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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/72

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

supposedly permanent gases; nitrogen yielded to the attacks of Wroblevsky and Olzewski in 1883, and hydrogen alone remained unconquered. In 1898 Dewar overcame this last obstacle, and in the year following he actually reduced hydrogen to an icelike solid which melts at only eighteen degrees centigrade above the theoretical absolute zero. Every gas has been liquefied, and probably the lowest degree of cold attainable by man has been reached. Within the century the work began and ended; the future can only improve the working methods and utilize the new resources. Liquid ammonia has long been used in the manufacture of artificial ice and for direct refrigeration; liquid air, with its temperature of two hundred centigrade degrees below zero, is now almost a commercial product, obtainable in quantity, but with its possibilities of usefulness as yet practically undeveloped. The infant Hercules will doubtless find no lack of tasks to do, each one more arduous and more helpful to man than any labor of his mythical prototype.

To the chemist the possibilities thus opened are innumerable. Pictet has shown that at the low temperatures which are now easily attainable all chemical action stops, even the most energetic substances lying in contact with each other quiet and inert. A greater control of the more violent chemical reactions is therefore within reach, doubtless to be utilized in many ways yet unforeseen. At the highest temperatures, also, chemical union ceases, and compounds are decomposed; each reaction is possible only within a limited thermal range, of which the beginning and the end are measurable. From future measurements of this sort new laws will surely be discovered.

The first step in the upward scale of temperatures was taken in 1802, when Robert Hare, an American, invented the oxyhydrogen blowpipe. With this instrument platinum, hitherto infusible, was melted, a result of great importance to chemists. Apart from recent electrical applications, platinum finds its chief use in the construction of chemical apparatus, and Hare's invention was therefore of great assistance to chemical research. Later in the century electrical currents were utilized as producers of great heat, until in the very modern device of the electric furnace the range of available temperatures has been at least doubled. Temperatures of three to four thousand degrees of the centigrade scale are now at the disposal of the chemist, and these are manageable in compact apparatus at very moderate cost. Cheap aluminum is one of the products of this new instrument, and the extraordinary abrasive substance, carborundum, is another. New industries have been created by the electric furnace, and in the hands of Moissan it has yielded scientific results of great interest and remarkable variety.