Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/July 1908/Hypothesis of Radiant Matter



THE enormous literature which has developed from the discovery of radium and from the study of cognate phenomena has made it increasingly difficult to form a calm opinion upon the merits of all the claims which have been advanced, and upon the validity of the theories which have been based upon them. Undoubtedly, the great bulk of the experimental data is exact, although time may show that some of the experiments which were recorded before the technique was fully developed may require correction. Without questioning in the slightest degree the experiments reported by some of the skillful observers of modern times, one is, nevertheless, permitted to hesitate in adopting hypotheses that not only subvert formerly accepted ideas, but also seem, in many cases, inconsistent with one another.

The chemical world has been accused of accepting too dogmatically the theory of the conservation of matter, the indivisibility of the atom, etc. Ought we not, then, to guard ourselves against a similar fault in adopting newer views?

I propose to take up seriatim the methods of reasoning which have led to the present hypothesis of radiant matter as expressed by its chief exponents, and to indicate some points which seem to me to be inconsistent with older views, or in conflict with one another; and I shall begin with what may, from the present point of view, be called a static phenomenon, the behavior of the atom toward light. It is known that Lorentz modified Maxwell's electro-magnetic theory of light, by assuming that the vibrations from which light-waves originate are not produced by the atom as a whole, but rather by the vibration of its positive or negative electric charge, conceived as a special entity, which we may now personify, as it were, by the more recently coined name electron. The electron vibrates in an elliptical path which is really the result of two circular oscillations in opposite directions, and of differing amplitudes, but of identical period. An alteration of the radii of these circles would merely alter the shape of the ellipse; but if the periods of the two circular motions were made to differ, no single resultant could appear, for the two vibrations would produce waves of different length, i. e., light rays of different refrangibility. Now, a magnetic strain ought to exert some influence on an electron; if it accelerated its dextro-gyratory motion, it would retard its lævo-gyration, or vice versa. This is precisely what Zeeman found when he examined the emission-spectra of vapors that were placed in an electro-magnetic field; single lines are broken up into two or more finer lines, placed symmetrically with regard to the position of the original one. Righi has generalized the reasoning so that it covers practically every relation between the vibrating electron and the external magnetic strain to which it is subjected, and reaches two conclusions: First, the vibrating electron is electro-negative; second, the ratio e/m, i. e., electric charge over mass, is about 1,000 times as great as the ratio between the electric charge and mass of the hydrogen ion. Assuming, perhaps arbitrarily, that the electric charge is the same, the mass of the electron is about 1/1,000 that of the hydrogen ion; it can be no mere coincidence that Thomson, Kaufmann and others arrive at virtually the same figure for the mass of the corpuscles which carry the negative charges in ionized gases of whatever chemical constitution; in fact, everybody recognizes their identity.

To quote Righi, the neutral chemical atom (as distinguished from the ion) consists of a central mass of positive charge, around which revolve as satellites one or more electro-negative corpuscles, retained in their orbits by some centripetal force.

In connection with this definition, the following points seem to require emphasis: the number of electrons per atom are few, practically corresponding to the valency; this seems to be corroborated by recent experiments of Becquerel on the phosphorescence of uranium minerals at low temperatures, which likewise point out that light-emission is not always confined to the negative corpuscle, as Righi would have it. The total mass of the free electrons in an atom is not sufficient to affect the ratio between specific heats for constant pressure and constant volume of monatomic vapors, like mercury and cadmium; their velocity in their orbits does not approach that of light, and they have no high momentum retained by comparatively powerful internal attractions. These electrons can not be identical with the X-particles which are projected with terrific force from the uranium, radium and other atoms, according to Rutherford and his followers.

I need only touch briefly on the electric discharges in vacuum tubes: it is generally accepted that we distinguish Lenard or cathode rays, which are negative, and positive Goldstein or canal rays within the tube. They can be deflected by electric or magnetic fields, they produce mechanical and heating effects, cast visible shadows, etc., and they behave in general like streams of actual particles charged with electricity. When the cathode ray strikes an impenetrable obstacle, like glass, the X-rays are produced as a secondary effect: these do not behave as if conveyed by neutral particles; have vast penetrating power; contain no electric charge, as they are not influenced by magnetic or electric fields, and are neither refracted nor reflected. I would emphasize, however, their ability to discharge an electrometer, as well as to influence the photographic plate. Their peculiarities have been recently ascribed to the fact that they represented aperiodic impulses given to the luminiferous ether—which conveys no meaning to my mind, excepting that they can not be explained by the modulatory theory. The velocity of the canal rays has been determined, and the mass of their hypothetical particles measured by the amount of their deflection in magnetic fields of varying strength; both values approximate those found for the ordinary chemical atoms or molecules; in the case of the negative cathode rays, however, the velocities and mass correspond to those assumed for the electrons. I confess to a serious difficulty in harmonizing the notion of a corpuscular structure of the atoms with the explanation given by the same school for the need of high vacua for the production of cathode rays. It is said that the electrons must have a considerable free path in order that they may travel with undiminished velocity toward the anode: but if the atoms, instead of being compact elastic bodies, be mere nebulæ of electrons, the relation of whose sizes and interstices is comparable to that of the molecules in a normal gas, it follows that a free electron, hurled vehemently forward from the cathode, could pass quite through a number of atoms without collision with any of their constituent corpuscles; the free path of the electron is so enormous, on this hypothesis, that the order of its magnitude could not be materially affected by the degree of rarefaction of the gas customary in the Crookes tube.

