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§ 3

The Discovery of Sir Wm. Crookes

But these wonders of the atom are only a prelude to the more romantic and far-reaching discoveries of the new physics—the wonders of the electron. Another and the most important phase of our exploration of the material universe opened with the discovery of radium in 1898.

In the discovery of radio-active elements, a new property of matter was discovered. What followed on the discovery of radium and of the X-rays we shall see.

As Sir Ernest Rutherford, one of our greatest authorities, recently said, the new physics has dissipated the last doubt about the reality of atoms and molecules. The closer examination of matter which we have been able to make shows positively that it is composed of atoms. But we must not take the word now in its original Greek meaning (an "indivisible" thing). The atoms are not indivisible. They can be broken up. They are composed of still smaller particles.

The discovery that the atom was composed of smaller particles was the welcome realisation of a dream that had haunted the imagination of the nineteenth century. Chemists said that there were about eighty different kinds of atoms—different kinds of matter—but no one was satisfied with the multiplicity. Science is always aiming at simplicity and unity. It may be that science has now taken a long step in the direction of explaining the fundamental unity of all the matter. The chemist was unable to break up these "elements" into something simpler, so he called their atoms "indivisible" in that sense. But one man of science after another expressed the hope that we would yet discover some fundamental matter of which the various atoms were composed—one primordial substance from which all the varying forms of matter have been evolved or built up. Prout suggested this at the very beginning of the century, when atoms were rediscovered by Dalton. Father Secchi, the famous Jesuit astronomer said that all the atoms were probably evolved from ether; and this was a very favoured speculation. Sir William Crookes talked of "prothyl" as the fundamental substance. Others thought hydrogen was the stuff out of which all the other atoms were composed.

The work which finally resulted in the discovery of radium began with some beautiful experiments of Professor (later Sir William) Crookes in the eighties.

It had been noticed in 1869 that a strange colouring was caused when an electric charge was sent through a vacuum tube—the walls of the glass tube began to glow with a greenish phosphorescence. A vacuum tube is one from which nearly all the air has been pumped, although we can never completely empty the tube. Crookes used such ingenious methods that he reduced the gas in his tubes until it was twenty million times thinner than the atmosphere. He then sent an electric discharge through, and got very remarkable results. The negative pole of the electric current (the "cathode") gave off rays which faintly lit the molecules of the thin gas in the tube, and caused a pretty fluorescence on the glass walls of the tube. What were these Rays? Crookes at first thought they corresponded to a "new or fourth state of matter." Hitherto we had only been familiar with matter in the three conditions of solid, liquid, and gaseous.

Now Crookes really had the great secret under his eyes. But about twenty years elapsed before the true nature of these rays was finally and independently established by various experiments. The experiments proved "that the rays consisted of a stream of negatively charged particles travelling with enormous velocities from 10,000 to 100,000 miles a second. In addition, it was found that the mass of each particle was exceedingly small, about 1/1800 of the mass of a hydrogen atom, the lightest atom known to science." These particles or electrons, as they are now called, were being liberated from the atom. The atoms of matter were breaking down in Crookes tubes. At that time, however, it was premature to think of such a thing, and Crookes preferred to say that the particles of the gas were electrified and hurled against the walls of the tube. He said that it was ordinary matter in a new state—"radiant matter." Another distinguished man of science, Lenard, found that, when he fitted a little plate of aluminum in the glass wall of the tube, the mysterious rays passed through this as if it were a window. They must be waves in the ether, he said.


From "Scientific Ideas of To-day."


In the left-hand photograph the two pieces of paper exactly balance. The balance used is very sensitive, and when the single word "atoms" has been written with a lead pencil upon one of the papers the additional weight is sufficient to depress one of the pans as shown in the second photograph. The spectroscope will detect less than one-millionth of the matter contained in the word pencilled above.


Reproduced by permission of X-Rays Ltd.


Note the pieces of shrapnel which are revealed.


Photo: National Physical Laboratory.



Reproduced by permission of X-Rays Ltd.


Note the fine details revealed, down to the metal tags of the bootlace and the nails in the heel of the boot.

