Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 78.djvu/580

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The Disintegration of Matter

One of the latest developments of the theory of the disintegration of matter is a suspicion, which scientists hardly dare to voice, that there is a continual disintegration of all matter, stability being only relative and the new and perfectly inactive gases discovered in the atmosphere being among the most stable elements. It is just as natural for the atom to die as for it to be born; if we accept the latter, we can not deny the former. The atom of matter slowly expends its energy as does a watch-spring in doing the work of keeping time. Matter, according to this theory, is concentrated energy, the dissipation of which is almost too slow for us to detect. This theory has been taken advantage of to try to explain the sun's effulgent shell, and the question arises: when the unstable matter of the sun has completely disintegrated, will it become a globe like ours, dark and relatively cold, a mass of molten iron in the complex slag of which creatures not unlike ourselves shall dwell and dig for mineral treasures, subject to the changed conditions? Has our planet itself been through that state? Such a supposition is certainly no more extravagant than many we have heard, and the scarcity on the earth of radio-active substances and of the rare-earth elements which are such powerful emitters of the more useful light waves, does, in some measure, support such a theory.

However, in order to show the immense periods of time which are brought into question, we might borrow the following impressive example: one cubic centimeter of hydrogen contains approximately 525 octillions of atoms; if 10,000 of these were allowed to escape every second it would take about 17 quintillion (17,000,000,000,000,000,000) years to empty it. Upon a similar basis of expenditure of their contained energy by atoms of matter, it is evident that the detection of this expenditure would be very difficult. Before returning to the ether the electric atom or electron must be studied.

Corpuscles and Electrons

To understand what an electron is, we must imagine an ultimate particle—not a particle of matter, nor a particle of force, but just simply "a particle"—and let us give to this particle the old-time attribute of the atom; let us assume it to be indivisible. This, of course, is only a working hypothesis. This particle considered in the abstract we shall call a corpuscle. If we endow it with energy we shall call it an electron. Quite possibly the corpuscle can not exist except as an electron, or atom of negative electricity. However this may be, we must assume, in order to facilitate the discussion, that a corpuscle is only an electron when it is endowed with sufficient motion, which may be either vibrational or translatory, to manifest itself to us electrically. We shall assume that the abstract corpuscle exists, and that it only becomes