The accomplishments of physical science are truly wonderful. While, perhaps, not appealing as strongly to the lay mind as does the work of the engineer, they must nevertheless be counted among the greatest achievements of our civilization. One striking illustration of the marvellous potency of scientific methods is the addition to our knowledge of the nature of things has been gained through the study of radium.
The phenomenon of radioactivity has been known only ten years and was entirely new when discovered. It seemed utterly opposed to our previous conceptions of matter, yet in ten years we have made such progress that we now feel that we know vastly more about the molecule than we had any hopes of learning for a long time before the discovery of radioactivity. And that is not all, for ten years ago we had no basis for believing that an atom could be broken up, while now we seem to know more about the constituent parts of the atom than we previously knew of the atom itself. We have not only shown that an atom can be broken up, but we have shown that, in certain cases, this disintegrating process is exceedingly complex and takes place in successive stages, one following the other.
Uranium, for example, which is supposed to be the parent element of radium, first breaks up, forming uraninm X which then changes to radium. Radium then gives off the so-called emanation, and this, in various ways, goes through six stages, finally reaching the form known as radium F. As yet no further change has been traced, but Prof. Rutherford, who has been particularly instrumental in this remarkable work, thinks that it is probable that finally lead is formed, since this material is always found associated with radium ores in quantities suggesting the inference.
Besides this determination of the stages of decomposition of the radioactive materials, the character of these changes has been determined; in fact, it is from the peculiarities of the latter that the various stages have been recognized. During certain of the changes particles of charged matter - if we may still use this term - are thrown off at terrific velocities, and produce disastrous effects upon any other material which may lie in their way; in fact, these minute projectiles actually shatter to pieces molecules of matter which they encounter.
Naturally, the laws governing the movement of these atomic fragments would be of the greatest interest to science, and it is with the sense of gratification that one learns that recent researches seem to indicate that they are neither more nor less than the laws of motion enunciated by Newton for terrestrial matter, and later extended to the visible universe.
Truly, these developments of physical science are of the greatest importance, and it is worthy of remark that they have been accomplished by the means of simple apparatus, though, of course, constructed in a refined way. With mathematics as his dark lantern, and a simple electrical instrument as a jimmy, the scientific burglar is rapidly depriving Nature of some of her most cherished secrets. Fortunately for the pleasure of the burglar, the further he penetrates into Nature's treasure house, the larger does he find it to be and the richer the treasure.