The Evolution of Matter - the book The Evolution of Matter - Table of Contents



§ I. The New Ideas on the Dissociation of Matter.

The dogma of the indestructibility of matter is one of the very few which modern has received from ancient science without alteration. From the great Roman poet, Lucretius, who made it the fundamental element of his philosophical system, down to the immortal Lavoisier, who established it on bases considered eternal, this sacred dogma was never touched, and no one ever sought to question it.

We shall see in the present work how it has been attacked. Its fall was prepared by a series of earlier discoveries apparently unconnected with it: cathode rays, X rays, emissions from radio-active bodies, etc., all have furnished the weapons destined to shake it. It received a still graver blow as soon as I had proved that phenomena at first considered peculiar to certain exceptional substances, such as uranium, were to be observed in all the substances in nature.

Facts proving that matter is capable of a dissociation fitted to lead it into forms in which it loses all its material qualities are now very


numerous. Among the most important I must note the emission by all bodies of particles endowed with immense speed, capable of making the air a conductor of electricity, of passing through obstacles, and of being thrown out of their course by a magnetic field. None of the forces at present known being able to produce such effects, particularly the emission of particles with a speed almost equalling that of light, it was evident that we here found ourselves in presence of absolutely unknown facts. Several theories were put forth in explanation of them. One only - that of the dissociation of atoms, which I advanced at the commencement of these researches - has resisted all criticism, and on this account is now almost universally adopted.

It is now several years since I proved by experiment for the first time that the phenomena observed in substances termed radio-active - such as uranium, the only substance of that kind then known - could be observed in all substances in Nature, and could only be explained by the dissociation of their atoms.

The aptitude of matter to disaggregate by emitting effluves[1] of particles analogous to those of the cathode rays, having a speed of the same order as light, and capable of passing through material substances, is universal. The action of light on any substance, a lighted lamp, chemical reactions of very different kinds, an electric discharge, etc., cause these effluves to appear. Substances termed radio-active, such as uranium or radium, simply present in a high degree a phenomenon which all matter possesses to some extent.

When I formulated for the first time this general-

[1 No exact equivalent for this word can be found in English, and I have therefore retained it throughout.-F. L.]


ization, though it was supported by very precise experiments, it attracted hardly any attention. In the whole world one physicist, the learned Professor de Heen, alone grasped its import and adopted it after having verified its perfect correctness. But the experiments being too convincing to permit of long challenge, the doctrine of the universal dissociation of matter has at last triumphed. The atmosphere is now cleared, and few physicists deny that this dissociation of matter - this radio-activity as it is now called - is a universal phenomenon as widely spread throughout the universe as heat or light. Radio-activity is now discovered in nearly everything; and in a recent paper Professor J. J. Thomson has demonstrated its existence in most substances - water, sand, clay, brick, etc.

What becomes of matter when it dissociates? Can it be supposed that when atoms disaggregate they only divide into smaller parts, and thus form a simple dust of atoms? We shall see that nothing of the sort takes place, and that matter which dissociates dematerializes itself by passing through successive phases which gradually deprive it of its material qualities until it finally returns to the imponderable ether whence it seems to have issued.

The fact once recognized that atoms can dissociate, the question arose as to whence they obtained the immense quantity of energy necessary to launch into space particles with a speed of the same order as light.

The explanation in reality was simple enough, since it is enough to verify, as I have endeavoured to show, that, far from being an inert thing only capable of giving up the energy artificially


supplied to it, matter is an enormous reservoir of energy - intra-atomic energy.

But such a doctrine assailed too many fundamental scientific principles established for centuries to be at once admitted, and before accepting it various hypotheses were successively proposed. Accustomed to regard the rigid principles of thermodynamics as absolute truths, and persuaded that an isolated material system could possess no other energy than that supplied from without, the majority of physicists long persisted, and some still persist, in seeking outside it the sources of the energy manifested during the dissociation of matter. Naturally, they failed to discover it, since it is within, and not without, matter itself.

The reality of this new form of energy, of this intra-atomic energy of which I have unceasingly asserted the existence from the commencement of my researches, is in no way based on theory, but on experimental facts. Though hitherto unknown, it is the most powerful of known forces, and probably, in my opinion, the origin of most others. Its existence, so much contested at first, is more and more generally accepted at the present time.

