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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/501

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497
THE NEW THEORY OF MATTER.

ment. I suppose that if at that period the average man of science had been asked to sketch his general conception of the physical universe, he would probably have said that it essentially consisted of various sorts of ponderable matter, scattered in different combinations through space, exhibiting most varied aspects under the influence of chemical affinity and temperature, but through every metamorphosis obedient to the laws of motion, always retaining its mass unchanged, and exercising at all distances a force of attraction on other material masses, according to a simple law. To this ponderable matter he would (in spite of Rumford) have probably added the so-called 'imponderable' heat, then often ranked among the elements; together with the two 'electrical fluids,' and the corpuscular emanations supposed to constitute light.

In the universe as thus conceived, the most important forms of action between its constituents was action at a distance; the principle of the conservation of energy was, in any general form, undreamed of; electricity and magnetism, though already the subjects of important investigation, played no great part in the whole of things; nor was a diffused ether required to complete the machinery of the universe.

Within a few months, however, of the date assigned for these deliverances of our hypothetical physicist, came an addition to this general conception of the world, destined profoundly to modify it. About a hundred years ago Young opened, or reopened, the great controversy which finally established the undulatory theory of light, and with it a belief in an interstellar medium by which undulations could be conveyed. But this discovery involved much more than the substitution of a theory of light which was consistent with the facts, for one which was not; since here was the first authentic introduction[1] into the scientific world picture of a new and prodigious constituent—a constituent which has altered, and is still altering, the whole balance (so to speak) of the composition. Unending space, thinly strewn with suns and satellites, made or in the making, supplied sufficient material for the mechanism of the heavens as conceived by Laplace. Unending space filled with a continuous medium was a very different affair, and gave promise of strange developments. It could not be supposed that the ether, if its reality were once admitted, existed only to convey through interstellar regions the vibrations which happen to stimulate the optic nerve of man. Invented originally to fulfil this function, to this it could never be confined. And accordingly, as every one now knows, things which, from the point of view of sense perception, are as distinct as light and radiant heat; and things to which sense per-


  1. ↑ The hypothesis of an ether was, of course, not new. But before Young and Fresnel it can not be said to have been established.