Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/339

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

α-, β- and γ-rays all have the power of wrenching electrons free from substances which absorb them. By this power to ionize gases a wholly new method of chemical analysis has sprung up—the method of analyzing by the electroscope. So marvelously delicate is this new radio-analysis that one part of radium in one hundred-million-million parts of uranium can not escape detection. The electrometer test for differentiating the various radio-active substances is the time required for the fresh product gained by chemical manipulation to lose half its ionizing power. This important characteristic of each substance is disparagingly called its rate of decay.

By the aid of the new analysis, Rutherford and others have found that radium is slowly disintegrating into radium emanation, which in turn changes into a distinct substance called radium A, and so on by successive steps down the alphabet to radium F, which is possibly a parent of lead. Helium appears also as a by-product of radium disintegration. From radium downward each of the seven substances has a characteristic rate of decay ranging from 1,300 years for radium, to three minutes for radium A. Radium emanation is a gas which liquefies at—150° C. Some of the later products seem to be solids.

Is it not amazing that any of the properties of these six derivative products should be known at all, when never yet has one of them been seen, nor weighed, nor caught for direct examination?

Not only has radium offspring down to the sixth and seventh generation, but it apparently has ancestors as well. It is only a link in a genealogical chain. The probable discovery of radium's immediate parent was published less than a month ago by Boltwood. Uranium is thought a remoter ancestor, possibly a great-grandparent.

Accompanying the atomic disintegration of radio-active substances, large quantities of heat are evolved showing vast stores of energy hitherto unknown inside the atom.

The most reasonable explanation yet offered of the observed radio-active phenomena indicates that the complex system of electrons revolving at enormous speeds within the atom gradually loses energy until the configuration becomes unstable. A sudden readjustment takes place—a kind of internal explosion by which electrons or a particles, or both, are hurled out. The atomic structure thus relieved starts life as a new substance with a lower atomic weight. Later the new substance for a like reason again becomes unstable, another explosion occurs, and an atom of yet another substance is born.

If this interpretation of the evidence be accepted a conclusion of vast importance may be drawn. We have, we can not say going on before our eyes, but we may say in a sense going on under our hands, a slow evolution or transmutation of matter. This conclusion is not accepted as yet without reserve, for it strikes too deep at one of the assumptions of our older knowledge. Material atoms have long been