Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/February 1875/Celestial Chemistry



AMONG the most significant advances in chemical theory are those relating to the action of heat on bodies. If we define chemistry, as I have been tempted to do, as that science which treats of the relations to one another of the different forms of mineral (i. e., unorganized) matter, and their transformations under the physical agencies of heat, light, and electricity, we shall see how difficult it is, in a sketch like this, to draw the line between physics and chemistry. This becomes still more evident when we see in light the chemical constitution of matter, as it were, revealed and made visible to us by the spectroscope, or study the electric current parting in a mysterious manner the components of bodies. Time would fail us to follow the trains of thought thus opened, but I cannot forbear to say somewhat of the relations of temperature to chemical species, and of the power of heat to unloose the bonds of chemical combination. The admirable researches of Grove, followed by those of Henri St.-Claire Deville and his fellow-laborers, have shown us that, at an elevated temperature, such bodies as water, hydrate of potassium, and hydrochloric acid, are more or less completely resolved into their constituent elements, the affinities of which are suspended. In the principle of dissociation by heat we have an explanation of many chemical reactions hitherto enigmatical. The decomposition of bodies by heat is, moreover, assimilated to the phenomenon of volatilization: the rate of decomposition at a given temperature varying with the pressure, and with the nature of the atmosphere which surrounds the unstable body. The phenomena of dissociation are seen in a wonderful degree in the sun, the fixed stars, and the nebulæ. It is not necessary to recall to you the marvelous field of celestial chemistry which the spectroscope, in the hands of Kirchhoff and his followers, has made known to us, nor the proofs that the solar atmosphere contains in a dissociated state very many of the elements which in our own planet are met with in a free state only in the laboratory of the chemist. It is instructive to compare the spectra of the various fixed stars with each other, from white stars like Sirius, to yellow stars like Aldebaran and our own sun, and red stars like Alpha Orionis and Antares, and to note in these three classes an increasing complexity of chemical composition. In the first, with a predominance of hydrogen, we see only faint lines of magnesium, sodium, calcium, iron, and a few other metals, while in the second, though free hydrogen still abounds, the number of metallic elements is greatly augmented, and finally in the red stars hydrogen is seen only in combination, as aqueous vapor, the metals are wanting, and the metalloids and their compounds appear. If, in accordance with the nebular hypothesis, we look upon these different types of stars as representing successive stages in the process of condensation from nebula to planet, we may also see in them a gradual evolution of the more complex from the simple forms of matter by a process of celestial chemistry. Such was the view put forward by F. W. Clarke in January, 1873, and some months later by Lockyer, who has reiterated and enforced these suggestions, and, moreover, connected them with the speculations of Dumas on the composite nature of the elements. The white stars are the hottest, and in the atmosphere of these bodies the various metals, according to Lockyer, make their appearance in the order of their vapor-densities.

I ventured, in 1867, while speculating on the phenomena of dissociation, to remark that, although from the experiments of the laboratory we can only conjecture the complex nature of the so-called elementary substances, we may expect that their "further dissociation in stellar or nebulous masses may give us evidence of matter still more elemental." Now, while the nebulæ, when scanned by the spectroscope, show us only the lines of hydrogen and nitrogen, the two lightest forms of gaseous matter known to chemistry, it is remarkable that the recent studies of the solar chromosphere reveal to us the existence of an unknown gaseous element which, from its extension beyond even the layer of partially cooled hydrogen, must, according to the deductions of Mr. Johnson Stoney, be still lighter than this gas. The green line by which this substance is distinguished is not as yet identified with that of any terrestrial element. Is it not possible that we have here that more elemental form of matter which, though not seen in the nebulæ, is liberated by the intense heat of the solar sphere, and may possibly correspond to the primary matter conjectured by Dumas, having an equivalent weight one-fourth that of hydrogen? Mention should also be made of the unknown element conjectured by Huggins to exist in some nebulae. This conception of a first matter or Urstoff has also been maintained by Hinrichs, who has put forward an argument in its favor from a consideration of the wave-lengths in the lines of the spectra of various elements.

It is curious in this connection to note that Lavoisier suggested that hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, with heat and light, might be regarded as simpler forms of matter from which all others were derived. The nebulæ, which we conceive as condensing into suns and planets, show us only two of the three elements of our terrestrial envelope, which is made up of air and aqueous vapor. If now we admit, as I am disposed to do with Mattieu Williams, that our atmosphere and ocean are not simply terrestrial, but cosmical, and are a portion of the medium which, in an attenuated form, fills the interstellary spaces, these same nebulae and their resulting worlds may be evolved by a process of chemical condensation from this universal atmosphere, to which they would sustain a relation somewhat analogous to that of clouds and rain to the aqueous vapor around us. This, though it may be regarded as a legitimate and plausible speculation, is at present nothing more, and we may never advance beyond conjecture as to the relation of the various forms of so-called elemental matter, and to the processes which govern the evolution of the celestial spheres. You will, I trust, pardon this excursion to the regions of space and the realm of imagination into which I have led you, and return with me to the consideration of a new chapter in chemical theory.

  1. Extract from Dr. Hunt's Address at the Northumberland Centennial, on "A Century's Progress in Theoretical Chemistry."