By John Tyndall, F.R.S


Man is prone to idealization. He cannot accept as final the phenomena of the sensible world, but looks behind that world into another which rules the sensible one. From this tendency of the human mind, systems of mythology and scientific theories have equally sprung. By the former the experiences of volition, passion, power, and design, manifested among ourselves, were transplanted, with the necessary modifications, into an unseen universe from which the sway and potency of those magnified human qualities were exerted. "In the roar of thunder and in the violence of the storm was felt the presence of a shouter and furious strikers, and out of the rain was created an Indra or giver of rain." It is substantially the same with science, the principal force of which is expended in endeavoring to rend the veil which separates the sensible world from an ultra-sensible one. In both cases our materials, drawn from the world of the senses, are modified by the imagination to suit intellectual needs. The "first beginnings" of Lucretius were not objects of sense, but they were suggested and illustrated by objects of sense. The idea of atoms proved an early want on the part of minds in pursuit of the knowledge of nature.

It has never been relinquished, and in our own day it is growing steadily in power and precision.

The union of bodies in fixed and multiple proportions constitutes the basis of modern atomic theory. The same compound retains, for ever, the same elements, in an unalterable ratio. We cannot produce pure water containing one part, by weight, of hydrogen and nine of oxygen, nor can we produce it when the ratio is one to ten; but we can produce it from the ratio of one to eight, and from no other. So also when water is decomposed by the electric current, the proportion, as regards volumes, is as fixed as in the case of weights. Two volumes of hydrogen and one of oxygen invariably go the formation of water. Number and harmony, as in the Pythagorean system, are everywhere dominant in this under-world.

Following the discovery of fixed proportions we have that of multiple proportions. For the same compound, as above stated, the elementary factors are constant; but one elementary body often unites with another so as to form different compounds. Water, for example, is an oxide of hydrogen; but a peroxide of that substance also exists, containing exactly double the quantity of oxygen. Nitrogen also unites with oxygen in various ratios, but not in all. The union takes place, not gradually and uniformly, but by steps, a definite weight of matter being added at each step. The larger combining quantities of oxygen are thus multiples of the smaller ones. It is the same with other combinations.

We remain thus far in the region of fact: why not rest there? It might as well be asked why we do not, like our poor relations of the woods and forests, rest content with the facts of the sensible world. In virtue of our mental idiosyncrasy, we demand why bodies should combine in multiple proportions, and the outcome and answer of this question is the atomic theory. The definite weights of matter, above referred to, represent the weights of atoms, indivisible by any force which chemistry has hitherto brought to bear upon them. If matter were a continuum - if it were not rounded off, so to say, into these discrete atomic masses - the impassable breaches of continuity which the law of multiple proportions reveals, could not be accounted for. These atoms are what Maxwell finely calls "the foundation stones of the material universe," which, amid the wreck of composite matter, "remain unbroken and unworn."

A group of atoms drawn and held together by what chemists term affinity is called a molecule. The ultimate parts of all compound bodies are molecules. A molecule of water, for example, consists of two atoms of hydrogen, which grasp and are grasped by one atom of oxygen. When water is converted into steam, the distances between the molecules are greatly augmented, but the molecules themselves continue intact. We must not, however, picture the constituent atoms of any molecule as held so rigidly together as to render intestine motion impossible. The interlocked atoms have still liberty of vibration, which may, under certain circumstances, become so intense as to shake the molecule asunder. Most molecules - probably all - are wrecked by intense heat, or in other words by intense vibratory motion; and many are wrecked by a very moderate heat of the proper quality. Indeed, a weak force, which bears a suitable relation to the constitution of the molecule, can, by timely savings and accumulations, accomplish what a strong force out of relation fails to achieve.

We have here a glimpse of the world in which the physical philosopher for the most part resides. Science has been defined as "organized common sense;" by whom I have forgotten; but, unless we stretch unduly the definition of common sense, I think it is hardly applicable to this world of molecules. I should be inclined to ascribe the creation of that world to inspiration rather than to what is currently known as common sense. For the natural history sciences the definition may stand - hardly for the physical and mathematical sciences.

The sensation of light is produced by a succession of waves which strike the retina in periodic intervals; and such waves, impinging on the molecules of bodies, agitate their constituent atoms. These atoms are so small, and, when grouped to molecules, are so tightly clasped together, that they are capable of tremors equal in rapidity to those of light and radiant heat. To a mind coming freshly to these subjects, the numbers with which scientific men here habitually deal must appear utterly fantastical; and yet, to minds trained in the logic of science, they express most sober and certain truth. The constituent atoms of molecules can vibrate to and fro millions of millions of times in a second. The waves of light and of radiant heat follow each other at similar rates through the luminiferous ether. Further, the atoms of different molecules are held together with varying degrees of tightness - they are tuned, as it were, to notes of different pitch. Suppose, then, light-waves, or heat-waves, to impinge upon an assemblage of such molecules, what may be expected to occur? The same as what occurs when a piano is opened and sung into.