We must recollect, however, that the hypothesis, first elaborated by Larmor, that the electrons are the primordial constituents of the atoms, does not, like that of Prout, simply extend the limits of the divisibility of matter. The electron is not to be considered as a small speck of matter at all, but as a permanent manifestation of energy concentrated on a minute portion of the luminiferous ether. This view and the explanation of many phenomena on such a basis has been acclaimed as the triumph of energetics, the final elimination of the conception of matter. An unbiased reading of J. J. Thomson's Yale lectures, however, will impress anybody that he decidedly materializes both energy and ether. Perhaps much of this materialization is purely symbolic, to bring his mathematical reasoning within the comprehension of his audience; but to me it seems that an electric charge which has quantity, mass, inertia, elasticity and expansibility, which obeys the laws of hydrostatics, and virtually has a surface beyond which it can only produce effects by the medium of mysterious lines of force, has a marvelous resemblance to the picture which the ordinary chemist's mind would form of material substance. His ether is not only that puzzling paradox, at once impalpable and inconceivably dense, rigid and frictionless, which we have accepted as the whole means of explaining the transmission of motion through a vacuum; to extend its importance as the substratum of all phenomena it must become heterogeneous and capable of deformation; to form a neutral atom, some of it must become a spherical jelly in which other parts of itself are imbedded as rigid particles. It has, consequently, different degrees of hardness, and is subject to internal attractions. Thomson even volunteers the admission that, for the explanation of certain phenomena, his ether must have structure, or, at least, be stratified.

This can, of course, be no insinuation against the work of some of the greatest living physicists and mathematicians: accepting their premises, I do not doubt that they have drawn the consequences in the most rigid fashion. I do assert, however, that some of their fundamental terms are used in a different sense from that to which we are accustomed, and that we are, therefore, entitled to doubt whether the conclusions which they reach really affect the phenomena with which the chemist deals: as if one were to discuss the crystallographic structure of Pentelian marble with reference to the architecture of the Parthenon.

A few examples, pertinent to our inquiry, will more precisely establish my meaning. One of the fundamental postulates of Professor Thomson's mathematical argument is the definition of momentum as the product of mass by velocity. Although this is not axiomatic, we accept it as such by reason of the many ballistic experiments which have proved its truth, so long as the projectile's mass was assumed to remain constant: we should hesitate if we were told that mass was to vary, i. e., that a bullet which weighs the same before and after the shot, was heavier during its flight. But the momentum of Thomson's electrons increases faster than their velocity, when the latter approaches that of light; hence, he says, the mass of the electrons increases with their swiftness. True, he calls it an electro-magnetic mass, but some of his followers have forgotten the distinction. At all events, his terms momentum and mass must not be accepted by us in their usual meaning.

It is perfectly true that Thomson's calculations are corroborated by Kaufmann's experiments on the velocity of radium rays in combined electric and magnetic fields, if the latter's data are calculated according to Thomson's views; without even seeking a radically different basis—which would not be difficult—we can follow Thomson to a point where his departure from ordinary assumptions becomes evident. He shows that the value e/m diminishes at high velocities and then he assumes that e, the electro-static charge, is constant; therefore m, the mass, varies. Now, the value of e is derived from Faraday's law, which would never have been announced if Faraday had not dealt with the equivalent weights as fixed mathematical quantities. In fact, just so far as Thomson substantializes electricity by giving it atomic structure, with invariable mass, the chemical atom becomes wavy and matter evanesces into the ghost-like form which energy has assumed in the chemical mind. If our scientific terms are, as it were, to receive the reciprocals of their present significance—progress may ultimately result, but we should enter into topsy-turvydom with our eyes open.

