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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/15

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direction. We are not simply wandering round and round, chasing some elusive Will-o'-the-wisp, in our pursuit after a comprehension of the structure of the universe. Each physical hypothesis serves, however, as a lamp to conduct us a certain stage on the journey. It illuminates a limited portion of the path, throwing a light before and behind for some distance, but it has to be discarded and exchanged at intervals because it has become exhausted and its work is done.

The construction and testing of scientific theories is therefore an important part of scientific work. The mere collection of facts or even their utilization is not the ultimate and highest goal of scientific investigation. The aim of the most philosophic workers has always been to penetrate beneath the surface of phenomena and discover those great underlying fundamental principles on which the fabric of nature rests. From time to time a fresh endeavor has to be made to reconstruct, in the light of newly acquired knowledge, our scientific theory of any group of effects. Thus, the whole of electrical phenomena have become illuminated of late years by a theory which has been developed concerning the atomic structure of electricity and this hypothesis is called the Electronic Theory of Electricity.


The Atomic Theory.

The opinion that matter is atomic in structure is one which has grown in strength as chemical and physical knowledge has progressed. From Democritus, who is said to have taught it in Greece, to John Dalton who gave it definiteness, and to Lord Kelvin who furnished the earliest numerical estimate of the size of atoms, it has been found to be the best reconciler of very diverse and numerous facts. Let us consider what it really means. Suppose we take some familiar substance, such as common table salt, and divide a mass of it into the smallest grains visible to the eye. Each tiny fragment is as much entitled by all tests to be called table salt, or to give it the chemical name, sodic chloride, as a mountain of the material. Imagine that we continue the subdivision under a good microscope; we might finally obtain a little mass of about one hundred-thousandth of an inch in diameter, but beyond this point it would hardly be visible even under a powerful lens. We may, however, suppose the subdivision continued a hundred fold by some more delicate means until we finally arrive at a small mass of about one ten-millionth of an inch in diameter. A variety of arguments furnished by Maxwell, Boltzmann, Loschmidt, Lord Kelvin and others show that there is a high degree of probability that any further subdivision would cause the portions into which the salt is divided to be no longer identical in properties, but there would be two kinds of parts' or particles, such that if all of one kind were collected together they would form a metal called sodium, and if all