Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/329

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
325
PHYSICS

Taking energy first: All the numberless changes we see taking place in the universe are, we think, manifestations of the interactions among matter, ether and electricity. With every changing aspect of nature, energy is passing from body to body and undergoing incessant transformations, but its amount is always measurable by the work it may accomplish when harnessed.

Our knowledge of the uncreatable and indestructible character of energy has given us a universal test which we may freely apply to all phenomena to prove our knowledge of them. For when the required energy relations are not satisfied by our explanations, it means we have not got to the bottom of the case, but must strike deeper in to realize the whole of the concealed mechanism.

Charmed by the simplicity and sweep of the law of the conservation of energy, a small school of physicists, who have mostly entered in by the door of physical chemistry, have frankly set energy before inertia and have endeavored to deduce matter and all else from it. This can of course be done, for physics has become a body of thought so closely knit together that all things in it are somehow related. Seen broadly, however, the new method has few obvious advantages over the historic procedure and not a few evident defects.

Matter has two indisputable hallmarks, two properties in the possession of which all the infinitely varied forms of matter unite, inertia and weight. By inertia we mean that active resistance shown by every piece of matter to any effort to change its motion; while the mutual attraction between all material bodies, according to which all matter strives to collect itself into one huge compact lump, we call gravitation. The gravitational pull of the earth upon a portion of matter is its weight. If we find anything in the world, however strange, which possesses both inertia and weight, we may call it matter without further examination.

The ether which surrounds and encloses all our universe we came first to know as the bearer of waves of light and heat. Ever since that time we have known it to possess inertia; for no medium devoid of inertia can carry forward a wave motion.

Thus the ether has one of the hallmarks of matter. Has it also weight? This we can not hope to know until we find some way as yet undiscovered to alter the natural distribution of ether between two portions of space. Here it should be remembered that the weight of gases was first proved after the invention of the air pump and barometer. But, alas! how shall we go about building an ether pump when all material walls seem more porous to the ether than the coarsest sieve is to air? And worse, the ether appears to be incompressible. The question of weight is thus at present in abeyance and we leave it.

Of the properties of electricity alone, it is still difficult to speak. The subject is easiest approached from the relations of electricity to