The electron theory possesses the merit of furnishing a working hypothesis upon which to coordinate the various electrical phenomena of vacuum tube and radio-active origin: chief among which is the increased conductivity of gases. Either direct current measurement or the more sensitive electrometer, determinative of the decrease of electro-static potential, indicates that gases begin to conduct electricity when affected by ultra-violet light, by cathode and X-rays, by radium, thorium, etc. Ingenious experiments have proved that portions of the gas are positively, others negatively, charged; that they behave as if ionized; the numbers, masses and charges of the hypothetical ions have been measured and found to agree with the assumption that the negative ions have the magnitude of the electrons, the positive ions that of the regular molecules, i. e., the negative ions are always very small and mobile, with the same value for all gases; the positive ions are, at least, 1,000 times as large, and vary for different gases. If the gas moves away from the locality of ionizing influence, its conductivity disappears gradually at a rate to suggest reunion of the ions. Plausible, if not quite conclusive, reasoning connects the ionization hypothesis with the novel phenomenon of the saturation constant; viz., the fact that the flow of electricity through a conducting gas increases proportionately to the voltage between the electrodes up to a maximum, when further increase of potential has practically no effect on the current. This saturation current, it may be remarked, is used to characterize radio-activity; it is admittedly a complex phenomenon, and I should be inclined to lay more stress upon the qualitative than the precise quantitative results obtained in a number of recent experiments.

Those who, like Armstrong, oppose the electrolytic dissociation hypothesis of Arrhenius, naturally attack the ionization hypothesis with still greater vehemence, and I believe that this will be the battleground of opposing theories for some time to come. As the phenomenon is distinctly a secondary reaction, from our point of view, we need not discuss it in its various aspects, beyond noting that even without detectable radio-active agencies the atmospheric air conducts electricity to a slight extent, varying with location, as well as with the hours of the day.

The radiations from the active chemical substances present a very complex aspect; besides light and heat, radium and its congeners send out and rays, respectively electro-positive, electro-negative and neutral when tested in electric and magnetic fields.

From radium a rays are sent out about four times as abundantly as rays, the variety being relatively few. a rays are electro-positive, have a speed one tenth of the velocity of light, and a molecular mass of atomic magnitude. They penetrate a few centimeters into air, pass through thin aluminum foil but are stopped by denser metals. As they are but slightly deviable in a magnetic field, their momentum is calculated to be enormous: until, however, better evidence of the total positive charge which they carry has been obtained, we can not consider the magnitude of the momentum as definitely established; especially since their speed does not appear to be uniform. From experiments wherein a particles are allowed to escape freely, and again restrained by a lead cylinder surrounding radium, much of the apparent heat of the latter body appears to be due to the impinging of the a rays upon the surrounding surfaces.

-Rays are similar to cathode rays; they are less absorbable than the variety, and proceed at various speed, many approaching the velocity of light; they are stopped by solids in proportion to their density.

-Rays are similar to X-rays, of great penetrating power, and they are thought by some to be secondary effects of and rays, just as the X-rays originate from the impact of cathode rays on the glass wall of the Crookes tube. Besides, we have a multitude of conflicting accounts of secondary tertiary rays, resulting from these three varieties.

The chief method of research is the study of ionization, with the interposition of screens and magnetic fields, to separate the different kinds of rays. On the other hand, the varieties of rays emitted, their relative strength, and their variations of intensity, are the characteristics upon which the identification of the various so-called transformation-products of radio-active material is based. I have, therefore, copied from Professor Rutherford's book[2] tabulations of these properties.

With regard to these various transformations, we should realize that the majority of the names are titles of hypothetical substance, whose existence within certain mixtures is assumed upon the evidence of their momentary radio-activity. The only one really isolated is that emanation which has all the properties of a gas, including that of condensibility at low temperatures—with the exception that its liquid form shows no vapor pressure—but has in addition remarkable energy effects, and has, undoubtedly, undergone transformation in Ramsay's hands. Bearing in mind the infinitesimal quantities of emanation which Earnsay and his associates could obtain, we are alike astounded by their marvelous manipulative dexterity and by the nature of their observations. First we had the gradual appearance of helium, when the emanation was stored by itself; then came the appearance of neon, when the emanation came into contact with water, the latter being partially decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen; lastly the partial reduction of copper nitrate solution, with the simultaneous appearance of lithium,

Transformation Products of Thorium, Actinium and Radium according to Rutherford

PSM V73 D062 Half life and radiation chart by rutherford.png

while the emanation underwent a change into argon. The lithium, we are assured, could not be found in the original materials; it represents about .01 per cent, of the sodium and calcium found in the same experiment; its actual amount, after correcting a slight oversight in Ramsay's estimate, would be 0.00000003 gram. For such a quantity the amount of copper transformed would be too minute for the detection of a loss from the 0.3 gram of copper which the original solution may be assumed to have contained: but, until a loss of copper be ascertained, to correspond with the gain in lithium, it appears to me that the assumption of transformation is premature. Ramsay found that this solution contained in all 1.67 mg. alkaline chlorides, chiefly sodium chloride; while 0.79 mg. were produced in a blank experiment, when the emanation was excluded. While this latter amount is admittedly derived from the glass bulb, the excess obtained in the presence of emanation is ascribed to the degradation of the copper, neglecting the fact that this second solution must have been fairly acid and would, therefore, have attacked the glass more vigorously. Accepting his suggestion, however, the deficit of copper ought to approach 0.8 mg., an amount which ordinary analysis can detect. We may, therefore, hope that further experiments by Professor Ramsay will throw light upon this side of the subject.

