Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/June 1872/Action of Dark Radiations

577214Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 June 1872 — Action of Dark Radiations1872John Tyndall



WE now enter upon another inquiry. We have to learn definitely what is the meaning of solar light and solar heat; in what way they make themselves known to our senses; by what means they get from the sun to the earth, and how, when there, they produce the clouds of our atmosphere, and thus originate our rivers and our glaciers.

If in a dark room you close your eyes and press the eyelid with your finger-nail, a circle of light will be seen opposite to the point pressed, while a sharp blow upon, the eye produces the impression of a flash of light. There is a nerve specially devoted to the purposes of vision which comes from the brain to the back of the eye, and there divides into fine filaments, which are woven together to a kind of screen called the retina. The retina can be excited in various ways so as to produce the consciousness of light: it may, as we have seen, be excited by the rude mechanical action of a blow imparted to the eye.

There is no spontaneous creation of light by the healthy eye. To excite vision the retina must be affected by something coming from without. What is that something? In some way or other luminous bodies have the power of affecting the retina but—how?

It was long supposed that from such bodies issued, with inconceivable rapidity, an inconceivably fine matter, which flew through space, passed through the pores supposed to exist in the humors of the eye, reached the retina behind, and, by their shock against the retina, aroused the sensation of light. This theory, which was supported by the greatest men, among others by Sir Isaac Newton, was found competent to explain a great number of the phenomena of light, but it was not found competent to explain all the phenomena. As the skill and knowledge of experimenters increased, large classes of facts were revealed which could only be explained by assuming that light was produced, not by a fine matter flying through space and hitting the retina, but by the shock of minute waves against the retina.

Dip your finger into a basin of water, and cause it to quiver rapidly to and fro. From the point of disturbance issue small ripples which are carried forward by the water, and which finally strike the basin. Here, in the vibrating finger, you have a source of agitation; in the water you have a vehicle through which the finger's motion is transmitted, and you have finally the side of the basin which receives the shock of the little waves.

In like manner, according to the wave-theory of light, you have a source of agitation in the vibrating atoms, or smallest particles, of the luminous body; you have a vehicle of transmission in a substance which is supposed to fill all space, and to be diffused through the humors of the eye; and, finally, you have the retina, which receives the successive shocks of the waves. These shocks are supposed to produce the sensation of light. We are here dealing, for the most part, with suppositions and assumptions merely. We have never seen the atoms of a luminous body, nor their motions. We have never seen the medium which transmits their motions, nor the waves of that medium. How, then, do we come to assume their existence?

Before such an idea could have taken any real root in the human mind, it must have been well disciplined and prepared by observations and calculations of ordinary wave-motion. It was necessary to know how both water-waves and sound-waves are formed and propagated. It was, above all things, necessary to know how waves, passing through the same medium, act upon each other. Thus disciplined, the mind was prepared to detect any resemblance presenting itself between the action of light and that of waves. Great classes of optical phenomena accordingly appeared which could be accounted for in the most complete and satisfactory manner by assuming them to be produced by waves, and which could not be otherwise accounted for. It is because of its competence to explain all the phenomena of light that the wave-theory now receives universal acceptance on the part of scientific men.

Let me use an illustration. We infer from the flint implements recently found in such profusion all over England and in other countries, that they were produced by men, and also that the pyramids of Egypt were built by men, because, as far as our experience goes, nothing but men could form such implements or build such pyramids. In like manner, we infer from the phenomena of light the agency of waves, because, as far as our experience goes, no other agency could produce the phenomena.

Thus, in a general way, I have given you the conception and the grounds of the conception, which regards light as the product of wave-motion; but we must go further than this, and follow the conception into some of its details. We have all seen the waves of water, and we know they are of different sizes—different in length and different in height. When, therefore, you are told that the atoms of the sun, and of almost all other luminous bodies, vibrate at different rates, and produce waves of different sizes, your experience of water-waves will enable you to form a tolerably clear notion of what is meant.