§ 4

The Discovery of X-rays

So the story went on from year to year. We shall see in a moment to what it led. Meanwhile the next great step was when, in 1895, Röntgen discovered the X-rays, which are now known to everybody. He was following up the work of Lenard, and he one day covered a "Crookes tube" with some black stuff. To his astonishment a prepared chemical screen which was near the tube began to glow. The rays had gone through the black stuff; and on further experiment he found that they would go through stone, living flesh, and all sorts of "opaque" substances. In a short time the world was astonished to learn that we could photograph the skeleton in a living man's body, locate a penny in the interior of a child that had swallowed one, or take an impression of a coin through a slab of stone.

And what are these X-rays? They are not a form of matter; they are not material particles. X-rays were found to be a new variety of light with a remarkable power of penetration. We have seen what the spectroscope reveals about the varying nature of light wave-lengths. Light-waves are set up by vibrations in ether,[2] and, as we shall see, these ether disturbances are all of the same kind; they only differ as regards wave-lengths. The X-rays which Röntgen discovered, then, are light, but a variety of light previously unknown to us; they are ether waves of very short length. X-rays have proved of great value in many directions, as all the world knows, but that we need not discuss at this point. Let us see what followed Röntgen's discovery.

We refer throughout to the "ether" because, although modern theories dispense largely with this conception, the theories of physics are so inextricably interwoven with it that it is necessary, in an elementary exposition, to assume its existence. The modern view will be explained later in the article on Einstein's Theory.

While the world wondered at these marvels, the men of science were eagerly following up the new clue to the mystery of matter which was exercising the mind of Crookes and other investigators. In 1896 Becquerel brought us to the threshold of the great discovery.

Certain substances are phosphorescent—they become luminous after they have been exposed to sunlight for some time, and Becquerel was trying to find if any of these substances give rise to X-rays. One day he chose a salt of the metal uranium. He was going to see if, after exposing it to sunlight, he could photograph a cross with it through an opaque substance. He wrapped it up and laid it aside, to wait for the sun, but he found the uranium salt did not wait for the sun. Some strong radiation from it went through the opaque covering and made an impression of the cross upon the plate underneath. Light or darkness was immaterial. The mysterious rays streamed night and day from the salt. This was something new. Here was a substance which appeared to be producing X-rays; the rays emitted by uranium would penetrate the same opaque substances as the X-rays discovered by Röntgen.

Discovery of Radium

Now, at the same time as many other investigators, Professor Curie and his Polish wife took up the search. They decided to find out whether the emission came from the uranium itself or from something associated with it, and for this purpose they made a chemical analysis of great quantities of minerals. They found a certain kind of pitchblende which was very active, and they analysed tons of it, concentrating always on the radiant element in it. After a time, as they successively worked out the non-radiant matter, the stuff began to glow. In the end they extracted from eight tons of pitchblende about half a teaspoonful of something that was a million times more radiant than uranium. There was only one name for it—Radium.

That was the starting-point of the new development of physics and chemistry. From every laboratory in the world came a cry for radium salts (as pure radium was too precious), and hundreds of brilliant workers fastened on the new element. The inquiry was broadened, and, as year followed year, one substance after another was found to possess the power of emitting rays, that is, to be radio-active. We know to-day that nearly every form of matter can be stimulated to radio-activity; which, as we shall see, means that its atoms break up into smaller and wonderfully energetic particles which we call "electrons." This discovery of electrons has brought about a complete change in our ideas in many directions.

So, instead of atoms being indivisible, they are actually dividing themselves, spontaneously, and giving off throughout the universe tiny fragments of their substance. We shall explain presently what was later discovered about the electron; meanwhile we can say that every glowing metal is pouring out a stream of these electrons. Every arc-lamp is discharging them. Every clap of thunder means a shower of them. Every star is flooding space with them. We are witnessing the spontaneous breaking up of atoms, atoms which had been thought to be indivisible. The sun not only pours out streams of electrons from its own atoms, but the ultra-violet light which it sends to the earth is one of the most powerful agencies for releasing electrons from the surface-atoms of matter on the earth. It is fortunate for us that our atmosphere absorbs most of this ultra-violet or invisible light of the sun—a kind of light which will be explained presently. It has been suggested that, if we received the full flood of it from the sun, our metals would disintegrate under its influence and this "steel civilisation" of ours would be impossible!

But we are here anticipating, we are going beyond radium to the wonderful discoveries which were made by the chemists and physicists of the world who concentrated upon it. The work of Professor and Mme. Curie was merely the final clue to guide the great search. How it was followed up, how we penetrated into the very heart of the minute atom and discovered new and portentous mines of energy, and how we were able to understand, not only matter, but electricity and light, will be told in the next chapter.