Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/October 1909/Simple Lessons from Common Things




THERE has long been a feeling which is still more or less strongly pronounced, that matter is not worthy of very serious attention from mind. Some have had the feeling that matter was the source of all our woes. Although all conscious beings are embodied in masses of matter, it was thought to be a prison-house which served mainly to quench those higher feelings to which we should aspire. The world, the flesh and the devil were all put in one class, and we were advised to have as little as possible to do with any of them.

In the meantime there have been many who have given their undivided attention to the study of the material things which surround us, and with which we must deal. The chemist and the physicist have undertaken to study the structure and the composition of matter. And the more minutely it has been studied, the more wonderful does it seem when it is considered as a specimen of engineering and architectural construction. We were formerly told that the varied forms of matter which surround us were composed of a comparatively few elementary substances, each of which was composed of particles called atoms; that these atoms were all alike for the same substance, and that they exist everywhere as far as the astronomer can penetrate, into the infinite space which the stellar systems occupy. To give some idea of the size of these atoms as determined by the army of men who in various ways have indirectly measured their dimensions, Lord Kelvin made this illustration. If a rain drop were increased in volume, until its volume equaled that of the earth, the molecules of the substance being proportionately enlarged, the water molecules would then be larger than fine shot, and not larger than cricket balls.

But during the last decade another great step has been taken. A study of radioactive substances has shown that the atom itself is a structure of wonderful complexity. A radioactive substance is one whose atoms explode into their more elementary constituents. There are a number of substances which do this, radium being the most conspicuous of the group. Each of these substances yields one kind of corpuscle or particle which is common to them all. Each atom is composed in part of minute particles having a mass of about one thousandth that of the hydrogen atom. These particles have apparently been identified as negative electricity. They constitute what Franklin called the electric fluid. They are a component of every atom of every kind of matter. We have only to nib any two unlike pieces of matter together, and one of them takes this negative fluid from the other. The piece of matter which has lost the electric fluid is said to be positively electrified. One question before us to-day is this: Should not this positively electrified matter be called positive electricity? It seems certain that there is no positive electrical fluid, and that there is no positive electrical current. What we have been calling the negative current is then the real current. It flows through our trolley wires and lights our cities. In other words, it seems very probable that all matter is composed of a combination of positive and negative electrical particles.

It is also certain that the positive and negative electrons are by no means simple in their structure. They are in some way linked with each other through the agency of the ether of space, and can act upon each other at a distance.

This may seem very complex and it may seem to be a complete overturning of the atomic theory of matter. In fact it is not in any sense an overturning of any theory of matter. The chemist still deals with atoms and combining ratios, and he will continue to do so.

If a house builder should suddenly learn that the bricks which he uses are not the final elements in his houses, it would in no way disturb him. The fact that his bricks are composed of molecules, and these molecules of atoms, and these atoms of negative and positive electricity, would in no way change his professional practise in the design of houses. The fact that we now find that every atom of any kind of matter is normally the abiding place of a certain definite number of negative electrons, each having a mass of about the one thousandth of that of the hydrogen atom, does not make these atoms behave differently from what they did before.

The fact that atoms of certain substances are exploding and giving off energy is no more remarkable than the fact that nitroglycerin and limestone behave differently. It is no more remarkable than the fact that some houses fall to pieces and give off energy. And it is in no way unexpected that an advance in our knowledge of matter has vastly increased the complexity of our conceptions of its structure. The phenomena around us with which we are in a certain sense familiar are by no means simple. For example, let us assume that some stranger from the regions which Dante described should now visit our earth, after an absence of thousands of years. When he was here before he dwelt in a cave. He sees our houses and he observes that empty houses attract homeless families. He tries to explain how this attraction is to be accounted for. He becomes acquainted with Newton's law of gravitation and he at first thinks that this is the clue which he is seeking. He soon learns that the size of the house has little to do with the attraction which makes a family move into it. He is satisfied that houses do gravitationally attract people, but this is not in any way the attraction which produces the observed motion. He finally learns that it is the architectural features and the internal arrangement of the houses, and the landscape features immediately about the houses, which appeal to the minds of the people. Being a philosopher, he straightway forms an explanation which involves the existence of a mental field of force, emanating from these conscious beings, and laying hold of these architectural and other characteristics of the houses. Next he finds that ether waves are involved in the phenomenon. The people must see the houses before the attraction begins. This involves the existence of an all-pervading ether through which waves due to molecular agitation on the sun may pass. These waves, which we call light waves, fall upon these houses. Prom thence they pass into the eyes of the people, where they form images of the houses. The people do not see these images in the same sense that they see the houses, but in some unknown way these images make it possible for them to become conscious of those things, which determine for them the attractiveness of these houses.