As observed above, we have never seen the light-waves, but we judge of their presence, their position, and their magnitude, by their effects. Their lengths have been thus determined, and found to vary from about 1/30000th to 1/60000th of an inch.

But, besides those which produce light, the sun sends forth incessantly a multitude of waves which produce no light. The largest waves which the sun sends forth are of this non-luminous character, though they possess the highest heating power. A common sunbeam contains waves of all kinds, but it is possible to sift or filter the beam so as to intercept all its light, and to allow its obscure heat to pass unimpeded. For substances have been discovered which, while intensely opaque to the light-waves, are almost perfectly transparent to the others. On the other hand, it is possible, by the choice of proper substances, to intercept, in a great degree, the pure heat-waves, and to allow the pure light-waves free transmission. This last separation is, however, not so perfect as the first.

We shall learn presently how to detach the one class of waves from the other class, and to prove that waves competent to light a fire, fuse metal, or burn the hand like a hot solid, may exist in a perfectly dark place.

Supposing, then, that we withdraw, in the first instance, the large heat-waves, and allow the light-waves alone to pass. These may be concentrated by suitable lenses and sent into water without sensibly warming it. Let the light-waves now be withdrawn, and the larger heat-waves concentrated in the same manner; they may be caused to boil the water almost instantaneously.

This is the point to which I wished to lead you, and which without due preparation could not be understood. You now perceive the important part played by these large darkness-waves, if I may use the term, in the work of evaporation. When they plunge into seas, lakes, and rivers, they are intercepted close to the surface, and they heat the water at the surface, thus causing it to evaporate; the light-waves at the same time entering to great depths without sensibly heating the water through which they pass. Not only, therefore, is it the sun's fire which produces evaporation, but a particular constituent of that fire, the existence of which you probably were not aware of.

Further, it is these self-same lightless waves which, falling upon the glaciers of the Alps, melt the ice and produce all the rivers flowing from the glaciers; for I shall prove to you presently that the light-waves, even when concentrated to the uttermost, are unable to melt the most delicate hoar-frost; much less would they be able to produce the copious liquefaction observed upon the glaciers.

These large lightless waves of the sun, as well as the heat-waves issuing from non-luminous hot bodies, are frequently called obscure or invisible heat.

We have here an example of the manner in which phenomena, apparently remote, are connected together in this wonderful system of things that we call Nature. You cannot study a snow-flake profoundly without being led back by it step by step to the constitution of the sun. It is thus throughout Nature. All its parts are interdependent, and the study of any one part completely would really involve the study of all.

Heat issuing from any source not visibly red cannot be concentrated so as to produce the intense effects just referred to. To produce these it is necessary to employ the obscure heat of a body raised to the high est possible state of incandescence. The sun is such a body, and its dark heat is therefore suitable for experiments of this nature. But in the atmosphere of London, and for experiments such as ours, the heat-waves emitted by coke, raised to intense whiteness by a current of electricity, are much more manageable than the sun's waves. The electric light has also the advantage that its dark radiation embraces a larger proportion of the total radiation than the dark heat of the sun. In fact, the force or energy, if I may use the term, of the dark waves of the electric light is fully seven times that of its light-waves. The electric light, therefore, shall be employed in our experimental demonstrations.

From this source a powerful beam is sent through the room, revealing its track by the motes floating in the air of the room; for, were the motes entirely absent, the beam would be unseen. It falls upon a concave mirror (a glass one silvered behind will answer), and is gathered up by the mirror into a cone of reflected rays; the luminous apex of the cone, which is the focus of the mirror, being about fifteen inches distant from its reflecting surface. Let us mark the focus accurately by a pointer.

And now let us place in the path of the beam a substance perfectly opaque to light. This substance is iodine dissolved in a liquid called bisulphide of carbon. The light at the focus instantly vanishes when the dark solution is introduced. But the solution is intensely transparent to the dark waves, and a focus of such waves remains in the air of the room after the light has been abolished. You may feel the heat of these waves with your hand; you may let them fall upon a thermometer, and thus prove their presence; or, best of all, you may cause them to produce a current of electricity, which deflects a large magnetic needle. The magnitude of the deflection is a measure of the heat.