From the experimental researches which I have detailed in various memoirs and which will be summarized in this work, the following propositions are drawn:-

1. Matter, hitherto deemed indestructible, vanishes slowly by the continuous dissociation of its component atoms. 2. The products of the dematerialization of matter constitute substances placed by their properties between ponderable bodies and the imponderable ether - that is to say,


between two worlds hitherto considered as widely separate.

3. Matter, formerly regarded as inert and only able to give back the energy originally supplied to it, is, on the other hand, a colossal reservoir of energy - intra-atomic energy - which it can expend without borrowing anything from without.

4. It is from the intra-atomic energy manifested during the dissociation of matter that most of the forces in the universe are derived, and notably electricity and solar heat.

5. Force and matter are two different forms of one and the same thing. Matter represents a stable form of intra-atomic energy; heat, light, electricity, etc., represent instable forms of it.

6. By the dissociation of atoms - that is to say, by the de-materialization of matter, the stable form of energy termed matter is simply changed into those unstable forms known by the names of electricity, light, heat, etc.

7. The law of evolution applicable to living beings is also applicable to simple bodies; chemical species are no more invariable than are living species.

For the examination of these several propositions a large part of this work will be reserved. Let us in this chapter take them as proved and seek at once the changes they bring about in our conception of the mechanism of the universe. The reader will thus appreciate the interest presented by the problems to which this volume is devoted.

§ 2. Matter and Force.

The problem of the nature of matter and of force is one of those which have most exercised the sagacity of scholars and philosophers. Its complete


solution has always escaped us because it really implies the knowledge, still inaccessible, of the First Cause of things. The researches I shall set forth cannot therefore allow us to completely solve this great question. They lead, however, to a conception of matter and energy far different from that in vogue at the present day.

When we study the structure of the atom, we shall arrive at the conclusion that it is an immense reservoir of energy solely constituted by a system of imponderable elements maintained in equilibrium by the rotations, attractions and repulsions of its component parts. From this equilibrium result the material properties of bodies such as weight, form, and apparent permanence. Matter also represents movement, but the movements of its component elements are confined within a very restricted space.

This conception leads us to view matter as a variety of energy. To the known forms of energy - heat, light, etc. - there must be added another - matter, or intra-atomic energy. It is characterized by its colossal greatness and its considerable accumulation within very feeble volume.

It follows from the preceding statements that by the dissociation of atoms, one is simply giving to the variety of energy called matter a different form - such as, for example, electricity or light.

We will endeavour to give an account of the forms under which intra-atomic energy may be condensed within the atom, but the existence of the fact itself has a far greater importance than the theories it gives rise to. Without pretending to give the definition so vainly sought for of energy, we will content ourselves with stating that all phenomenality is


nothing but a transformation of equilibrium. When the transformations of equilibrium are rapid, we call them electricity, heat, light, etc.; when the changes of equilibrium are slower, we give them the name of matter. To go beyond this we must wander into the region of hypothesis and admit, as do several physicists, that the elements of which the aggregate is represented by forces in equilibrium, are constituted by vortices formed in the midst of ether. These vortices possess an individuality, formerly supposed to be eternal, but which we know now to be but ephemeral. The individuality disappears, and the vortex dissolves in the ether as soon as the forces which maintain its existence cease to act.

The equilibria of these elements of which the aggregate constitutes an atom, may be compared to those which keep the planets in their orbits. So soon as they are disturbed, considerable energies manifest themselves, as they would were the earth or any other planet stayed in its course.

Such disturbances in planetary systems may be realized, either without apparent reason, as in very radio-active bodies when, for divers reasons, they have reached a certain degree of instability, or artificially, as in ordinary bodies when brought under the influence of various excitants - heat, light, etc. These excitants act in such cases like the spark on a mass of powder - that is to say, by freeing quantities of energy greatly in excess of the very slight cause which has determined their liberation. And as the energy condensed in the atom is immense in quantity, it results from this that to an extremely slight loss in matter there corresponds the creation of an enormous quantity of energy.


From this standpoint we may say of the various forms of energy resulting from the dissociation of material elements, such as heat, electricity, light, etc., that they represent the last stages of matter before its disappearance into the ether.