Of Ramsay's present conclusion, the following resume may be given: Emanation is a gas of about atomic weight 216.5, derived from radium, of atomic weight 225, simultaneously with a-particles which are not helium. When emanation and the a-particles are shut up together, the bombardment of the latter breaks up the emanation into helium; but if heavier molecules, like water, be present, they receive some of the bombardment, and the emanation is only degraded into neon; the pressure of copper nitrate still further protecting the emanation, so that it only breaks clown to argon. This kinetic explanation is not impeccable; for, according to the principles of mass-action, the preponderance of water molecules in the copper nitrate solution, as well as the predominance of hydrogen and oxygen in its decomposition products, would imply the presence of considerable amounts of neon to accompany the argon. As neon is said to be absent, we must either seek for some other hypothesis or explain how the neon reverts to argon after it is once formed.

Ramsay's views contradict those of Rutherford and others, who seek to identify helium with the -rays, and the latter would thereby lose a good deal of their substantive character. Furthermore, it is to be noted that the -particles bear positive charges: if they were merely chemical atoms, such a charge might possibly be obtained as they tore themselves loose from the larger complex, during radiation; but if they be non-substantive masses of free energy, it will be difficult to reconcile the various assumed transformations with the electro-chemical properties, valencies, etc., of the elements in question.

It must be recalled that Rutherford does assume that the successive transformations of radium, for instance, are effected by the expulsions of the -particles and that these have atomic mass: an atom of radium, therefore, contains a finite number of them. As the transformations are atomic and not molecular, Rutherford's application of the mathematics of mass-action can mean but one thing: that the various rates of transformation depend upon the chances of encounter and relative positions of the particles within the atom. These rates, however, as measured by the period of decay, vary from thousands of years to a few seconds for the different educts, and that irregularly in the order of transformation—such great differences could only be explained by an infinite number of components, with large free paths, electrons, in other words. It would then remain to be shown what caused a certain great number of negative electrons to form an electro-positive -particle, and become expelled with great violence from their surroundings.

Naturally, the failure of a hypothesis to explain certain facts does not invalidate the latter. Rutherford's brilliant analysis of the curves of increasing and decreasing ionization and the agreement observed with calculated results prove that he is not dealing with mere fortuitous coincidences. Many of his conclusions seem incontrovertible upon his premises; but here again, the advocatus diaboli must step in and ask whether the premises are axiomatic: two of them appear to me to be doubtful. (1) A curve of decay is based on electroscopic measurements upon the tacit assumption that the rays sent out by that particular phase are always the same; but we are told that both and rays vary greatly in speed and momentum, hence neither variety would show a uniform ionizing power; assuming that a substance did send out rays for a long time, but that their velocities were gradually reduced, would not the ionization indicate a more rapid decay than was really the case? (2) It is practically assumed throughout that ionization is directly proportioned to the amount of radio-active material present: but this remains to be proven. Where layers of any density are involved, we know that it is not true, owing to internal absorption, etc.; for ideally thin layers, weighing and other measurement are out of the question.

I do not think that this latter objection ought to be dismissed lightly, when we find such a phenomenon as the almost universal ionization of the atmosphere ascribed to the presence of radium or its educts. Thomson himself has shown a variety of ways for ionizing air, when any variation in the amount of radium present—or, rather, absent—is out of the question; some of these serve particularly well to explain the phenomena in the open air. Recently, indeed, quite a number of investigators have observed diurnal variations in this atmospheric ionization, sufficiently marked to require some other explanation than the production of emanations from the earth or surrounding materials. Gustave Le Bon, in his "Evolution de la Matiere," shows how the gold-leaf electroscope is discharged when connected with some very dry sulphate of quinine, which is taking up hygroscopic moisture. Are we ready, with him, to assume that the quinine is catalyzing some atoms into nirvaña, or that the electroscope may indicate many changes that are not intraatomic?

  1. Extracts from a review presented to the New York Section of the American Chemical Society at its meetings, November, 1907.
  2. "Radio-activity," 1905.