Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 69.djvu/55

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51
ARE THE ELEMENTS TRANSMUTABLE?

takes the stand that this unknown residuum is what he calls matter, although any other name would be equally appropriate, it must be acknowledged that his position is at present impregnable, and that sort of matter exists. But it is nothing with which experimental science can deal. A fair statement would appear to be: The electron theory accounts for, or may be made to account for, all known facts. Besides these there is a vast unknown within whose precincts matter may or may not exist.

Michael Faraday is acknowledged to have been one of the ablest of experimenters and clearest of thinkers. His predominant characteristic may be said to be the caution which he used in expressing views reaching beyond the domain of experimental facts. His authority rightly carries great weight, and it is therefore of particular significance that he expressed himself more definitely upon these questions than appears to be generally known. In an article published in 1814[1] he says:

If we must assume at all, as indeed in a branch of knowledge like the present we can hardly help it, then the safest course appears to be to assume as little as possible, and in that respect the atoms of Boscovich appear to me to have a great advantage over the more usual notion. His atoms, if I understand aright, are mere centers of forces or powers, not particles of matter, in which the powers themselves reside. If, in the ordinary view of atoms, we call the particle of matter away from the powers a, and the system of powers or forces in and around it m, then in Boscovich's theory a disappears, or is a mere mathematical point, whilst in the usual notion it is a little unchangeable, impenetrable piece of matter, and m is an atmosphere of force grouped around it. . . . To my mind, therefore, the a or nucleus vanishes, and the substance consists of the powers or m; and indeed what notion can we form of the nucleus independent of its powers? All our perception and knowledge of the atom, and even our fancy, is limited to ideas of its powers: what thought remains on which to hang the imagination of an a independent of the acknowledged forces? A mind just entering on the subject may consider it difficult to think of the powers of matter independent of a separate something to be called the matter, but it is certainly far more difficult, and indeed impossible, to think of or imagine that matter independent of the powers. Now the powers we know and recognize in every phenomenon of the creation, the abstract matter in none; why then assume the existence of that of which we are ignorant, which we can not conceive, and for which there is no philosophical necessity?

There is a striking analogy between the present condition of our science and our discussions, and those prevailing in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the phlogiston theory was almost universally accepted. We all now believe that heat is a mode of motion and smile at the thought that there were those who considered heat as a material. The materialistic theory is the phlogiston theory of our day, and perhaps the time is not far distant when the same indulgent smile will be provoked by the thought that there were those unwilling to believe that matter is a mode of motion.


  1. 'Experimental Researches in Electricity,' Michael Faraday, Vol. 2, pp. 289-91.