If, extending these ideas, we wish to apply them to the differences presented by the various simple bodies studied in chemistry, we should say that one simple body only differs from another by containing more or less intra-atomic energy. If we could deprive any element of a sufficient quantity of the energy it contains, we should succeed in completely transforming it.

As to the necessarily hypothetical origin of the energies condensed within the atom, we will seek for it in a phenomenon analogous to that invoked by astronomers to explain the formation of the sun, and of the energies it stores up. To their minds this formation is the necessary consequence of the condensation of the primitive nebula. If this theory be valid for the solar system, an analogous explanation is equally so for the atom.

The conceptions thus shortly summed up in no way seek to deny the existence of matter, as metaphysics has sometimes attempted to do. They simply clear away the classical duality of matter and energy. These are two identical things under different aspects. There is no separation between matter and energy, since matter is simply a stable form of energy and nothing else.

It would, no doubt, be possible for a higher intelligence to conceive energy without substance, for there is nothing to prove that it necessarily requires a support; but such a conception cannot be attained


by us. We can only understand things by fitting them into the common frame of our thoughts. The essence of energy being unknown, we are compelled to materialize it in order to enable us to reason thereon. We thus arrive - but only for the purposes of demonstration - at the following definitions:- Ether and matter represent entities of the same order. The various forms of energy: electricity, heat, light, matter, etc., are its manifestations. They only differ in the nature and the stability of the equilibria formed in the bosom of the ether. It is by those manifestations that the universe is known to us.

More than one physicist, the illustrious Faraday especially, has endeavoured to clear away the duality existing between matter and energy. Some philosophers formerly made the same attempt, by pointing out that matter was only brought home to us by the intermediary of forces acting on our senses. But all arguments of this order were considered, and rightly, as having a purely metaphysical bearing. It was objected to them that it had never been possible to transform matter into energy, and that this latter was necessary to animate the former. Scientific principles, considered assured, taught that Nature was a kind of inert reservoir incapable of possessing any energy save that previously transmitted to it. It could no more create it than a reservoir can create the liquid it holds. Everything seemed then to point out that Nature and Energy were irreducible things, as independent one of the other as weight is of colour. It was therefore not without reason that they were taken as belonging to two very different worlds.


There was, no doubt, some temerity in taking up anew a question seemingly abandoned forever. I have only done so because my discovery of the universal dissociation of matter taught me that the atoms of all substances can disappear without return by being transformed into energy. The transformation of matter into energy being thus demonstrated, it follows that the ancient duality of Force and Matter must disappear.

§ 3. Consequences of this Principle of the Vanishing of Matter.

The facts summed up in the preceding pages show that matter is not eternal, that it constitutes an enormous reservoir of forces, and that it disappears by transforming itself into other forms of energy before returning to what is, for us, nothingness.

It can therefore be said that if matter cannot be created, at least can it be destroyed without return. For the classical adage: "Nothing is created, nothing is lost,"[1] must be substituted the following:- Nothing is created, but everything is lost. The elements of a substance which is burned or sought to be annihilated by any other means are transformed, but they are not lost, for the balance affords proof that their weight has not varied. The elements of atoms which are dissociated, on the contrary, are irrevocably destroyed. They lose every quality of matter, in- cluding the most fundamental of them all - weight. The balance no longer detects them. Nothing can recall them to the state of matter. They have vanished in the immensity of the ether which fills space, and they no longer form part of our universe.

[1 Attributed to Lavoisier.-F. L.]


The theoretical importance of these principles is considerable. At the time when the ideas I am upholding were not yet defensible, several scholars took pains to point out how far the time- honoured doctrine of the everlasting nature of matter constituted a necessary foundation for science. Thus, for instance, Herbert Spencer in one of the chapters of First Principles,[1] headed "Indestructibility of Matter," which he makes one of the pillars of his system, declares that, "Could it be shown, or could it with reason be supposed, that Matter, either in its aggregates or in its units, ever becomes non-existent; it would be needful either to ascertain under what conditions it becomes non-existent, or else to confess that true Science and Philosophy are impossible." This assertion certainly seems too far-reaching. Philosophy has never found any difficulty in adapting itself to new scientific discoveries. It follows, but does not precede them.

