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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/76

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

of Van t'Hoff. Electrolysis is no longer to be considered as a separating process, but rather as a sorting of the ions, which receive different electrical charges and concentrate at the two electrical poles. The phenomena of freezing and boiling points in solutions, and of the absorption of heat when solid salts are dissolved, all harmonize with the conclusions which have been reached. A complete theory of solutions is yet to be proposed; but these new doctrines, which are true so far as they go, represent a long step in the right direction. A final theory will include them, but they are not likely to be set aside.

As we near the end of the century we find one more discovery to note, from a most unexpected quarter—the discovery of new gases in the atmosphere. In 1893 Lord Rayleigh was at work upon new determinations of density, with regard to the more important gases. In the case of nitrogen an anomaly appeared: nitrogen obtained from the atmosphere was found to be very slightly heavier than that prepared from chemical sources, but the difference was so slight that it might almost have been ignored. To Rayleigh, however, such a procedure was inadmissible, and he sought for an explanation of his results. Joining forces with Ramsay, the observed discrepancies were hunted down, and in 1894 the discovery of argon was announced. Ramsay soon found in certain rare minerals another new gas—helium—whose spectral lines had previously been noted in the spectrum of the sun; and still later, working with liquid air, he discovered four more of these strange elements—krypton, xenon, neon, and metargon. By extreme accuracy of measurement this chain of discovery was started, and, as some one has aptly said, it represents the triumph of the third decimal. A noble dissatisfaction with merely approximate data was the motive which initiated the work.

To the chemist these new gases are sorely puzzling. They come from a field which was thought to be exhausted, and cause us to wonder why they were not found before. The reason for the oversight is plain: the gases are devoid of chemical properties, at least none have yet been certainly observed. They are colorless, tasteless, odorless, inert; so far they have been found to be incapable of union with other elements; apart from some doubtful experiments of Berthelot, they form no chemical compounds. Under the periodic law they are difficult to classify; they seem to belong nowhere; they simply exist, unsocial, alone. Only by their density, their spectra, and some physical properties can these intractable new forms of matter be identified.

In a sketch like this a host of discoveries must remain unnoticed, and others can be barely mentioned. The isolation of fluorine and