It is through this complex train of machinery that the mental action is aroused, which results in this mental attraction. But this is not all. There must be involved in this transaction a transfer of the value equivalent of a certain number of foot-pounds of mechanical work previously done. The value equivalent of this work is produced by the family about to move into the house, and is delivered to the former owner who has moved out. This value equivalent of work is delivered in the form of a definite quantity of some valuable substance, as gold. He next finds that this transfer may also be made, by means of written entries on the books of two banks, through the agency of a check, which passes through the clearing house. By this means a credit to one customer at one bank is transferred to another customer at another bank. This value equivalent of work previously done exists potentially in the form of credit at a bank, and its quantity may be increased or drawn upon, as energy itself may be stored in a pond of water, which may be drawn upon to drive a mill.

The average citizen will tell you that we do not know what electricity is, and that the sending of wireless messages, and the driving of our street-cars, are operations which are full of mystery. But it never occurs to him that there is anything mysterious about the attraction which empty houses have for homeless families. He would think it wonderful that a balloon could be controlled by wireless methods, from a station on the earth, but it would never occur to him that there was anything remarkable about one conscious being influencing the outward action of another conscious being, by talking to him or by looking at him. We are surrounded on every hand by phenomena which we think too commonplace to deserve a moment of our attention, and which we are, nevertheless, utterly unable to understand. In a crude way we can understand the machinery of sound waves. We can see the action of the vocal organs, by means of which they are produced. We can learn something of the nerve fibers of the ear upon which these sound waves fall. But what else is there at the two ends of this line of action? What is there within these two masses of matter, which enables either one of them to hold wireless communication with the other?

Let us assume that we are wholly familiar with the motion of each molecule of air involved in the sound waves; that we are able to make drawings of all the delicate modulations of muscular motion which are involved when the organs of speech produce these sound waves. Our drawings are to show precisely how these motions of the vocal organs are different, when English words are spoken with Irish and with German accent. Our knowledge is to be similarly complete concerning the receiving apparatus at the hearing end of the line. We trace these motions finally along nerves leading to two brains at opposite ends of the line. We may assume that we know all of these structures and their motions in the most minute detail. What do we then know of the phenomenon that one conscious being, embodied in a mass of matter, may determine or influence the thoughts and actions of another conscious being, by formulating thoughts in words, and delivering them to him through the air? How are we to explain the fact that he can plan and deliver a sentence, which will, unknown to the receiver, change the frequency of bis heart beats?

He may even do this by sending to him through the mails a sheet of paper upon which he has made certain marks in ink. On the enclosing wrapper are certain other marks, images of which, by means of ether waves, are formed on the retinal membranes of clerks in the post office. By such means the muscular motions of these clerks are determined. The letter is delivered to the particular person whom the sender had in mind.

When the receiver of this paper has also allowed ether waves from these ink marks and the paper which bears them, to fall upon the nerves of his retinal membranes, he knows the mental attitude of the man who sent that paper. He makes some computations. He does some thinking. And, by the way, what is doing some thinking? He makes a response to the wireless message. The result is a mental agreement between two minds. A check and a deed of transfer of title to property are drawn, and are exchanged, and a family moves from one house to another.

What would the former cave dweller think of these amazing phenomena? I venture to assert that this transaction is vastly more complex than any electrical action. The man who talks of the mysteries of electricity and who can not discover anything mysterious about the operations on the floor of a business exchange is in need of a mental shaking.

It is useless for us to attempt to answer such questions as, what is electricity? Or, what is a conscious being? Or, what is hydrogen? We can only answer such questions in unknown terms. But we have learned much about all of these things. Whether we consider matter in the minutest details of its structure or in the larger fields into which the telescope and the spectroscope have led us, we find the same array of wonders. How many of those who talk to us of the work of the Creator have the faintest idea of what those words mean? Have all of these electrons, and atoms and molecules and worlds and stars and stellar systems been created?

