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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/337

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333
PHYSICS

of matter out of which they come. Whatever their source, they are always the same.

So far as we now know, the cathode particle or negative electron is a minute portion of pure negative electricity, wholly free from matter. An atom of electricity, and nothing more. Its small inertia can be wholly explained to be of the kind electric charges borrow from the ether which surrounds them.

When electrons driven at high speeds down the cathode stream are suddenly stopped by striking a target of dense matter like platinum, the point where the target is struck becomes a source of X-rays. We have already seen that a moving electric charge when brought to rest sends out a pulse of electro-magnetic disturbance in the surrounding ether, and the greater the suddenness with which the motion is arrested, the sharper and more abrupt is the shock to the ether.

In one sense the principal difference between X-rays and the yellow light from a sodium flame is analogous to the difference between the air disturbances caused by an irregular jumble of sharp thin reports of small percussion caps, and the droning of a heavy organ pipe. One is a tangle of single shocks, the other a steady wave motion. Thus regarded, nearly all the remarkable properties of X-rays find a reasonable and easy explanation.

Turning now to the positive terminal of the tube: Under suitable conditions of experiment it is possible to get a stream of particles from it. Named as children are before their natures are in the least understood, these rays were called canal rays. Like cathode rays, they consist of flying missiles, but carry positive instead of negative charges. Compared with cathode rays, their speed is very moderate and the ratio of charge to mass is of the same order as that for the lighter atoms in conduction through solutions. This ratio varies somewhat with the kind of gas in the tube. Thus canal rays are probably a stream of material atoms which have lost one or more negative electrons.

All efforts to obtain a charge of positive electricity free from matter—a veritable positive electron—have thus far failed.

The extreme complexity of the material atom is strikingly shown by the light from incandescent gases and vapors. When examined by the spectroscope the single element iron exhibits hundreds of definitely placed bright lines in the visible spectrum alone, which means the iron atom must be capable of vibrating in hundreds of different periods. No single atom need be vibrating in all these ways at the same instant, but if all iron atoms are alike, and we have every reason to believe they are, whether shining on earth or in the stars, then every atom of iron must be capable of swinging or bounding, revolving or shuddering, or doing something in all these ways.

Before the evidence of the spectroscope the older idea of the atom as a simple structureless body falls to the ground. The complexity of