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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/37

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WHAT IS MATTER?

must be such as to allow of the development and interchange discovered. Matter can not be very dead, it can not be blankly non-conscious, it would seem, if everywhere and at all times it is, in the ordinary routine of the world, nourishing and stimulating life and consciousness, which in their turn dissolve into mere matter in the same normal way.

Such, too briefly and imperfectly stated, are the contributions of philosophy, and its component and ancillary sciences, to our knowledge of matter. Next we turn to the physical sciences themselves, physics, chemistry and new-born chemico-physics, and find, as will presently appear, a singularly impressive confirmation of the results set forth. This should not surprise us. It merely adds one more to the many instances where philosophy's reasoned conclusions have proved prophetic of the more concretely reached results of experimental science. The former, glancing over the promised land throughout its broad extent, spies out its prominent landmarks, and sets them up as goals to guide the slow and laborious but sure occupation which it falls to the lot of the latter to undertake. Each task yields its own delights, and each performs its peculiar service. Where both are indispensable, only the cramped mind will seek to belittle either.

Nearly two and a half centuries ago, in 1658, to be accurate, Boscovich, the great Italian administrator, diplomat and physicist, set forth and ably defended the view that atoms are but forces, each concentrated in a mathematical point, and held apart by their mutual repulsions. The view did not fail of its adherents, numbering among them names as great as that of Faraday. But even if the prejudices of an imaginative race had allowed it a fair hearing, which they did not, the state of science was not ripe for the general acceptance of the theory. Electricity did not exist for science, and countless hours of research had still to be labored through before a sufficient weight of experimental facts could be accumulated to outbalance our tribal idol. So stiff-necked is an inborn bent of human nature. Besides, Boscovich delayed the triumph of his theory, in its essential principle, in my judgment, by confining his force atoms to mathematical points, and denying them spatial occupancy, the fundamental attribute of matter: a course the more to be regretted, as the denial is unnecessary, indeed contrary to plain experience.

The status of Boscovich's theory, and its more or less modified successors, remained practically unchanged till the end of the nineteenth and the marvelous beginning years of the present century, a few of the best minds of each generation upholding it, but the large majority of physical scientists, including men of unsurpassed eminence, according it a neglect more or less contemptuous. But these recent years have been bringing about a change. A number of physicists of the first