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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/338

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334
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

a grand piano seems simple in comparison with the iron atom. But spectroscopic evidence does not end here, but indicates what it is in the atom which does something and how it does it.

Ten years ago Professor Zeeman placed a sodium flame between the poles of a powerful electro-magnet and examined its light by the spectroscope. He observed the most striking and peculiar effects of the magnetic force on the character of the light. The time is too far gone to permit a description of what the effects were, but the light sent out by the flame showed exactly the characteristics which magnetic force would produce, provided the light came from atoms inside which minute electric charges were rapidly revolving. It was even possible to compute the ratio of charge to mass for these revolving mites. The ratio revealed was that previously obtained for the cathode particle.

Hence the mechanism which enables the material atom to emit light may be the same electron we met flying through the vacuum tube, now revolving in an orbit about the atom center as a planet revolves about the sun. Thus the chief difference between the atoms of one chemical element and those of another, may lie in the number and arrangement of electrons in a revolving system.

It had long been known that hints about the internal fabric of the atom would be most effectively sought with the spectroscope, but we have here gained at a single bound the most amazing insight into a most complex system. Here also we meet another of those astonishing previsions of Faraday. He tried Zeeman's experiment over fifty years ago, but was balked in his quest by the inadequacy of the instrumental equipment of his day.

The quite recent discovery of the wholly new and unsuspected property of radio-activity in a group of heavy elements has done much to confirm the views already expressed of the connection between electricity and matter, and much more, for radio-active phenomena suggest for the first time that some kinds of matter are not only unstable, but mutable.

Taking radium as the most highly developed example of its class, we find it, with the help of its numerous progeny, sending out three distinct types of rays, which for convenience of classification have been called α-, β- and γ-rays.

α-rays closely resemble canal rays. They carry positive electric charges and possess a mass or inertia comparable with that of the helium or hydrogen atom.

β-rays appear identical with cathode rays. They consist of negative electrons hurled out at speeds as great as nine tenths the velocity of light.

γ-rays are of the nature of X-rays—a purely ethereal phenomenon. All these rays penetrate matter to varying depths, and absorption varies with density as in cathode rays.