Our object now is, by the use of a more powerful lamp, and a better mirror (one silvered in front and with a shorter focal distance), to intensify the action here rendered so sensible. As before, the focus is rendered strikingly visible by the intense illumination of the dust-particles. We will first filter the beam so as to intercept its dark waves, and then permit the purely luminous waves to exert their utmost power on a small bundle of gun-cotton placed at the focus.

No effect whatever is produced. The gun-cotton might remain there for a week without ignition. Let us now permit the unfiltered beam to act upon the cotton. It is instantly dissipated in an explosive flash. This experiment proves that the light-waves are incompetent to explode the cotton, while the waves of the full beam are competent to do so; hence we may conclude that the dark waves are the real agents in the explosion. But this conclusion would be only probable; for it might be urged that the mixture of the dark waves and the light-waves is necessary to produce the result. Let us, then, by means of our opaque solution, isolate our dark waves and converge them on the cotton. It explodes as before. Hence it is the dark waves, and they only, that are concerned in the ignition of the cotton.

At the same dark focus sheets of platinum are raised to vivid redness; zinc is burnt up; paper instantly blazes; magnesium wire is ignited; charcoal within a receiver containing oxygen is set burning; a diamond similarly placed is caused to glow like a star, being afterward gradually dissipated. And all this while the air at the focus remains as cool as in any other part of the room.

To obtain the light-waves we employ a clear solution of alum in water; to obtain the dark-waves we employ the solution of iodine above referred to. But, as before stated, the alum is not so perfect a filter as the iodine; for it transmits a portion of the obscure heat. Though the light-waves here prove their incompetence to ignite gun-cotton, they are able to burn up black paper; or, indeed, to explode the cotton when it is blackened. The white cotton does not absorb the light, and without absorption we have no heating. The blackened cotton absorbs, is heated, and explodes.

Instead of a solution of alum, we will employ for our next experiment a cell of pure water, through which the light passes without sensible absorption. At the focus is placed a test-tube also containing water, the full force of the light being concentrated upon it. The water is not sensibly warmed by the concentrated waves. We now remove the cell of water; no change is visible in the beam, but the water contained in the test-tube now boils.

The light-waves being thus proved ineffectual, and the full beam effectual, we may infer that it is the dark waves that do the work of heating. But we clinch our inference by employing our opaque iodine filter. Placing it on the path of the beam, the light is entirely stopped, but the water boils exactly as it did when the full beam fell upon it.

And now with regard to the melting of ice. On the surface of a flask containing a freezing; mixture we obtain a thick fur of hoar-frost. Sending the beam through a water-cell its luminous waves are concentrated upon the surface of the flask. Not a spicula of the frost is dissolved. We now remove the water-cell, and in a moment a patch of the frozen fur as large as half a crown is melted. Hence, inasmuch as the full beam produces this effect, and the luminous part of the beam does not produce it, we fix upon the dark portion the melting of the frost. As before, we clinch this inference by concentrating the dark waves alone upon the flask. The frost is dissipated exactly as it was by the full beam.

These effects are rendered strikingly visible by darkening with ink the freezing mixture within the flask. When the hoar-frost is removed, the blackness of the surface from which it had been melted comes out in strong contrast with the adjacent snowy whiteness. When the flask itself, instead of the freezing mixture, is blackened, the purely luminous waves, being absorbed by the glass, warm it; the glass reacts upon the frost, and melts it. Hence the wisdom of darkening, instead of the flask itself, the mixture within the flask.

This experiment proves to demonstration that it is the dark waves of the sun that melt the mountain snow and ice, and originate all the rivers derived from glaciers.

There are writers who seem to regard science as an aggregate of facts, and hence doubt its efficacy as an exercise of the reasoning powers. But all that I have here taught you is the result of reason, taking its stand, however, upon the sure basis of observation and experiment. And this is the spirit in which our further studies are to be pursued.