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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/334

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

recent origin, but the knowledge gained from it not only confirms the ideas formed to explain conduction in solutions, but has very widely extended and simplified them. The chief difference between electric conduction in solutions and conduction in gases arises from the large number of broken molecules or ions always present in solutions. These require only the presence of an electromotive force to start them marching, but a gas, in its natural or non-conducting state, contains very few ions, not enough to support even a very small current, and for this reason gases are insulators.

In gases, however, there are many ways of making ions, X-rays, radium rays, rays of ultra-violet light on metals, combustion in flames, white-hot bodies of every sort will do it. But there is one method which depends on the violent collisions of ions with molecules which is so objective in its form I can not forbear attempting to describe it. It is also the method which leads us to cathode rays and much more.

Imagine, then, a glass tube into each end of which a conducting rod carrying a small metal disc is sealed. These rods may at will be connected to the terminals of a battery. If while the tube is filled with a gas, in its non-conducting state, the battery be applied, the very few ions always present are set in motion, but the too frequent collisions in the swarm of neutral molecules which obstruct the way prevent the moving ions from attaining more than moderate speeds.

By connecting the tube to an air pump as many as we like of the interfering molecules may be removed. As more and more gas is drawn out of the tube, the moving ions encounter fewer and fewer collisions and in consequence attain higher and higher speeds, as small shot might fall through a gradually dispersing swarm of bees poised in midair. The longer the pumping is kept up the greater the maximum speed of the ions becomes and the more violent are the collisions which do occur. When nearly all of the gas has been drawn out of the tube, a stage is reached where the encounters between flying ion and indifferent molecule become so violent that molecules are shattered and new ions produced, which in their turn work more destruction.

When this stage is reached, the gas is a good conductor, but if the pumping be carried too far, a second stage appears in which the encounters are too few to make enough new ions to support the current, and the gas finally ceases to conduct systematically. It is near the end of the conducting stage that the much-discussed cathode rays appear. They depart from the cathode or metal disc in the end of the tube connected to the negative side of the battery.

The extraordinary resourcefulness, shown by the leading workers in this field of recent enquiry, in untangling the complex snarl of phenomena presented, marks a very great achievement. So inspiring from the human side as well as the physical has been this unequal contest of man with nature, of mind struggling against disorder, and so bravely