Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/336

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To bring the essential features of this remarkable experiment before you, I must begin some way off by reminding you of several things you already know. For instance, the quantity of water vapor which a given volume of air at ordinary pressures can hold without depositing it as a mist or rain increases with the temperature. If air enclosed in a vessel is allowed to expand suddenly its temperature falls. If the air were initially saturated with water vapor, after the expansion some of the vapor will go into mist or rain, provided any nuclei are present upon which the excess vapor can condense. In the ordinary fog or shower the dust particles always present in the open air act as nuclei for the formation of drops. Small free charges of electricity or ions serve the same purpose and the negative ions are more effective condensers than the positive, hence they come down first.

In a complicated vessel, which need not be described, Professor Thomson admitted dust-free air saturated with water vapor. This mixture was allowed to expand several times to make sure of freeing it from accidental dust or ions which might be present. The former pressure was then restored and the gas ionized by admitting X-rays through the thin aluminum lid of the gas chamber. The next expansion, chosen sufficient in amount to cause condensation on the negative but not on the positive ions, caused a copious cloud of mist which gradually settled by its own weight to the bottom of the vessel. The top of the cloud as it fell was sharply defined, and its rate of descent could be measured.

Sir George Stokes many years before had calculated the rate of fall of small spherical bodies through air, and one needed to know only the density of a small sphere and its rate of fall to compute its size. The approximate volume of the individual drops could thus be found. The quantity of water in the whole shower could also be easily determined, hence the number of drops, equal to the number of negative ions upon which they might form, could be calculated.

In another way Professor Thomson could measure the total quantity of free negative electricity present in the chamber when the fog was precipitated. He had thus the number of negative ions and the sum of their charges, and therefore the charge each carried.

The charge Professor Thomson found as the result of his brilliant experiment was the atom of electricity over again. After this it was impossible to escape the conclusion that the bodies flying in the cathode stream were masses no greater than the one one-thousandth part of the hydrogen atom. Thus matter, or electricity, or something exists, which measured by inertia is a thousand times smaller than the lightest known atom of matter. Furthermore, the kind of gas in which the cathode discharge took place had no effect upon either the charge or the mass of the particles, which bear no observable earmarks to reveal the kind