Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/33

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
29
WHAT IS MATTER?

ours are there with matter, but matter they simply are not, either singly or all together. Color is with its beauty, in the eye, or rather the mind, of the beholder, and there too is sound with its melody, and all other experiences. They are the effects wrought upon us, through the intermediation of our sense organs, by matter. Given an adequate outer cause, an eye in its organism to be affected, and a mind to perceive, and color is the result. Given cause, ear and mind, and we have sound; or cause, touch organ and mind, and we have the feeling of hardness. But matter, without sense organs or mind, can not have such experiences. And the substance of matter they are not. We know so much about the total situation when matter is present that we easily delude ourselves into thinking that we know the matter too. But, as Dr. Higgins once said, in dealing with experiences we are merely playing with the pebbles on the beach; the sea of reality, matter itself, is still beyond our ken. What matter is not, its effects on our senses, is plain. But what it is, all such talk leaves as dark as before it was uttered.

And, until recently, science has been as dumb and helpless when confronted by this question, as has common sense. Much is told about the behavior of matter; how fast and far, and when it moves, and what is the result of its impact, etc.; all very interesting and highly useful information. But how anything behaves, what it does, is one thing; what it is is something entirely different. One is reminded of Dr. Johnson's definition of oats, as a grain eaten by men in Scotland and horses in England, except that he does class it as a grain.

Another familiar device of science is to divide and conquer; though in fact dividing does not itself succeed, but merely leads indirectly towards success. "No wonder," says science, "we have not found out what matter is, for matter is very deceptive, and is not at all what it seems. In fact and in truth matter is made up, not of the large bulks we see, but of minute particles, called molecules, in the neighborhood, for the simplest element, hydrogen, of one fifty-millionth of an inch in diameter, and these minute molecules are in turn made up of very much smaller particles, atoms, two to a molecule in some elements, many more than two in others. And observe, we can point out how the atoms are placed in the different molecules, and see how beautifully they shift their places in mystic dance when a chemical reaction occurs. All that happens in the intercourse of matter is at bottom but the interplay of atoms and of molecules. How wonderful is nature, and how searching the discoveries of science!"

All of which is true, indeed profoundly useful truth. For has not science transformed the face of the earth in an incredibly short time, a little over fifty years. And yet how much nearer are we to knowing what matter is when we discover how it is put together? If we ask what wood is, and are told that it is made up of tiny pieces of wood