We are dependent on molecular vibrations on the sun for the conditions which make life possible. That heat energy which we receive from our sun will finally fail. The sun will become cold. The earth will freeze. Our atmosphere will become liquid and finally solid. The stars are also going through the same history. Their heat is also being continually radiated into space. The operation is like that of a clock which has been wound up and is running down. There must have been a beginning, and there will be an end, in cold and universal night. Now and then two dead stars may collide and vaporize into a nebula. This nebula may finally become a planetary system which may become the habitation of conscious beings; but it will go through the same history. And the number of bodies capable of colliding and forming world systems will have been reduced by one. To be sure, the probability of the occurrence of such collision happening during a given time interval will diminish continually, but there will evidently be an end of the present order of things. The results of recent work on the phenomena of radioactive bodies make it probable that the beginning of life on this earth may be much farther back in time than was formerly supposed. The heat which has been radiated from our earth has been in part supplied by the energy of these atomic explosions. It may be that the temperature of our sun may be thus maintained for a longer time than was formerly thought possible. But such considerations do not in any way change our ideas concerning the nature of the operations which are going on. Here also, in these radioactive bodies we find a store of energy which is being continually drawn upon. It is manifesting itself finally as heat which is being continually radiated into space. It may be that we must place a higher estimate than was formerly thought necessary upon the vast store of energy which the visible universes of to-day have possessed in the remote past. It may be that the work of creation was greater than we have supposed. It may be that the end is more remote than we now think. But even if we assent to the conclusion that in theory the end is in the infinite future, it seems certain that so far as the possibilities of human life are concerned there will be an end. When a battery circuit is closed, the equations show that the current never reaches the value which Ohm's law demands, although it continually approaches that value. Practically it reaches that limiting value in a very small fraction of a second, and this result is also in exact harmony with the equations.

Consider the mechanical work that would be required, to take the stellar universes of to-day, as raw material, in the condition to which they are tending, and put them in the condition in which they now are.

To take a minute sample of this work of creation: let us assume that the moon were in tangential contact with our earth. How much work would be required to separate them to their present distance from each other? A very simple calculation shows that to do this amount of work would require a million steam engines, of a thousand horse-power each, working continuously for between fifteen and sixteen million centuries.

Each molecule of matter is composed of a swarm of minute particles and the chemist has never been able to detect any variations in the composition of molecules of the same material. Each molecule is a complete closed system, vastly more complex than our planetary system. What shall we think of the work which is involved in the creation of a system of stellar universes, so vast that the human eye can never hope to see any limit to its extension in space, and composed of particles existing in endless duplication, which are so small that the human eye can not hope to see them?

And we must add to these wonders of the material world, the still greater mysteries which are involved in life and consciousness. We may devote a lifetime to the study of these things, and we shall then feel how insignificant is our knowledge of these revelations which we are continually receiving. And we are more and more impressed with the feeling that a being capable of producing such results, must differ in many respects from an oriental despot. We may become more and more inspired with a feeling of profound admiration and wonder, as we think on these things which our eyes behold. But we can not feel that such a being is anxiously seeking for flattery and praise. If we were to seek by such means to secure from him personal favors which we do not deserve, we should be paying him a very doubtful compliment. Such methods are not even considered proper at our city hall.

The highest type of man of which we can conceive is one who does not deserve any credit for shunning iniquity or for doing the works of righteousness. He does not refrain from murder in order to escape the gallows and the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. He never feels any temptation to commit murder. He does not murder and he does not steal, because he is neither a murderer nor a thief. Society does not need to surround him with policemen in order that he may he led to conclude with some reluctance and regret that honesty is the best policy! And when he goes about doing good, when he helps the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, he is not doing such deeds in order that he may secure to himself personal advantages in the nature of titles to valuable celestial properties. He thinks not of himself when his brother calls for help. He has within him the instincts of a gentleman. They were born in him. They have been bred into his very bones. These instincts prompt him to respect the rights and property of others, and to lend a hand when others need his help. He is ready to do his part in providing the children who are living amid brutal surroundings, with those influences which will inspire them with admiration for that which is pure and good and manly.

The highest type of man of which we can conceive deserves no more credit for being what he is, morally, than he deserves credit for having a white skin. It is precisely this which makes him a man of the highest type. He does not need to waste his strength in resisting temptation to do wrong. When we come to consider the character of the Creator of these wonders, which so far as we know find their highest expression in the human race, on this little insignificant earth, we can not think of him as claiming or deserving any credit for being what he is, or for doing what he has done.

We can not think of him as having been sorely tempted to do wrong and having resisted the temptation. We can not think of him as having struggled into his present position, under adverse and discouraging conditions, in a manner which entitles him to praise. We can not think of him as an oriental despot, who demands praise of his creatures, most of whom have never studied physics or astronomy or chemistry or biology, and who are therefore unable to properly appreciate the wonders which surround them on every hand.

We have, however, made progress, and we can all see that the possession of such knowledge as we possess, by the masses of the people, during those dark and brutal periods of religious intolerance, would have made impossible those bloody quarrels over questions to which we give not the slightest thought.