It is not only philosophers who declare the impossibility of assailing the dogma of the indestructibility of matter. But a few years ago the learned chemist Naquet, then Professor at the Faculte de Medecine of Paris, wrote- "We have never seen the ponderable return to the imponderable. In fact, the whole science of chemistry is based on the law that such a change does not occur; for, did it do so, good-bye to the equations of chemistry!"

Evidently, if the transformation of the ponderable into the imponderable were rapid, not only must we give up the equations of chemistry, but also those of mechanics. However, from the practical point of view, none of these equations are yet in danger, for

[1 Sixth ed. (1900), Part II., chap. iv., p. 153.-F. L.]


the destruction of matter takes place so slowly that it is not perceptible with the means of observation formerly employed. Losses in weight under the hundredth part of a milligramme being imperceptible by the balance, chemists need not take them into account. The practical interest of the doctrine of the vanishing of matter, by reason of its transformation into energy, will only appear when means are found of accomplishing with ease the rapid dissociation of substances. When that occurs, an almost unlimited source of energy will be at man's disposal gratis, and the face of the world will be changed. But we have not yet reached this point.

At the present time, all these questions have only a purely scientific interest, and are for the time as much lacking practical application as was electricity in the time of Volta. But this scientific interest is considerable, for these new notions prove that the only elements to which science has conceded duration and fixity are, in reality, neither fixed nor durable.

Everybody knows that it is easy to deprive matter of all its attributes, save one. Solidity, shape, colour, chemical properties easily disappear. The very hardest body can be transformed into an invisible vapour. But, in spite of every one of these changes, the mass of the body as measured by its weight remains invariable, and always reappears. This invariability constituted the one fixed point in the mobile ocean of phenomena. It enabled the chemist, as well as the physicist, to follow matter through its perpetual transformations, and this is why they considered it as something mobile but eternal.

It is to this fundamental property of the invari-


ability of the mass that we had always to come back. Philosophers and scholars long ago gave up seeking an exact definition of matter. The invariability of the mass of a given quantity of substance - that is to say, its coefficient of inertia measured by its weight, remained the sole irreducible characteristic of matter. Outside this essential notion, all we could say of matter was that it constituted the mysterious and ever-changing element whereof the worlds and the beings who inhabit them were formed.

The permanence and, therefore, the indestructibility of mass, which one recognizes throughout the changes in matter, being the only characteristic by which this great unknown conception can be grasped, its importance necessarily became preponderant. On it the edifices of chemistry and mechanics have been laboriously built up.

To this primary notion, however, it became necessary to add a second. As matter seemed in- capable by itself of quitting the state of repose, recourse was had to various causes, of unknown nature, designated by the term forces, to animate it. Physics counted several which it formerly clearly distinguished from each other, but the advance in science finally welded them into one great entity, Energy, to which the privilege of immortality was likewise conceded.

And it is thus that, on the ruins of former doctrines and after a century of persistent efforts, there sprang up two sovereign powers which seemed eternal - matter as the fundamental woof of things, and energy to animate it. With the equations connecting them, modern science thought it could explain all phenomena. In its learned formulas all the


secrets of the universe were enclosed. The divinities of old time were replaced by ingenious systems of differential equations.

These fundamental dogmas, the bases of modern science, the researches detailed in this work tend to destroy. If the principle of the conservation of energy - which, by-the-by, is simply a bold generalization of experiments made in very simple cases - likewise succumbs to the blows which are already attacking it, the conclusion must be arrived at that nothing in the world is eternal. The great divinities of science would also be condemned to submit to that invariable cycle which rules all things - birth, growth, decline, and death.

But if the present researches shake the very foundations of our knowledge, and in consequence our entire conception of the universe, they are far from revealing to us the secrets of this universe. They show us that the physical world, which appeared to us something very simple, governed by a small number of elementary laws, is, on the contrary, terribly complex. Notwithstanding their infinite smallness, the atoms of all substances - those, for example, of the paper on which these lines are written - now appear as true planetary systems, guided in their headlong speed by formidable forces of the laws of which we are totally ignorant.

The new routes which recent researches open out to the investigations of inquirers are yet hardly traced. It is already much to know that they exist, and that science has before it a marvellous world to explore.

The Evolution of Matter - the book The Evolution of Matter - Table of Contents

Created by Dale Pond. Last Modification: Saturday May 20, 2017 05:29:14 MDT by Dale Pond.