notably of carbon dioxide and ammonia.

The statement may be found in excellent modern text-books of chemistry that ammonia is always formed by the decomposition of plants and animals, accompanied by the further statement that ammonia is a requisite for plant food. No plants—no ammonia; no ammonia—no plants. If this were true, the beginning of plant life would indeed have been a struggle for existence; that it is not true is shown above. This decomposition of nitrides has ceased practically on the actual surface of the earth at the present day because the nitrides have all been decomposed; yet it may be mentioned that specimens of rock freshly quarried in Sweden were recently found to give off ammonia when wet with water, showing the presence of nitrides. Below the actual earth's surface it is probable that nitrides still exist in large quantity, for ammonia is one of the constituents of volcanic gases; to believe that volcanic ammonia is a product of plant or animal decomposition is difficult; to suppose it formed by the action of steam on nitrides in the earth's interior is simple.

Much the same may be said of the presence of carbides. While they no longer exist on the surface, there is no doubt of their existence in the interior of the earth, and the volcanic gases contain their decomposition products. In this connection the theory—first put forward by Mendelèeff and since supported by Moissan—of the origin of petroleum, may be mentioned. These writers favor the hypothesis that it was formed by the decomposition of carbides by water under pressure; and while the evidence at hand perhaps favors the belief that the petroleum of the more important oil fields owes its origin to decomposition of the lower forms of marine animal life, yet there can be no doubt that petroleum may be formed by carbide decomposition, and it seems probable that natural gas is in part at least a result of the same action.