By Sir WILLIAM THOMSON.
The now well known kinetic theory of gases is a step so important in the way of explaining seemingly static properties of matter by motion, that it is scarcely possible to help anticipating in idea the arrival at a complete theory of matter, in which all its properties will be seen to be merely attributes of motion. If we are to look for the origin of this idea we must go back to Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. We may then, I believe, without missing a single step, skip 1800 years. Early last century we find in Malebranche's "Recherche de la Verite," the statement that "la durete de corps" depends on "petits tourbillons."2 These words, embedded in a hopeless mass of unintelligible statements of the physical, metaphysical, and theological philosophies of the day, and unsupported by any explanation, elucidation, or illustration throughout the rest of the three volumes, and only marred by any other single sentence or word to be found in the great book, still do express a distinct conception which forms a most remarkable step toward the kinetic theory of matter. A little later we have Daniel Bernoulli's promulgation of what we now accept as a surest article of scientific faith - the kinetic theory of gases.
He, so far as I know, thought only of Boyle's and Mariotte's law of the "spring of air," as Boyle called it, without reference to change of temperature or the augmentation of its pressure if not allowed to expand for elevation of temperature, a phenomenon which perhaps he scarcely knew, still less the elevation of temperature produced by compression, and the lowering of temperature by dilatation, and the consequent necessity of waiting for a fraction of a second or a few seconds of time (with apparatus of ordinary experimental magnitude), to see a subsidence from a larger change of pressure down to the amount of change that verifies Boyle's law. The consideration of these phenomena forty years ago by Joule, in connection with Bernoulli's original conception, formed the foundation of the kinetic theory of gases as we now have it. But what a splendid and useful building has been placed on this foundation by Clausius and Maxwell, and what a beautiful ornament we see on the top of it in the radiometer of Crookes, securely attached to it by the happy discovery of Tait and Dewar,3 that the length of the free path of the residual molecules of air in a good modern vacuum may amount to several inches! Clausius' and Maxwell's explanations of the diffusion of gases, and of thermal conduction in gases, their charmingly intelligible conclusion that in gases the diffusion of heat is just a little more rapid than the diffusion of molecules, because of the interchange of energy in collisions between molecules,4 while the chief transference of heat is by actual transport of the molecules themselves, and Maxwell's explanation of the viscosity of gases, with the absolute numerical relations which the work of those two great discoverers found among the three properties of diffusion, thermal conduction, and viscosity, have annexed to the domain of science a vast and ever growing province.
Rich as it is in practical results, the kinetic theory of gases, as hitherto developed, stops absolutely short at the atom or molecule, and gives not even a suggestion toward explaining the properties in virtue of which the atoms or molecules mutually influence one another. For some guidance toward a deeper and more comprehensive theory of matter, we may look back with advantage to the end of last century and beginning of this century, and find Rumford's conclusion regarding the heat generated in boring a brass gun: "It appears to me to be extremely difficult, if not quite impossible, to form any distinct idea of anything capable of being excited and communicated in the manner the heat was excited and communicated in these experiments, except it be MOTION;" and Davy's still more suggestive statements: "The phenomena of repulsion are not dependent on a peculiar elastic fluid for their existence." ... "Heat may be defined as a peculiar motion, probably a vibration, of the corpuscles of bodies, tending to separate them." ... "To distinguish this motion from others, and to signify the causes of our sensations of heat, etc., the name repulsive motion has been adopted." Here we have a most important idea.
It would be somewhat a bold figure of speech to say the earth and moon are kept apart by a repulsive motion; and yet, after all, what is centrifugal force but a repulsive motion, and may it not be that there is no such thing as repulsion, and that it is solely by inertia that what seems to be repulsion is produced? Two bodies fly together, and, accelerated by mutual attraction, if they do not precisely hit one another, they cannot but separate in virtue of the inertia of their masses. So, after dashing past one another in sharply concave curves round their common center of gravity, they fly asunder again. A careless onlooker might imagine they had repelled one another, and might not notice the difference between what he actually sees and what he would see if the two bodies had been projected with great velocity toward one another, and either colliding and rebounding, or repelling one another into sharply convex continuous curves, fly asunder again.
Joule, Clausius, and Maxwell, and no doubt Daniel Bernoulli himself, and I believe every one who has hitherto written or done anything very explicit in the kinetic theory of gases, has taken the mutual action of molecules in collision as repulsive. May it not after all be attractive? This idea has never left my mind since I first read Davy's "Repulsive Motion," about thirty-five years ago, and I never made anything of it, at all events have not done so until to-day (June 16, 1884) - if this can be said to be making anything of it - when, in endeavoring to prepare the present address, I notice that Joule's and my own old experiments5 on the thermal effect of gases expanding from a high-pressure vessel through a porous plug, proves the less dense gas to have greater intrinsic potential energy than the denser gas, if we assume the ordinary hypothesis regarding the temperature of a gas, according to which two gases are of equal temperatures6 when the kinetic energies of their constituent molecules are of equal average amounts per molecule.